Beer cocktails are rife with creative possibility, they bridge the best of both drinking worlds, and most of the time, they’re delicious. Why aren’t they in every bar?
Beer lovers and cocktail nerds might disagree on their preferred vices, but in 2017, there’s something everyone can agree on: there’s never been a better time to be a discerning drinker. These days, you’re likely to spot good beer, house bitters, and small-batch spirits behind the bar at even the most squarely average of neighborhood watering holes.
But, while some bartenders reach for the likes of activated charcoal and fat-washed bourbon to help their drinks stand out, one cocktail ingredient still remains largely untapped. It’s right there under their noses. It brings together the best of both worlds. Really, it’s been there all along.
Beer cocktails have been around for centuries, yet as an ingredient, beer still hasn’t achieved the same level of cocktail menu street cred that esoteric amari or European fortified wines have – “odd,” if you ask bartender Geoffrey Wilson. Currently behind the bar at Portland’s The Liquor Store, Geoffrey’s straddled both the beer and spirits world, having served in Chicago beer halls and New Orleans cocktail joints alike. He doesn’t get why beer hasn’t popped up on more cocktail menus the way sherry or even red wine has. “You don't see a lot of premiere places that have a beer cocktail on the list,” he says. “And it's kind of annoying, because there's so much possibility going on there with beer.”
It might have something to do with a lack of beer-focused education behind spirits-dominated cocktail bars. “One of the jokes I make is, the better bartender you are, the worse beer you drink,” says Jacob Grier, a bartender and author who literally wrote the book on beer cocktails. “I think there's a knowledge gap there, which I think is starting to fade as cocktail bartenders learn more about beer and appreciate it more.”
Everyone thinks that 151 tastes like gasoline, but the maltiness of the stout actually tamps down the flavors.”
The typical drinker tends to have some rather staid assumptions about what a beer cocktail really is, too. “I think the biggest misconception is, people think of a beer cocktail and they think it has to be primarily beer,” says Jacob. “Most of them that I come up with are really more spirit-forward and might have an ounce, ounce and a half of beer added, so it's much more of an accent. But the flavors are still there.” Nate Shuman, beverage director at Atlanta’s Scout, echoes this: “I still get kind of wonder and amazement from so many people, like, 'wow, you're making a cocktail with beer?'”
For bartenders obsessed with the nuance of flavor, beer cocktails seem like a no-brainer. Acidity, bitterness, sweetness – all are tenets of a well-balanced cocktail, and all are qualities found within the realm of beer. If cocktail bartenders are constantly searching for their next toy, beer opens up an entire FAO Schwartz of potential. And, when you’re willing to tinker, experiment, and toss out the rulebooks, magic can happen.
Some beer-spirits combinations make perfect sense, like the mole-esque combination of cocoa porter with mezcal in a drink made by Bob Peters, bar director at the Ritz-Carlton’s Punch Room in Charlotte, N.C.
But there’s beauty in the counterintuitive, too. Geoffrey, whose past beer cocktails include an applejack and Dogfish Head 90 Minute sour, says one of his most serendipitous discoveries was the unlikely marriage of Bacardi 151 with stout. “It was a deceptive cocktail,” he says. “Everyone thinks that 151 tastes like gasoline, but the maltiness of the stout actually tamps down the flavors. It makes something really balanced and hearty.” (He also adds that “gin with anything Belgian is fuckin’ amazing.”)
Back in Atlanta, Nate has two beer cocktails on Scout’s menu. One of them is the Nitro Toronto, a dark, opaque cocktail with rye whiskey, Fernet Branca Menta, and a Coca-Cola reduction, topped with Ode to Mercy (an American brown ale made two-and-a-half miles away at Wild Heaven Brewery). Considering that fairly aggressive roster of ingredients, it might be surprising to learn that this is the breakout hit at a chill neighborhood bar populated mostly by young families. Yet, each component harmonizes, and no single ingredient is overpowering. “People think they dislike Fernet until they've had it in a balanced way,” says Nate. “The beer's coffee and rich dark chocolate notes work well with the Fernet to calm it down.”
The other beer cocktail, called Street Sense, is the kind of all-too-crushable patio drinking material that could easily eat up a whole Sunday afternoon: in it, Nate combines a local IPA from Three Taverns with Chattanooga 1816 Whiskey and a compound fruit shrub with banana, ginger, pineapple, and baking spices, which he calls “banana magic.” I’m neither an IPA drinker nor a rye aficionado, but I could have easily downed three of these in quick succession.
Classic cocktails can be handy templates, too. Bob Peters recalls one of his favorite unexpected beer-spirit combinations: a Vanilla Tequila Manhattan he made with a coffee vanilla blonde ale from Charlotte’s Wooden Robot. Geoffrey recreated a shandy-spritz hybrid with Campari, lemon, simple syrup, bitters and lager. “Everyone thinks shandies are supposed to be sweet all the damn time, but that's not necessarily true,” he says. “This one's refreshing, but in a totally opposite way [from something like] a Stiegl Radler.”
And then there’s transforming the beer itself. Stouts or IPAs can be reduced to syrups for deeper, more concentrated flavor (an option which is now also commercially available). Jacob references a bartender who made orgeat, the almond syrup and tiki staple, by soaking his almonds in Russian imperial stout instead of water, and another intrepid mixologist who turned a sweet raspberry lambic into a jam. “I’ve seen people put beer in an iSi charger to make a little foam, just for the flavor,” says Geoffrey (the iSi, a nitrogen-charged cream whipper, is a favorite gadget behind the bar for rapid infusions, foams, and syrups).
So, to recap: you can whip it, you can reduce it, you can make it into a jam. You can use it to lengthen out a highball or to temper harsher flavors. You can employ it in riffs on an Old Fashioned, a hoppy spritz, a mezcal-tinged ode to mole. You can spend a lifetime tinkering with different styles, yeast strains, hop varietals and IBU levels. Hell, you can use it to convince Fernet haters that they actually don’t hate Fernet at all.
When, then, might beer be given the same prominence on cocktail menus as sherry, brandy, or bourbon?
It might take some time before there’s a gin-saison shim or IPA-laced tiki drink at every World’s 50 Best Bars joint, but the bartenders who dabble in both are holding out hope.
Geoffrey compares it to the legitimization of modern-day tiki, which caught on in recent years after decades of languishing in the shadows. “Beer is heading that way, I think, too,” he says. “I don't think someone's going to, like, open up a cocktail bar that only makes beer cocktails, but I do think there are people realizing they can do a couple of these on a menu.”
Jacob, who has been immersed in beer cocktails for years, senses the possibility of a sea change, too. “It's definitely something I've come across more now. I think people are just more interested in finding new things to play with. I think it's still underutilized, and there's a lot more room for growth there.”
Here’s hoping that growth includes many a pint glass of IPA and lots of banana magic.