Spike Your Beer
A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender to surprise him with a drink. The bearded bartender shrugs his shoulders, combines whisky, lemon juice and a few drops of bitters in a shaker filled with ice. He shakes vigorously and strains into a glass, then tops the drink with beer and garnishes it with a lemon.
The man looks at the bartender and says, “Is this a joke?”
“No,” replies the bartender. “It’s a beer cocktail, and that will be $12.”
Ba dum ching! Not exactly a knee-slapper. Beer and liquor in the same glass? Yes. It’s not a joke.
Does the thought of mixing beer with liquor bring you back to the hangover-inducing memories of drinking a Boilermaker (a shot of bourbon or rye dunked into a pint of beer while your companions are simultaneously chanting “chug chug chug”) in your dimly lit basement of your high school party days? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and revisit this old-fashioned alcohol combination.
My first exposure to beer cocktails was in high school. The cheap, unsuspecting beer that I could afford tasted a lot better with a hefty splash of ginger ale or lemonade. Little did I know back then in the nineties that I was quaffing back the infamous mid-nineteenth century British drink, the Shandygaff, or simply the Shandy, also known as a Radler in Germany or a Panaché in France.
Fancy names aside, how does a beer cocktail differ from a regular cocktail? Most cocktails depend on liquors, spirits and flavourings (e.g. bitters) to play off on one another. In these cocktails, beer is the main star and used as a launching point and additions are made around the beer.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Historically speaking, mixing beer with other liquors was done out of necessity. It made economic sense. Beer was cheaper and more abundant than other spirits. In the early 1600s, rum had just been discovered in the Caribbean’s and sailors were given a “rum ration” on long voyages. In an attempt to extend their rations, sailors began mixing rum with beer, water, sugar and whatever else they had on hand. This mixture was called Grog.
In England, the Purl, an ale infused with the woodworm plant and gin is so ancient that it’s even mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
While the concept of beer cocktails is continuously popular in many parts of the world, it never really took off on this side of the globe. It’s not common to see a customer walk up to the bar and order a beer cocktail (or ask the bartender for a surprise drink). According to Kayla Lambie, the former head bartender at Toronto’s Duggan’s Brewery, “most professional mixologists have an extensive repertoire of both modern and classical cocktails. They have an understanding of how flavour profiles between different spirits interact. However, they don’t usually know the distinct characteristics that are found in various beer styles.” She continues, “craft beer experts are looking for some creativity within the particular style of brew they are drinking, but they usually don’t have to deal with creatively combining different flavour profiles. A lot of people consider themselves mixologists or craft beer experts, but very few people have a love for both cocktails and beer. The amount of mediocre cocktails available compared to exceptional ones creates a sense of doubt in many people who may want to try these cocktails.”
Lambie is right; beer cocktails are a hard sell for both brew fans and cocktail enthusiasts. Snobs believe that their suds should be served in only one of the three ways: in a bottle, in a can, or in a pint glass out of the tap. They are convinced that mixing beer with anything other than a handful of bar nuts is complete sacrilege.
On the other side of the bar, cocktail connoisseurs prefer their fancy-pants-that-take-longer-to-make-than-to-drink tipples, prepared by a guy who looks like he’s from The Great Gatsby.
Beer cocktails, Beertails, Hoptails, whatever you want to call them, have not been taken seriously. “Up until recently, quality cocktails and craft beer many not even have been found under the same roof in a bar and still some aren’t,” explains Brad Hall from C’est What, a Brew Pub that has been serving up local craft beers (and beer cocktails) to Torontonians since 1988. There is a negative stigma that is still associated with beer cocktails. Blame it on Grandpa’s kitschy homemade Shandies and the cottage staple “beeritas” (a frozen margarita with an upside down bottle of beer stuck in it). “The more bartenders and patrons take these cocktails seriously and less as an invention with leftovers from the bar or hangover drinks, the better the quality of these cocktails will be,” Lambie believes.
It’s time for the stubborn purists to get out of their comfort zones. These cocktails are the ultimate peacemaking tipples for beer lovers, cocktail sippers and skeptics alike. Like it or not, beer is crashing the cocktail party. Hall agrees, “it will be much more likely that sophisticated cocktails and craft beer will have a home together in the same bars, with them meeting in the middle in the form of a cocktail.”
The trends of craft beers and artisan cocktails have collided, allowing bartenders to make sudsy brews the backbone for new cocktails. Beertails have come a long way from the two-ingredient Shandy (sorry Grandpa!). Innovative bartenders are combining beers with a multitude of ingredients including hard liquor, liqueurs, syrups, fruit and herbs.
With its vast array of taste profiles and low alcohol content compared with other spirits, beer can make a sophisticated addition to any cocktail. Today’s libations, beers (and especially craft beers) have a complexity of flavour nuances that liqueurs, spirits, juices and other mixers just can’t compete with.
From the caramel sweetness of the malts in a stout to the grassy aromatic of the hops in an IPA, to the banana-y profile from the yeast in a wheat beer, the multiple flavour profiles open the door for more variety. Furthermore, beer offers an effervescence much like cocktails calling for a splash of champagne or ginger ale. Beer indeed makes an excellent mixer. It goes down easy, plays well with others and is the perfect thirst quencher.
