Does beer belong in a cocktail? Purists may recoil at the idea, thinking it sounds like a way to ruin a perfectly good beer, or perhaps recalling cheap “beergaritas” and other haphazard concoctions aimed more at maximizing alcohol content than at the harmonious commingling of ingredients. If that sounds like you, I’d urge you to reconsider. Beer is a surprisingly versatile addition to your mixology arsenal, and the secret ingredient for your next favorite summer cocktail may already be lurking in your refrigerator.
Beer actually has a long history in cocktails, so much so that when I published a book on the topic in 2015, nearly half the recipes were from vintage sources. In that volume, Cocktails on Tap, I categorized seven different techniques for mixing with beer. Not all of them are relevant for summer imbibing — neither the hot ale drinks of yore nor decadent flips made with whole eggs scream barbecues and pool decks — but other popular methods are practically synonymous with the season (like the German radler, a mixture of beer and sparkling lemonade).
Five years since the release of my book, I thought it would be a good time to check in to see how bartenders are currently mixing with ales and lagers. Here are three contemporary beer cocktails, each using beer in a completely unique way.
Make It Mostly Beer
When most people think of beer cocktails, they think of cocktails that are comprosed primarily of beer. Such drinks have a long pedigree, as drinkers have been adding things to their beer for about as long as beer has existed.
In the old days, the addition of spirits, spices and sugar could help hide the flaws in a stale tankard of ale. You would also find prepared beers of various sorts all over the world: in France, Picon Biere adds a bit of bitter Amer Picon to the glass; in Mexico, the Michelada dresses lager with lime juice and spices; in Germany, tart Berliner Weisse may be sweetened with syrups made from woodruff or raspberries.
A recent addition to the genre is the Spagett, an aperitif discovered on the happy hour menu of Wet City Brewing in Baltimore and brought to national attention in 2019. Think of it as a low-rent Aperol Spritz, substituting Miller High Life for that cocktail’s sparkling wine and soda. You can, of course, make it with a craft pilsner of some sort, but there’s no need to get fancy. High Life was made for this.
1 oz Aperol
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 12 oz bottle Miller High Life or other light lager
Dispose of or consume about 2 ounces of the beer (preferably the latter). Add the other ingredients directly to the bottle. Enjoy!
Use Beer as Just Another Ingredient
A less intuitive way to use beer is to treat is as just another cocktail ingredient. Instead of accenting beer with spirits, you accent a cocktail with beer. For this approach, you’ll use far less than a full bottle, so you typically want a beer that’s a little more flavorful. This is a great way of using IPA, for example. (As for the unused portion of the bottle, we recommend making another cocktail for a friend or enjoying it yourself as a sidecar to your cocktail.)
At Raus Bar in Trondheim, Norway, Jørgen Dons makes a refreshing tall drink called the Out and About. He combines Belgian-style witbier, gin, apricot and bergamot liqueurs, falernum, lemon and bitters. It’s a fantastic summer cocktail and an unexpected way of using beer. At Raus, he serves it directly in a can of locally brewed Austmann Utpå, but you can serve it in a glass over ice with whatever local or Belgian wit you can get your hands on. (We’ve adapted Jørgen’s recipe just a bit for American ingredients and measurements.)
Out and About
¾ oz Italicus
¾ oz lemon juice
½ oz falernum
1/3 oz gin
1/3 oz apricot liqueur
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
3 oz witbier
Shake all ingredients except the beer with ice. In a rocks glass filled with ice, pour in half of the three ounces of witbier. Strain the rest of the cocktail on top of that, and then top with the remaining beer. Garnish with a lemon peel and a mint sprig.
Turn Beer Into Syrup
This may the most unexpected way of using beer in a cocktail, but incorporating beer into a syrup just makes sense. Most syrups are made by dissolving sugar, honey or some other sweet substance into water. But you don’t have to use water; you could use any liquid. So why not use beer?
Making a beer syrup is a way of preserving its flavors, thus making them available for use in a cocktail whenever you need them. In theory, you could use any beer, but in practice I’ve found that the best results typically come from highly flavorful stouts or tart, fruity ales. In the below cocktail from Chris Elford, co-owner of Navy Strength and No Anchor in Seattle, imperial stout honey syrup brings a dark, roasty note to the classic cocktail known as an Airmail. Elford recommends aged expressions of Havana Club or Don Q for the drink.
Letter from the King
1 ½ oz aged Spanish-style rum
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz imperial stout honey syrup*
2 ½ oz dry sparkling wine
Shake all ingredients, except for the wine, with ice. Strain over ice into a Collins glass, top with bubbles, and garnish with a lime wedge.
*Imperial stout syrup
1 part imperial stout
1 part clover honey
Combine in a pot and heat gently while stirring to combine. Bottle and keep refrigerated.
As a final note, when preparing the Letter from the King, you’ll likely have both stout and sparkling wine in excess of what you need for mixing. You could enjoy them separately, but this is also an opportunity to try one of the oldest and simplest beer cocktails, the Black Velvet. It’s simply a 50/50 combination of the two, and it works surprisingly well. Particularly in the summer, it’s a way to lighten the flavors of an imperial stout. Mix them in a chilled glass, step outside and enjoy.
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