Beer Cocktails – yeah, they’re all the rage. We’ve read about them on various blogs, Facebook, in print and hell, there’s even a website devoted to them: they must be popular. For all the talk, however, I think there’s more confusion for readers and imbibers than there is when brewers talk mash techniques to a casual beer fan. For many, beer cocktails are modified ‘beer and a shot’ concoctions – pints of beer with an ounce or so of booze. Sure, I can appreciate the shot of Bourbon in an IPA, but it is a mess on the palate. Others take their beer cocktails more seriously, or at least seem to, and create intriguing elixirs that are more fun than good. Finally, there are a handful of folks that put the serious work into their cocktails and actually understand the balance required to make it good – evening out the booze, acids and sugars to create an inviting and festive drink that can be enjoyed time and time again.
Sadly I feel that lost in all this craze is the fact that we (Americans) are only rediscovering the greatness of beer and cocktails. The 90s were a fucking train wreck for craft beer and the cocktail worlds – craft brewers started putting out shit beer (not all, obviously) and cocktails were co-opted by Sex In The City viewers that demanded their drinks obnoxiously sweet and boozy. It has only been in the last eight years or so that authors, bartenders and editors began to question the cocktail world – and we all know that craft beer has had to redefine itself in that same time frame.
So here we are, newbies at a strange intersection where craft cocktails and craft beers meet. There are plenty of train wrecks, plenty of oddities and much confusion. That said, there are also a handful of great creations worth exploring.
To begin, let’s talk about the crappy stuff and get it out of the way. If you look online for any amount of time you’ll find some pretty terrible recipes for beer cocktails. It’s easy to see why, too. Beer geeks have taken their favorite drinks and combined them in appalling ways. I believe this is done by well-meaning folks that perhaps don’t understand the liquids they’re playing with (and if you read some of the instructions for building a cocktail, it becomes obvious they’re in over their head).
For an example, take a look at this recipe for “Tower Glen” – a mix of Glenlivet (Highland Single Malt) and Tower 10 (American IPA). The description talks of how the “peat cuts right through that hop aroma”, which is interesting given how little peat the Scotch has. Now, if it were an Islay Single Malt I could follow that statement, but still wouldn’t dream of the mix. This, in my view, is a sloppy drink created with little understanding of the liquids. Examples like this are plenty and I don’t mean to berate the creators too much, but these thrown together drinks are a far cry from excellence.
So, how do we create a good beer cocktail? Well, for starters, drop the word “beer” from the moniker – cocktails (and let’s not talk about the historical meaning of the word) are an intentional blend of ingredients that create a drink of balance. They should not have any one ingredient that completely dominates, nor should they unsettle the palate with confusion (starting one way, then finishing another – or not finishing at all). The best cocktail makers look at ingredients and see how they will complement or contrast the flavors, aromas and texture of the base ingredient (usually a spirit). This thought process doesn’t just happen – the creator must have a working knowledge of flavors and available ingredients.
A quick detour (hey, it’s a blog, I can do this without pissing off an editor).
If you want to be creative in the bar or kitchen, there’s a great resource that will make you look good – The Flavor Bible. This book is great for recipe development in that it is not in itself a cook book, but rather a list of ingredients and what other ingredients they will go great with. Quickly, let me just look at the “Ginger” section with you. Among the long list of food that go well with ginger you’ll see Apricots, Basil, Pears, Vanilla Lemon and Tea. Based on this, if you have a working knowledge of old-school drinks, you’ll remember the classic cocktail – The Horse’s Neck (a wonderful blend of whiskey, ginger & lemon). In the next section you’ll see “Flavor Affinities”, one of which includes “Ginger+Lemon+Mint”. There ya go, you have yourself a great jumping off point for a cocktail – you just have to find the best delivery mechanism for the flavors listed.
OK, back to the beer cocktails…
So, you want to create a cocktail that involves beer. Great. Please, please, please understand that beer is but a part of the drink and not the show, itself. Next, understand that ‘beer’ is like saying ‘fruit’ in that it really says nothing about the flavor, texture or aroma of the actual ingredient. To be more concise requires a base knowledge of beer styles – which ones offer roasted qualities and which offers citrus, spice, pear notes, toffee, caramel (and yes, there is a difference), banana… you get the idea. It isn’t enough to say ‘dark beer’, either – that can be toasty like a porter, roasted like a stout or fruity like a doppelbock or dubbel. I’m of the opinion that beer should be the last ingredient added to a cocktail, too. Build the drink to intentionally be lacking that flavor/aroma/texture you want the beer to add. Then, find the right beer for the job.
On building your drinks, it won’t take but a moment to realize that you should not shake your beer in a Boston Shaker – the carbonation will just blow the top off or cause a mess when opened (yeah, I know this from trial and error). If using fruits or egg whites, best to shake the mostly-built cocktail ahead of time, then either stir in the beer or float it.
Finally, you don’t have to use finished beer to make a beer cocktail, do you? If you have access to wort, you may find that adds an impressive layer to your creation – it’s a fun substitute for simple syrup. Again though, you must have a base knowledge on flavors. Pilsner malt wort will taste and look quite a bit different than porter or stout wort. Wort is actually a beautiful cocktail ingredient, in case you were wondering.
Sadly, this post barely scratches the surface of cocktails and beer and how the two can be happily married. To properly do that, one would have to write a book – and I haven’t been asked to do that yet. Just know this – among the bad and underwhelming ‘beer cocktails’ are some truly amazing creations. The key is the author/bartender and his/her knowledge of ingredients and how they work with each other.
For those that believe it’s blasphemy to use a great beer in the creation of a cocktail – get over yourself. Bartenders are expected to use the best and freshest ingredients possible in the creation of their drinks. Why would we, as general consumers, not want them to have the truly great ingredient beer can be in their arsenal?