A Beer Guide for Cocktail Drinkers

October 18, 2017

By Gray Chapman, October 18, 2017

“We'll have people come in and say, ‘oh I don't like beer.’ And I'm like, what? There's a whole world of beer.”

I’m on the phone with Erick Castro, owner of Polite Provisions in San Diego, and he’s become audibly excited as conversation turns toward beer: Erick loves introducing people, both guests and his cocktail colleagues alike, to the staggering array of craft beer available in Southern California.

Erick’s old-school soda fountain-reminiscent bar has garnered awards and attention for its cocktail program. Spirits and mixed drinks are unambiguously its specialty – yet, Erick tells me, every server and bartender who works there is required to achieve the level one tier of the cicerone program.

As he sees it, the overlap between the beer and cocktail worlds is only growing, which means his staff should at least be able to adequately respond when someone is curious about one of the 18 some-odd drafts they have at the bar – especially when that means using someone’s cocktail preferences as a way to steer them toward a beer (or vice versa). “They'll say they like fruity cocktails, and you give them a dry cider, and you kind of open their parameters,” Erick says. “And then you can move on from there.”

The ability to draw out clues about a guest’s palate (“I like fruity drinks!” “Just don’t make it too sweet,” etc) and turn that into a drink recommendation they’ll love is the hallmark of a great bartender, at Erick’s bar and elsewhere. And nowadays, as breweries and bartenders alike are blurring the lines between the beer and spirits worlds, helping someone find a drink they like is easier than ever.

So, we turned to the experts: Erick, along with cocktail pro Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and Dan Fontaine, a certified cicerone who manages the beer program at one of the country’s best beer bars. Below, the beers worth trying based on your go-to cocktail order.

Gray ChapmanGo with the Duchess if you normally live with Manhattans.

If you like Manhattans…

Try a Flanders Red Ale. Dan Fontaine, beer manager at Decatur, Georgia’s famed Brick Store Pub and a certified cicerone, says he immediately thinks of this style as a drink to appease cocktail palates. “It's usually a blend of a young red and an aged red,” Dan explains. “They age it in wooden barrels, so over that time, it picks up some acetic acid.” The result is a beer with a tinge of red fruit, mellowed out with that oaky flavor from the barrel – not too far a stretch from the whiskey and maraschino cherry in the classic Manhattan. Dan recommends Duchesse de Bourgogne for a classic Belgian example.

If you like Negronis…

Look for an East Coast IPA, which Dan says typically have the same kind of sprucey, piney aromatics, citrus elements, and of course, bitterness that you’ll find in a good Negroni. Erick echoes this: “IPAs taste the most like gin, because of the fruit content and the vibrancy you get through the hops… you can get those grassy, floral citrus flavors you might typically associate with the London Dry style gin.” For a more literal interpretation of a gin-reminiscent beer, Dan recommends hunting down a Sahti, a primitive farmhouse ale brewed with juniper. Sam Adams, Dogfish Head and Goose Island all make their own versions.

Gray ChapmanGet your caramel and malt from the monks.

If you like dark rum…

Distilled from molasses and rich with notes of burnt sugar and dried fruit, dark rum has a depth of flavor that’s reminiscent in Belgian dark strong ales, such as St. Bernardus Abt 12. “They’re really boozy, with lots of caramel and malty sweet notes, and from the yeast you get lots of spices and dark fruit.” (Erick adds that for serious tiki lovers, Modern Times’ False Idol is a must-try: the spiced pineapple pilsner is a collaboration with the San Diego tiki bar of the same name, though distribution is likely limited to Southern California for now.)

Gray ChapmanGet some Oud Beersei instead of some old berry drink.

If you like piña coladas…

Or any other sweet, fruity drinks, then sour ales and fruit beers are where it’s at. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, spirits writer and bar manager at Portland’s Clyde Common, points straight to the framboise as a perfect beer for even the staunchest of fruity cocktail lovers: “Those beers just walk you right through the cocktail world's front door,” he says. Dan recommends Framboise Oud Beersel; the classic Belgian lambic is made juicy with raspberries and sour cherries, but doesn’t have the kind of saccharine sweetness you might find in dusty bottles at your grocery store.

If you like Old-Fashioneds…

Barrel-aged beers are certainly not new, nor are they particularly hard to come by. But for a barrel beer that really embodies certain qualities of whiskey, Dan recommends Allagash’s Curieux, a barrel-aged tripel, without hesitation. “Tripels are, by style, high in alcohol, very floral, and fruity in the sense of apples and pears… a little more subtle,” he says. “Allagash takes that tripel and ages it in Jim Beam barrels. It's a great beer.” Boozy, slightly sweet, with that warmth and mellowness that can only come from a Kentucky barrel? Sounds pretty damn close to an Old-Fashioned to me.

Gray ChapmanNot a literal margarita beer. This is more of a simile.

If you like margaritas…

If the tartness and salinity of a fresh lime margarita rimmed with salt is your preferred patio beverage, gose might be your new beer go-to. Distinctly acidic and saline, the German-style sour ales have a lot in common with the classic margarita, says Dan: “Goses have a little bit of tartness, a little coriander, and a little salt, traditionally,” though he adds that some breweries have gone so far as to fully embrace the overlap by brewing them with lime and orange and packaging them as margarita goses. If that’s a bit too literal for your tastes, Dan points toward the Berliner weisse as another tart, bright, lemon-y beer that might appeal to the margarita set; Creature Comforts’ Athena serves this purpose quite well.

Gray ChapmanTotally herbaceous.

If you like herbal liqueurs…

Fans of complex liqueurs like Chartreuse or Galliano might find common ground with a true European pilsner, such as Urquell, which Dan says has has similar (albeit subtle) herbaceous qualities. (He adds that there’s even a touch of mint – perhaps a devout Fernet Branca Menta aficionado can confirm?) Chartreuse devotees in particular might gravitate toward a Belgian golden strong ale, like Duvel: “it’s a little lighter on the palate, a little drier, but definitely has some floral and herbaceous components,” Dan explains.  

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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