Beer Cocktails 2.0

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis
April 2013

A Few Rules for Beer Cocktails

No Light Beer:
I fucking hate light beer, both the idea and the actual thing. Because Corona isn’t light enough, you need Corona light?” – Dan Greenbaum

Local Wins:
In the Northeast, there’s a lot more region or even city specificity that gives the trend a unique character. Sixpoint and Brooklyn Brewery beers are great examples of this, in which the city itself (Brooklyn) is a selling point not only for the beer, but for the idea of craft and locally produced product.”  – Ian Hardie

Proportion Rules:
“You have to pit giants against giants and midgets against midgets in cocktails. Lager and lemon. Stout and molasses. If you reverse it, the lighter flavors get buried.” – Jeff Bell

Never Forget the End Game:
“Identifying the qualities of the beer, what you want to incorporate in a drink, and how best you can highlight those qualities while still displaying the other ingredients, and still maintaining the drinks essential purpose, which is to be an effective tool for social lubrication (i.e., getting people laid).”  – Ian Hardie

It’s not that craft beer has suddenly exploded into existence, ousting shelves of Miller and Natty Ice. It’s that public consciousness of beer has generally matured, with festivals, certified Cicerones, and High Life-chugging mixologists guiding consumers through the spectrum of beers from light lager and black IPA to oatmeal milk stout and back again. Within this beer renaissance, we witness another rebirth: the beer cocktail, part deux.

We’re not reinventing the wheel here. Drinks like Micheladas and Shandys have given beer cocktails a tangential, and fairly specific, presence on menus for many, many delicious years.  But with increased demand and presence on the market, not to mention a swaggering exploratory mixo culture, beer is finding more expression on cocktail lists. “There’s been a big shift recently,” says Mixologist Dan Greenbaum, who keeps a beer cocktail on the menu at The Beagle just about all the time. “I think a lot of people who come into the bar are intrigued by beer cocktails, especially if they sound weird on paper.”

That’s not to say mixos who are pouring beer cocktails always reach for craft beer, resulting in the craftiest, most complex drinks anyone has ever had. If anything, some craft beer styles have just a bit too much going on, which is why you’ll find bartenders like Greenbaum reaching for something like Negra Modelo over, say, a West Coast IPA for his mezcal-based Smog Cutter.

“I love big beers and hops, but it seems like that style was part of a competition to see who could make the biggest, hoppiest, in-your-face beer without asking the question if it was balanced.” Negra Modelo, on the other hand, has a “milder malt and hop presence and wouldn’t dominate as the main flavor in the drink,” which is richly aromatic with mezcal, cucumber, ginger juice, and Tomr’s Tonic. “In that sense, I wasn’t trying to make a beer cocktail, but a drink with beer as one of the components,” says Greenbaum. 

Smog Cutter: Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Negra Modelo, Tomr’s Tonic, Cucumber, Lime, and Ginger

Smog Cutter: Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Negra Modelo, Tomr’s Tonic, Cucumber, Lime, and Ginger

Lewis and Clark: Żubrówka Vodka, Apple-Pear Purée, Lemon, Honey, and Ommegang Abbey Ale

Lewis and Clark: Żubrówka Vodka, Apple-Pear Purée, Lemon, Honey, and Ommegang Abbey Ale

Cabeza y Cerveza: Cabeza Tequila, Victory Prima Pils, Worcestershire Sauce, Bittermens Hellfire Habañero Shrub, Pok Pok Som Tamarind Drinking Vinegar, and Sal de Gusano-dipped Grapefruit Wheel

Cabeza y Cerveza: Cabeza Tequila, Victory Prima Pils, Worcestershire Sauce, Bittermens Hellfire Habañero Shrub, Pok Pok Som Tamarind Drinking Vinegar, and Sal de Gusano-dipped Grapefruit Wheel

Of course, if anyone’s going to be game to tackle the stronger flavors and higher ABVs of craft beer, it’s your friendly neighborhood mixologist (the guy or gal with the Fernet tattoo). “I try to use beer the same way I would use any modifier—bitter, sweet, smoky, etc.” says Ian Hardie, mixologist at Huckleberry Bar in Brooklyn and self-professed mixer of more complex beers. “Each beer, like each cordial or amaro, is going to affect a recipe in a different manner.” Take Hardie’s Lewis & Clark a mixture of Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka, apple-pear purée, honey syrup, lemon, and Ommegang Brewery’s Abbey Ale. “I wanted to use IPA, something especially bitter to counter the sweetness of both the apple and honey,” says Hardie. “But the Abbey is just too good to pass up; it provides spice and richness that makes the drink almost like a piece of pie.”

The resulting drink has more heft and distinct sweetness, with the beer effectively re-categorizing the drink. But for Hardie, that’s part of the advantage. “I prefer beers with a distinct point of view,” he says. “I think it makes them easier to work with. So the more unusual the beer, the more likely I am to be drawn to it as an ingredient.”

Over at PDT, Head Bartender and 2012 Rising Star Mixologist Jeff Bell approaches a happy (hoppy?) medium, with Victory Prima Pils, a German Pilsner with lively carbonation and hop/malt balance from one of the more established outlets of the craft beer renaissance (Victory was officially born in 1996). “You can use all different styles of beer in cocktails,” says Bell. “You just have to understand the flavors and how they’ll play together. Something super hoppy like an IPA will work with bold citrus like bergamot or yuzu, and rich stouts can mix with robust rums like Cruzan Black Strap.”

But then the Cabeza y Cerveza, which Bell served at the Rising Stars Gala, has more than a one-to-one flavor profile going on. There’s Cabeza tequila, Worcestershire sauce, tamarind drinking vinegar, habañero shrub, and, oh yes, a rim of sal de gusano. Given that tang-heat-umami complexity, Bell needed a beer that was less intense but still sturdy, and like many experimenting mixos, he started with one point of chemistry. “I love the way the Pok Pok vinegar interacts with club soda, so I figured I would substitute the bubbles and try the [Victory Prima] Pils instead.” The beer (Bell’s post-service chug of choice, alongside bartender requisite Miller High Life) did the trick, lengthening and lifting the flavors with just the phantom of floral/grassy/malty flavor, all against the palate-playtime backdrop of carbonation.

And maybe it’s reductive, but something about beer cocktails just seems more fun. It could be the thrill of seeing something like High Life mixologically made-over, the cocktail equivalent of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (Bell says PDT owner Jim Meehan once made a Bobby Burns with High Life). Or it could be the range of flavors and styles, tending drinks into slices of liquid pie and goading mixologists to tackle the next heady flavor profile. Or maybe it’s just the geekily thrilling juxtaposition of the expertise of modern mixology with beer, nectar of the working man, sports fan, and now, the craft clan.