Posted on | May 24, 2013
Written by | Jim Clarke
Today’s bartenders haven’t been shy about reaching into the kitchen pantry for ingredients, but for a while they were reaching right over their tap handles to get there. That oversight didn’t last, and today beer-based cocktails are a growing part of the bartender’s repertoire.
There is some history to build on. The Black Velvet, a layered mix of dry stout and Champagne, dates back to the 19th century, for example, and the Boilermaker—a shot with a beer chaser—led to the Depth Charge, with the liquor dropped into the beer itself. Frankie Thaheld, director of culinary mixology at Snake Oil Cocktail Co. in San Diego, says Boilermakers were an initial inspiration, pairing genever with a lager and using the familiar beer to introduce drinkers to the lesser-known Dutch gin. But it’s a long way from there to his combination of Plymouth Gin, St. Germain and smoked porter, elegantly presented in a martini glass.
When building a beer-based cocktail, “I like to think of the liquor component as the starting point,” says Thaheld. “People seem to choose more by liquor than by beer.” Adam Seger, a Chicago mixologist and founder of Balsam Spirits, takes that a step further: “The biggest thing I find is to start with a cocktail that’s balanced on its own, and use beer as a way to enhance the cocktail, versus trying to manipulate the beer.” For example, “taking a cocktail that would normally have soda and replacing that with a beer—a Collins with a lager or pilsner.” At Tales of the Cocktail 2012, Seger and sommelier Doug Frost presented a cocktail based on a classic combination: rum and ginger beer. Rum was the base liquor, but they replaced the ginger beer with a ginger-habanero syrup and a stout for carbonation, creating a more textured and complex drink.
Poured, Not Shaken
On the other hand, if the cocktail is meant to have a beer-like texture, some tweaking may be required to keep the beer from seeming flat when mixed with other ingredients. “Never shake a cocktail with beer as an ingredient; it’s a foamy mess,” says Thaheld. “Pour the beer into the cocktail.”
Seger suggests layering the cocktail in a highball glass: base liquor, etc., in the bottom, with ice, and then beer on top, without stirring. “The first taste is predictable—beer, carbonation and aromas; the middle of the drink a mix of beer and cocktail; and the bottom mostly cocktail.” Cold temperatures also help preserve the carbonation, so chilled glassware or ice can help. Alternatively, Seger recommends using Prosecco to replace the carbonation that other ingredients have diluted.
Another option is including citrus fruits for acidity, which can add freshness and flavor in lieu of carbon dioxide. In Denver, Euclid Hall’s Cowboys and Indians cocktail uses lemon juice (combined with Leopold New York Apple Whiskey, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram and Odell IPA) this way, for example. The bar’s “Beer Bitch” Jessica Cann says she’s looking forward to using apricots with an IPA for one of their spring cocktails. Seger feels grapefruit juice also works well with IPAs this way as it complements the beer’s hop aromas.
Cann says that at Euclid Hall they always use draft beers for their cocktails; otherwise you’re limited to recipes that use an entire bottle each time, or risk bottles going flat, driving up waste. That can limit selection—many more unusual, high-end beers are only available in 750s or 22 oz. bombers. Seger’s answer is to offer a beer “punch” that might serve 4-6 guests. “You build the cocktail base at bottom of bowl, open a big bottle at the table and pour it on top.” Alternatively, serve it three ways: “You present the beer first, then the cocktail without beer, and then float rest of the beer on top. It’s about selling the experience.”
What do brewers think of all this? Even Cann wonders if “beer cocktails can be kind of an easy cop-out; beer’s meant to be drunk the way it is.” At least some brewers are receptive to the idea. “My bottom line is that I don’t like to see beer used as a novelty or a crutch, says Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. “The beer should be expressed in the drink and be an important element in an overall harmonious flavor. If you drink it and say to yourself, ‘That’s okay, but it would be better if they used something other than beer,’ that’s not a cocktail, it’s a gimmick.”
In fact, that inspiration has proved to be a two-way street: Oliver and cocktail expert Dave Wondrich recently collaborated on The Manhattan Project, creating a barrel-aged, rye-based beer with 15 botanicals that replicated the taste of a Manhattan as a beer. “I find cocktails inspirational because they are about flavor and aroma combination, and they go places that brewers don’t always think of,” says Oliver. “Every cocktail bar worth its salt will have a small, tight beer list that shows the bar’s quality of inspiration and thought.”
“Beer + Flavor = Old & New”
As beer cocktails proliferate, and as flavored iterations continue to pile up in various spirits categories, this may be a good time to reconsider the notion of flavor in beer. Think of brews like Samuel Adams Summer Ale, enlivened by lemon; wheat beers such as Blue Moon, tinged with citrus and spice; and, of course, Corona, practically synonymous with lime. Among the richest flavor experiences one can find in beer are Belgian fruit lambics, which resonate with peach, cherry, strawberry or blackcurrants that were included during fermentation. The Shandy—beer mixed with lemonade, citrus soda or ginger ale; also known as radler in Germany and Austria—is another flavorful standby, available in premixed versions but of course also simple to whip up with a homespun twist at bars. And come fall, it will be time to stock pumpkin ales, as well as play up the apple essence of hard ciders.