Beer Cocktails are a Balancing Act
In the throes of a steamy summer, few rituals are as satisfying as reaching for an ice-cold beer. But in recent years, amid a surge of quality craft brews, bartenders are encouraging patrons to think beyond the usual trifecta of cans, bottles, and draughts. According to the pros, sipping the likes of lagers and porters in cocktail form is just another creative way to savor flavorful concoctions.
The grande dame of this canon is undoubtedly the non-fussy Michelada, the Mexican brunch-time favorite, which melds beer and lime with all manner of sauces—maybe Worcestershire, maybe Sriracha—and spices from cayenne powder to paprika. Although it’s a simple drink, numerous restaurants and bars like to put a more elevated version in the spotlight. One such example is at John Besh and Aarón Sánchez’s Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. Here, the signature Michelada, which was dreamed up by Executive Chef Miles Landrem, is a fiery complement to dishes like blue crab tostadas and chicken enchiladas. The abundance of fresh ingredients, a hallmark of any fine cocktail, is what Landrem thinks sets it apart from other renditions. Served in a pint glass rimmed with worm salt from Oaxaca, Landrem pairs Sánchez’s from-scratch habanero and guajillo-laden hot sauce with a shot of blanco tequila and Dos Equis XX lager. The star, however, is Landrem’s house-made sangrita. Typically relished as a non-alcoholic chaser, this one has a base of tomato, onion, garlic, and pepper that is roasted on the restaurant’s custom mesquite wood grill and then blended with cilantro and lime. It’s brightened with fresh-squeezed lemon and orange, and for a touch of natural sugar, agave nectar. Beer is a universally loved product, Landrem points out, and showcasing it in a mixed drink “gives the guest a chance to try something new and discover a different Mexican experience without leaving his comfort zone.”
Just as today’s cocktail drinker is exceptionally savvy, so are beer lovers. Michael Neff, proprietor of Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York City, describes them “as a pretty adventurous lot.” Beer tipples, he believes, aren’t mere crossover territory for IPA and pilsner fans to hopefully develop a passion for Old Fashioneds and Corpse Revivers. Rather, he thinks their popularity “speaks more to cocktail professionals expanding their repertoire to include various components. In general, bartenders are well-versed in spirits and modifying flavors, but beer and wine education has often been neglected. As this starts to change, we’re rediscovering these flavors and incorporating them more directly into our cocktail programs.” With a plethora of stellar beers now turned out at breweries across the country, Neff thinks it’s a thrilling time for customers to partake of drinks that embrace them. “As someone who makes cocktails, unique flavors are my stock in trade. The first thing I think when I taste anything new and exciting is, ‘How can I integrate this into a cocktail?’” One such example is his Candelabra Flip (Elijah Craig bourbon, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, Amaro Montenegro, fresh lemon juice, whole egg, Narragansett lager, Angostura bitters, and nutmeg) that was served during the colder months at Holiday. “I was playing around with a few separate concepts, specifically ginger, amaro, and flips. After working on them for a while, I decided to try combining all three into one cocktail. The lager was added as a vehicle for the other flavors, and it worked to tie them together pretty well,” he explains. However, as Neff points out, one caveat for the experimental bartender: beer’s coveted carbonation. The risk of losing that effervescence means certain applications simply won’t work.
Brett Esler, of Whisler’s in Austin, Texas, also concocted a similarly styled winter drink. The Colonial Flip brought together pecan-infused Flor de Caña rum and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur with an egg and the vanilla porter from Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery. Like Neff, Esler believes working with beer can be challenging for bartenders. “It has the potential to really take over a drink if it isn’t balanced properly,” he says. When such moderation is achieved, one of the beer cocktail’s most alluring aspects, he believes, is its refreshing, easy-to-drink nature. “The Michelada is one of my all-time favorites; it’s tough to beat that on a hot summer day in Texas,” he says. Although “you can rapid-fire Micheladas off left and right,” Esler adds, something more adventurous like the Colonial Flip, where the temperature and presence of an egg may leave some dubious, requires a bit more hand holding when attracting guests.
Before ordering the black garlic mackerel and foie butter strip steak, diners at New York City restaurant Kat & Theo are certainly curious when reading the description of the Metal & Dust cocktail. While on vacation with his fiancée in Mexico, Michael Timmons, who helms the beverage program, encountered “an amazing woman cooking food in an alley. She made one of the best moles that I’ve ever tasted. It was earthy, spicy, and had the most distinct bitter cocoa flavor that stood out to me. I wanted to create the same sweet, rich, and warm feeling that I had when I [tasted] her mole for the first time. Beer cocktails have a familiar component that allows guests to understand flavor profiles.” The result is the Metal & Dust, a marriage of Oaxaca- and mulato chili–infused reposado tequila, crème de cacao, crème de fraise, vanilla syrup, lime, and mole bitters, rounded out by Negra Modelo lager. “I love the richness and texture beer can add to a drink. But it’s that same richness and texture that can present challenges as well when building a cocktail—exciting challenges, though,” explains Timmons. “To find the right drink expression with just the right style of beer takes a lot of trial and error given the vast range of beer in the market right now.”
One success is the Brunch Box (Amaro Montenegro, beer, and grapefruit juice), which has long graced the weekend menu of the Publican in Chicago. The Houndstooth, created by the restaurant’s wine & spirits manager Chase “Cha Cha” Bracamontes, is another hit that oft accompanies the porchetta benedict and pork belly scrapple. Uniting coffee-infused bourbon with stout, cardamom, and lime, the cocktail, Bracamontes says, is a powerful one “that evokes all the tasty qualities of daytime, like chocolate and coffee, but with the strength of a dinner drink. The caramel and toffee notes of the whiskey seemed to be a perfect pair with the Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Beer cocktails are fun, and they frequently lend themselves to many savory and floral flavors that may not be represented that much in a traditional cocktail.”
These nuanced notes coupled with a propensity for low alcohol certainly make the beer quaff a choice gateway for beer aficionados eager to become more schooled in the cocktail sphere. But Bracamontes thinks it’s even more accurately “a gateway for cocktail drinkers to enter the beer world.” Besides the technical complications, crafting beer cocktails also raises a cultural concern. “They definitely hold a daytime feel. It’s a great way to have a drink with lunch without feeling like the rest of your day will snowball into a bar crawl,” says Bracamontes. “I find it is not a common craving after sunset. By night, people are ready for a stiff drink or a pint.” As some clever bartenders are attesting, it surely won’t be long before the beer cocktail also has a grip on primetime.