In Cocktails, Beer Goes a Long Way

by JJ Proville with Will Blunt
Vicky Wasik
June 2009

In the heyday of updated classic cocktails, and rediscovered interest in tequilas and mezcal, a newcomer is creeping into the mixology scene’s spotlight: beer. Beer cocktails possess a refreshing quality and an affinity for varied flavor pairings, although their diverse flavor profiles and levels of carbonation make them a challenge for bartenders when it comes to mixing with spirits.

For Rising Star Mixologist Jim Meehan of New York City’s PDT, beer cocktails are a spin-off of the nose-to-tail kitchen philosophy, a direct result of mixologists looking to get the most out of their bars’ existing ingredients.

"If I have house beers and still wines, I should try and incorporate them" explains Meehan, who has put one beer cocktail on each season’s menu since 2007. So far, Meehan has used stouts, pumpkin beers, white ales and Pilsners in his creations.

In the case of JoeDoe, an 8-month-old, 26-seat restaurant in New York's East Village, the beer cocktail program was born out of necessity. Storing a large selection of wines wasn't an option for co-owner and Mixologist Jill Schulster, nor was there the financial means to stock and sell the usual extensive spirit selection found at most restaurants and cocktail bars.

Fortunately, commonsense and beer cocktails came in handy. Schulster stocks her bar with a small selection of carefully picked spirits that she uses to fashion all of her alcoholic beverages. Her list of approximately 10 featured beer cocktails are made with JoeDoe’s usual stock of house beers. Schulster’s beer preferences depart from popular Mexican-style beers and explore the sophisticated flavor profiles of artisanal brews. In particular, her choice of bitter pale ales pair well with a variety of spirits, and additional salty, sour, or sweet elements that appear in the drink as well as in the form of garnishes.

New York City Mixologist Philip Ward, of newly opened Mayahuel, finds beer in cocktails to be underutilized in general.

"It's strange because it's a bit finicky" says Ward, explaining that the carbonation and general mouthfeel of beer make it trickier to pair with spirits than one would think. Ward suggests incorporating citrus as a consistent ingredient in beer cocktails, as it intensifies the refreshing qualities of beer. He also points out that beer can be used as more than just a topper for shaken spirits—it can be rolled in a shaker until it loses its carbonation, and then be subjected to further treatment.

Once the right proportions are found, different beers can be taken down simpler or more complex paths. Both Ward and Mixologist Jason Littrell of New York City’s The Randolph at Broome modify the Michelada template, opting for the deeper complexity of Negra Modelo beer over the traditional lager-style. Mixologist Michael Cecconi of New York City’s Back Forty goes for a more drastic (but sensible) substitution, replacing Champagne with a German-style Pilsner from Pennsylvania. But things shouldn’t be taken too far. "You couldn't substitute beer for the whisky in a Manhattan" Meehan advises.

With our New York mixology tastings still fresh on our taste buds, here are six ideas for beer cocktails.

Penn Shandy
Mixologist Michael Cecconi of Back Forty – New York, NY
Cecconi’s riff on a French 75 cocktail (Champagne, gin, citrus and syrup) substitutes the bubbly with beer and adds ginger by infusing it into the gin. The result is a highly refreshing summer drink with tart, citrus notes and a welcome bite.

Spring Forward
Mixologist Jill Schulster of JoeDoe – New York, NY
A Pilsner glass rimmed with locally sourced wildflower honey and seasoned with kosher salt leaves a delightful salty-caramel flavor, prolonging the cocktail's taste. Schulster’s choice of DH Krahn Gin shaken with lemon juice provides a citrusy and almost sweet counterpart to the Left Hand Brewery’s Sawtooth Ale.

Here Comes the Sun
Mixologist Jill Schulster of JoeDoe – New York, NY
In this well-balanced play on the Tequila Sunrise, the orange juice and tequila transform the hoppy flavor profile of the India pale ale used in the cocktail. A salty preserved orange wheel rounds out the drink, making it great as a standalone cocktail or companion to spicy food.

Beer and a Smoke
Mixologist Jim Meehan of PDT – New York, NY
Mezcal’s smoky, peaty character (lent from the oak-fired baking of the agave plant’s mashed hearts) makes it an ideal match for a Pilsner-style beer. A celery salt rim gives a savory finish to the drink, confirming that beer cocktails benefit from a salty element.

El Jimador’s Shifty
Mixologist Philip Ward of Mayahuel – New York, NY
Ward’s beer of choice is a crisp and malty Negra Modelo, which adds body and gives the cocktail a cola-esque quality. The mezcal is subtle and pleasantly complemented by the lingering heat of the salt, sugar and cayenne pepper rim.

Beer and Cilantro
Mixologist Jason Littrell of The Randolph at Broome – New York, NY
Fresh herbs can also be used to flavor beer cocktails, and muddled cilantro makes Littrell’s particularly refreshing. An aged tequila provides a pleasing hint of wood in the aftertaste, proving that tequilas, mezcals and beers go well in almost any combination.