Thirsty yet? Well first off, you won’t need to fluff around with muddling, stirring, shaking and slicing before you get to sip on something. Unlike the long list of ingredients you see in some drinks (the Commonwealth cocktail created by the Scots has a staggering 71 items in the recipe), beer mixology doesn’t have to be complicated; all it takes is imagination, a delicious lineup of beers, a few adventurous friends, and an evening to experiment. Follow these five tips to creating a tipple that will please both die-hard beer drinkers and cocktail aficionados.
Keep It Simple
Keep the recipe simple so you don’t hide the character of the beer. You want to bring out the innate flavours, not confuse or distract it with all the extra flavourings and additions.
Balance is Key
The trick to these cocktails is finding an equilibrium of flavour between the beer and the spirits. As in any well-made cocktail (beer or no beer included), you don’t want one element to overpower the other. For example, you don’t want to pair an intense and powerful spirit (aged bourbon) with a light beer (a lager). Leading us to tip number three, choosing the right beer …
Choose the Right Beer for the Right Spirit
There’s a beer for every spirit out there. When choosing a beer for a cocktail, consider the primary flavour profiles of the brew. Decide on whether you want to amplify, harmonize or contrast that flavour.
Full-bodied beers (e.g. stouts, porters, barley wines, English style strong ale): These dark, robust beers pair better with bigger, darker spirits such as whisky, bourbon, and dark rum. Lambie recommends combining a roasty bitter imperial stout with ingredients such as chocolate, milk, coffee, or even better Kahlua and ice cream! A spiked beer float, need I say more?
Hoppy Beers (e.g. Indian Pale Ales, American Pale Ales): Beers with a lot of hops are tricky, as the bitterness can be hard to incorporate into a cocktail. Lambie suggests taking advantage of this and using them alongside cocktail bitters to make a drink where bitter is a focal point (see her Beer-groni recipe below).
Wheat Beers: The most versatile brew to use in beertails. They make a great starting point to any recipe. “Wheat beers have an enormous range of flavours to play with as a result of the slight sweetness and banana flavours. The creamy texture and big fruit aromas are complementary to a number of ingredients,” Lambie explains.
Tip: Don’t have any sparkling wine on hand during brunch? Replace the sparkling wine with a Belgian-style white beer in your Mimosa. The orange peel, coriander and spices in the wheat beer will make your Mimosa a little more complex than usual, all without breaking the bank!
Lambics & Fruit Beers: “Tart fruity Belgian ales are incredibly fun to mix around with. Lambics already have a natural cocktail-like taste because of the sour and subtle sweetness,” says Lambie. At your next party, combine raspberry lambic beer, fresh berries, sprigs of mint with bourbon or vodka and a splash of club soda as an alternative to the expected punch bowl concoction.
Lagers: The high carbonation in lagers add a sparkling aspect to a cocktail. Lambie suggests making a simple beer cocktail by adding an elderflower liqueur to complement the light clean taste of a lager.
Pilsners: Depending on the type of pilsner, Lambie likes to play with the grassy nature by making a spirtzy beer cocktail with a variety of herbs.
Stirred, not Shaken
Forget James Bond and his “shaken, not stirred” mantra when it comes to making a sudsy cocktail. “Don’t shake the beer as it will explode and make a big mess,” warns Lambie, who typically likes to mix the whole cocktail first in a shaker, pour and strain the contents into the glass, and then add the beer at the very end.
Tip: Introduce beer cocktails at your next gathering in a pinch! Before your guests arrive, whip up a large batch of the concoction in a pitcher sans beer. When your guests come knocking, top off the pitcher with the beer so that the cocktail is as carbonated as it can be.
Apply The Same Rules as Food-Wine Pairings
The fizzy element of the beer can make a beer cocktail an excellent palate cleanser. When choosing a beertail to pair with food, stay close to what the beer would usually pair well with. Focus on the main flavour profile of the food and apply the same rules as wine. “Just like sparkling wines are universally friendly with foods, so are pilsners,” says Hall. He also recommends matching darker and sweeter beer cocktails with dessert.
Hall’s favourite beertail and food pairing? A Michelada, the Mexican twin of the Bloody Mary (with the added refreshing zing of a lager) goes down perfectly with brunch.
beer-groni (recipe courtesy of Kayla Lambie)
1/2 oz of sweet vermouth
1/2 oz of bourbon
1/2 oz of Campari
3 oz of an English style IPA (#9 from Duggan’s)
3 dashes of rhubarb bitters.
1 orange peel
Stir the first 3 ingredients into a lowball glass with 3 large ice cubes. Add 3 dashes of rhubarb bitters. Take the orange peel and trace it around the edge of the glass. Drop the orange peel into the glass. Top off the glass with the beer.
campari grapefruit radler
This recipe is provided by Brad Hall of C’est What Brew Pub. “This is an easy beer cocktail that everyone with a basic bar can make at home. Don’t rely on the pre-made canned Radlers. This fresh-mixed combination is my favourite. The colour of the cocktail is simply beautiful.”
3 oz fresh grapefruit juice
2 oz soda
1 oz simple syrup
1 oz Campari
7 oz Pilsner from King Brewery
Mix all ingredients together in a chilled 14 oz glass. Garnish with a wheel of grapefruit.
the “surprise me” drink
Serve this drink to your friends with the “A man walks into a bar…” joke from the introduction of the story.
2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 tsp orange marmalade
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Chilled wheat beer (such as Side Launch Wheat Beer)
1 lemon wedge for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients except the beer and lemon wedge. Stir well so the marmalade dissolves in the liquid. Fill the shaker with ice and gently stir the mixture. Strain and pour contents into a tall glass and top with beer. Garnish with a wedge of lemon.