Campari—the bracingly bittersweet, ruby-red Italian aperitif—is often employed in classics like the Negroni or fizzing in a spritz rather than sipped neat. However, its herbaceous aromatics, citrus-y bouquet and undercurrent of sweetness make it an ideal foil for beer. One of the most delicious ways to enjoy Campari is, after all, as a bright, bubbly spritz, wherein Campari makes for a slightly more aggressive stand-in for its fruitier cousin, Aperol. The original iteration combines Campari with a glass of Prosecco that’s lengthened with a bit of sparkling water. If you ask me, dunking a shot glass of Campari into a crisp, clean pilsner or lager is pretty damn similar. Plus, bubbles and bitters are simply a match made in heaven—just look at the Sbagliato, an effervescent riff on the Negroni that subs sparkling wine in for gin. Carbonation and Campari are meant to be.
“It’s certainly not a conventional pairing, but it does work,” says Sother Teague, beverage director at the bitters-focused Amor y Amargo in New York. And, he adds, while the idea of a shot and a beer sounds like a modern-day bartender’s shift drink, the idea of pairing your beer with a bittersweet amaro actually has some historical precedent, too. “In France and Belgium, it's a very common thing to have an amaro poured right into your beer,” Teague explains, citing the Picon Biere (France’s fancier take on a shandy) as a classic example. “You have to remember that all amari are by definition bittersweet liqueurs; people often forget the 'sweet' part. So, I don't think it's too far of a stretch to have a Campari with a beer.”
Campari can add dimension to more neutral beers, but when combined with tart beers like goses, sours and radlers, it becomes downright cocktail-like, bridging all the qualities of a well balanced cocktail: Sweetness, tangy acidity, and bitterness. In general, the best results in pairing Campari with beer seem to come from sticking to either clean, neutral beer styles or tangy, fruity ones. Campari itself is quite bitter, so anything packing an IBU punch beyond a pilsner might be overkill (though I have heard tales of successfully pairing salted Campari with an IPA, a combination created by Portland bartender Jesse Card and dubbed “the Libertarian”).
Here are a few beer styles that harmonize so well with Campari, they just might have you seeing red:
Think of your typical straightforward, no-frills, endlessly drinkable lager you might crush en masse on a hot summer day after mowing the lawn. If it’s pale, fizzy, and relatively neutral in flavor, it probably makes a good vehicle for Campari. Basically, your standard, basic lager is the beer equivalent of soda water in your Campari spritz. “The first thing that jumps to my mind is a really crisp, light, refreshing lager-style beer,” says Teague. “With something like a lager, the two are playing off of one another in a mutually beneficial way,” he explains. Ideally you’d go for a well-structured one with a slight trace of malty sweetness, but even Miller High Life has become many a bartender’s go-to for pairing with Campari—they call it a Camparty, akin to the Nascar Spritz. Garnish with a lemon, lime, or orange peel to draw out Campari’s citrusy depth.
“If you’re a person who likes Campari and soda, you’re going to like Campari and pilsner,” says Portland bartender Geoffrey Wilson. “That combination takes away a little bit of the bite of the Campari, and when you add a little bit of sugar [from the pilsner], it’s dope.” He’s also riffed on the duo in cocktail form, with Campari, lemon, simple syrup, and bitters over a cheap pilsner. “The bitterness of IPA and the bitterness of Campari will sort of fight each other, and Campari can kind of take over a lager” he says, “But Campari with pilsner is just perfect. You can make a shandy out of it. It’s dope.” Wilson likes Alameda Brewhouse’s P-Town Pils because it’s low in alcohol, clean and highly quaffable.
Sours and Goses
Sour beers came up a lot in my conversations with bartenders about Campari boilermakers, and it makes perfect sense: A tinge of acidity and fruit are perfect counterparts to the quinine-y bitterness of Campari. “Campari's already got a lot of citrus notes on its own, but they're kind of muted,” says Teague. “To have that acidity paired with something that has an acidic nature works.” Should your tastes veer a little less lowbrow, look for a tart, snappy brew like a gose. I experimented with the MiG (Margarita in Gose) from Atlanta’s Second Self Brewing, and the beer’s zap of lime and subtle brininess went perfectly with the aperitif.
Radlers and Shandies
Half beer, half juice, these session brews are well on their way to becoming cocktails already, and Campari seals the deal. “There is nothing more delicious than Campari paired with Schofferhofer Grapefruit,” says Natasha David, bartender at Nitecap in New York. “To balance out the bitterness of the Campari, it’s the perfect balance of tart and sweet.” Wilson surmises Stiegl Radler with Campari would be good, but says he’d probably add something else to tamp down the grapefruit. “Throw a little bit of mezcal in there,” he says, “And Bob’s your uncle.”
Wildcard: Bud Lite Lime
There was much talk of sour beers as a suitable vehicle for Campari, which generally makes me think of funky, esoteric, high-gravity Belgian brews. So, I was delighted to learn that Bud Light Lime, technically a flavored lager and certainly not a true sour, I know, is considered by many to be an excellent match for Campari. Not only that, but according to bartender Don Lee, this winning combo was actually served to him a few years back as the welcome drink at ultra-fancy Eleven Madison Park, arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world—electric-green can and all.