In the sixth installment of Beyond the Boilermaker, Gray Chapman challenges bartenders to pair a service industry favorite, fernet, with beer.
The bartender’s handshake is a time-honored service industry tradition. It takes many forms, but a glug of Fernet Branca is often the liquid of choice. The dark, herbaceous amaro is beloved behind the bar, often tossed back as a shot to celebrate the end of a shift and, occasionally, paired with a pint.
Most people know it as Fernet Branca, but lowercase "f" fernet is actually a style of amari, not a brand. Small-batch labels like Denver’s Leopold Brothers, Asheville’s Eda Rhyne, New York’s Arcane and Chicago’s Leatherbee have all produced their own riffs, each made with a witch’s brew of bitter botanicals—gentian, rhubarb, actual frankincense and myrrh—that varies from brand to brand.
The most diplomatic descriptions of fernet usually include terms like “polarizing” and “acquired taste,” while more straightforward takes liken its belligerently botanical, often mentholated flavor profile to that of Listerine or Robitussin. It isn’t for everyone, but if fernet is for you, then you’ll probably like it even more with a beer at the ready. As long as it’s the right beer, that is.
Fernet’s distinctively bitter composition makes it far less versatile, boilermaker-wise, than liqueurs like Chartreuse, thanks to its tendency to aggressively overpower everything in its path. Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland advises minding IBUs and skipping the bitter brews when pairing with fernet: “The bitterness of fernet paired up against bitter beers is just kind of pointless,” he says, adding that pitting fernet up against something like an IPA would be categorically unpleasant. But many bartenders cherish the fernet boilermaker for good reason: When it works, it really does work. So well, in fact, that Chicago-based brewers Forbidden Root even took it to the next step and made a fernet-flavored beer.
Here are the beer styles that can hang:
At Clyde Common, Morgenthaler and his bar cohorts settled on the combination of fernet and cider as a shift drink of choice after the bar added cider on draft. Morgenthaler says the subdued sweetness of ciders, such as Samuel Smith’s Organic Apple Cider or Portland Cider Company’s Sorta Sweet Cider, is a good counterbalance to fernet’s brash bitterness.
Though fernet is an Italian liqueur, few cities love it more than San Francisco, especially when you throw ginger beer into the mix. The practice of pairing fernet with spicy-sweet ginger beer emerged from San Francisco’s cocktail scene years ago and has since become a classic pairing. In addition to being sweet enough to counteract fernet’s harshness, the heat and spice of ginger beer also contrasts nicely with those chilly Listerine vibes fernet gets from mint and pine.
“I love Fernet and pineapple together,” says Morgenthaler; at Clyde Common, they use the combination in one of their house cocktails with Drambuie and lime. Outside of Portland, fernet and pineapple come together in drinks like Oron Lerner’s Fernet Colada and the classic, Old Fashioned-esque King Cole. While Morgenthaler hasn’t tested it firsthand, he says he imagines the pairing would translate well to beer, given the punchy, tart sweetness of pineapple in contrast to fernet’s more bracing qualities. Look for a brew that veers on the sweeter end of the spectrum rather than a mouth-puckering sour, such as SanTan Brewing Company’s Mr. Pineapple.
One would think that light and sweet beers are the way to go, but bartender Susan Anderson at The Mercury in Atlanta proved me wrong on this hypothesis. On a hunch, she grabbed a bottle of New Holland Dragon’s Milk Stout to see how it would fare with Fernet Branca. Eyeballing the pitch-black, bourbon barrel-aged brew next to my inky glass of fernet, I was skeptical, but it worked. The roasty, rich qualities of Dragon’s Milk held their own without overpowering the fernet, and maybe even helped to cut through and subdue the liqueur’s harsher qualities. The traces of vanilla in Dragon’s Milk mingled with the fernet’s menthol notes in a way that was almost, almost evocative of mint chocolate chip ice cream, while the bourbon notes were reminiscent of a Toronto. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Nate Shuman’s Nitro Toronto, which in fact combines Fernet Branca Menta with nitro stout and whiskey. I can imagine that a similarly robust stout with these dessert-like flavors, like Left Hand Milk Stout, would be even better equipped for this match-up.
Despite all that hand-wringing above about avoiding high-IBU beers with fernet, there is one scenario in which it can work, according to bartender Rose Rocha of Houston’s Cottonmouth Club. Her secret weapon? Mexican Coke. “I love a pale ale or pilsner topped with Mexican Coke and a shot of Fernet,” Rocha says. “It’s extremely hot in Houston in the summer, so I’m looking for a beer that’s light enough to be refreshing and that lets the bold aromas of the Fernet come through, but with enough hoppy bite so as not to be overpowered by Fernet’s bitterness or the sweetness of the Mexican Coke. Brewston American Pale Ale from 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold’s Summer Pils both check those boxes.”