It's a sunny spring afternoon, and the perfect day for an al fresco drink. Sunglasses? Check. Flip-flops? Definitely. Beer? Absolu ... wait, let's make that a beer cocktail instead.
What Is a Beer Cocktail?
By definition, a beer cocktail could simply be the result of mixing two different beers together, like the black and tan, a drink made from a dark beer layered atop a light beer. Or, it could be a beer mixed with other spirits and liqueurs, or even nonalcoholic ingredients. Essentially, add anything to a beer to differentiate—and hopefully improve upon the beer itself—and the result is a beer cocktail.
The good news is that beer cocktails are coming out swinging this year, and even better than that, the category has expanded far beyond the basics. That list includes offerings such as as the michelada, the spicy, ubiquitous bloody mary riff, and the shandy, both of which have been longtime warm weather favorites.
The rise of the beer cocktail stems from several different areas. One is that there's a plethora of intriguing beers to work with today, thanks to the ongoing proliferation of new craft breweries, and also brewers who continue to experiment with unique ingredients. "As breweries develop more complex beers, I think it's piquing the interest of bartenders and spirits professionals who look to incorporate that flavor component into an interesting cocktail," says Erick Castro, bartender and proprietor of San Diego's Polite Provisions and New York's Boilermaker.
In theory, the beer cocktail also applies to two different sets of consumers, the craft cocktail enthusiast, and the craft beer enthusiast, making the interplay between them all the more natural. "It's a little bit of both," says Castro, referring to which side of that equation is pushing beer cocktails forward.
"I believe the best way to respect the brewer's intention is to allow the beer speak for itself."
And while a beer cocktail may still be a novel idea to certain imbibers, it's not one that would intimidate a drink enthusiast keen to try something new. "Incorporating beer into a cocktail is so far from the extremes of mixology these days that guests are definitely able to accept the concept easily," says David Donaldson, beverage director of City Tap House in Washington, D.C. "But I still think there is an element of surprise if the cocktail is actually good."
How to Build a Great Beer Cocktail
The raises an important point—that all beer cocktails aren't good cocktails, and there seems to be some confusion in how a beer cocktail is actually created. Simply adding extra ingredients into a beer and calling it a cocktail is a strategy bound to disappoint.
"What usually happens in those instances is that the bartender never stops to fundamentally think about the flavors of the beer, and what it brings to the actual cocktail," says Castro. He offers a few favored starting points as inspiration. "Citrus beers go well with gin. Darker beers tend to pair well with aged rums and cognacs," he explains.
"The brewer didn't just slap together the recipe, so take the time to understand his or her intentions, and then try to complement those intentions," adds Donaldson. "I believe the best way to respect the brewer's intention is to allow the beer speak for itself."
During City Tap House's brunch, Donaldson serves up a house specialty Beermosa, built of wheat beer, orange juice, sparkling wine, and elderflower liqueur. At other times, the IPA Cocktail is available, made with Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, Aperol, honey syrup, and lemon juice. "We also get a lot of appreciation for the DC Radler when we have Stiegl Radler on the menu," he states. "The DC Radler is simply a shot of gin in a super refreshing grapefruit radler."
For Donaldson, wheat beers are one of his cocktail go-tos. "Because the delicacy of the malt bill allows other elements to shine, like a spicy or fruity yeast strain, or a fruit adjunct," he explains. "I would prefer that the cocktail be designed to accentuate a major element of the beer's profile—let the beer be the star, with the additions designed to highlight its best side."
Castro takes a different approach with his beer cocktails. "When I incorporate beer into a cocktail, I use it as if it's a liqueur or a fortified wine," he explains. "Lending flavors to the cocktail, so it can be in harmony with the base spirit."
He recently created two new beer cocktails for Polite Provisions: The Modern Concubine, with Olmeca Altos Reposado tequila, lemon juice, apricot liqueur, bitters, and Modern Times Fruitlands beer; and the Dublin Iced Coffee, with Jameson, cold brew coffee, brown sugar, Modern Times stout, and a float of cream.
For the latter, he also sometimes uses AleSmith Speedway Stout, which was the beer that spurred him to make the drink. "Just one taste of the beer, and I was instantly inspired to make a cocktail out of it," he says. "Since it is brewed with actual roasted coffee, and we have cold press coffee on tap, my mind immediately shot to making a variation of an Irish coffee."
Yet, even with the two unique methodologies cited from Castro and Donaldson, two different starting points of a journey, the destination can still be the same. "Everyone knows that a bit of bourbon barrel aging or some cold press coffee can do wonders for a big stout," says Donaldson, echoing Castro above. "The same approach could be taken in constructing a cocktail."
Beyond the Basics
But some enterprising bartenders, like Janelle Whisenant at Washington, D.C.'s Compass Rose, are finding more unusual ways to incorporate beer into cocktails. Whisenant recently started to work with beer syrups after experimenting with some She'brew Triple IPA, which the bar had leftover from an event.
The result is what's now known as the Passing the Farside cocktail, with Sarajishvili VS Georgian brandy, Averna, She'brew triple IPA syrup, lemon juice, and thyme. "You're drinking it and smell the thyme, and it's just such a great combination that I didn't even expect," says Whisenant."You don't actually get tons of hops, it's a small amount, like a quarter [ounce] in the cocktail, so you're getting an essence of it. It doesn't overpower it. It's well balanced."
To create her beer syrups, Whisenant simply whisks beer and sugar together until she reaches the desired ratio. "I didn't want to use any heat to make it, because I didn't want to lose the alcohol content, and I didn't want it to caramelize at all," she explains.
"So it's just this really slow process of adding sugar to the beer and not having it foam all over the place. It just dissolves really slowly, but super easy ... You can make a syrup out of any beer you want to, and it's something I really hadn't thought of before."
Whether it's beer syrup, a beer-based cocktail, or a cocktail highlighted by beer, beer can fill a glass in a variety of ways. And for those interested in making beer cocktails, keep one crucial final point in mind. When in doubt, a beer cocktail must stand apart from the beer itself, otherwise what's the point? "Never let the drink become so bogged down that you'd rather just have a beer instead," advises Castro.