They didn't call Mesopotamia the Fertile Crescent for nothing. Around 6,000 years ago, records suggest that the Tigris-Euphrates river valley was full of party animals -- party animals whose libation of choice was beer. The Babylonians also exported beer to Egypt, making some of us wonder whether it was beer instead of aliens that got the pyramids built. Today, beer is made in almost every country in the world; in the United States alone, we consume 20 gallons per capita of the stuff annually. It was only a matter of time before beer found its way into cocktails.
Jacob Grier, lead bartender at the Hop and Vine in Portland, Ore., and author of a forthcoming book on beer cocktails titled Cocktails on Tap, says: "Mixing spirits and beer is a tradition that goes back centuries, but aside from goilermakers and a few other simple drinks, it's become something of a lost art. With the rise of craft brewing in the United States, the great variety of spirits now available, and creative bartenders looking for new drink ideas, it's no surprise that the practice is coming back."
And coming back strong. Beer cocktails have been popping up on menus all across Los Angeles, in what might be our favorite booze trend of 2013 -- and maybe well into 2014.
From a cocktail perspective, elements such as the type of grain used, the profile of the hops, and the eventual style of beer are key to developing a successful drink. Brooke Williamson, co-owner with Nick Roberts of Tripel and Hudson House, explains, "Every beer has its own flavor profile and therefore its own place in a cocktail. I have come across very few beers that don't work in a cocktail. I love using sour beers, Belgian beers and even floral and hoppy IPAs. It's just all about balancing your flavors with each other, just as with food."
At the Tripel, which has only a beer and wine license, there is no sense of limitation due to the lack of hard alcohol. The Black Velvet combines Belgian stout beer, cava and black currant–based crème de cassis liqueur, balancing chocolatey boldness, dry effervescence and berry sweetness. This is a drink that beautifully illustrates how various components can be juxtaposed with beer as the ingredient that holds it all together.
"I didn't want [our limited liquor license] to limit our selection of creative cocktails available for our guests," Williamson says. "Some people (including myself) just love a really great, well-balanced cocktail, and I never felt limited or as if we couldn't provide that for our customers just because we couldn't serve hard alcohol." The Black Velvet demonstrates that, if approached properly, beer takes on the "spirit" component of the drink without faltering, provided the craft is in place.
The most prevalent basic beer styles are lagers, in which the beer uses "bottom" fermenting yeast and cool temperatures -- and ales, in which the beer is "top" fermented at warmer temperatures. The former often is more hoppy, with other pronounced flavors, while the latter is more aromatic (fruity and floral). Many specific subcategories exist, such as the in-your-face bitter IPAs, the distinct fruitiness of Belgian lambics, and the sometimes coffee-ish, chocolate quality of English stout. Once you get a sense of these profiles, matching them with particular spirits becomes much more logical.
Let's look at the IPA, for example, a style that has an almost rabid following. At Muddy Leek, a Napa Smith IPA, with its citrus and caramel notes, finds a natural home with Jameson Irish whiskey, ginger syrup and lemon in the Waltzing Matilda, created by Barrett Smith. According to beverage director Sara Kay Godot, "This cocktail is a play on the age-old order of a beer and a shot of Jameson. The beer is the star of this drink with its bright hoppiness, adding some zing to the nutty, caramel backbone of the Jameson." All in all, a clever tweak on classic barroom fodder.
At Rivera, bar program director Andrei Kissin helped Julian Cox create the Beso Oscuro (Dark Kiss), which marries the bitterness of Averna (an Italian bitter liqueur) with a distinct lager style, as well as ginger and lime. Kissin liked how the herbaceous and cola flavors of Amaro Averna combined with the ginger to make the cocktail base. To that he added a black lager, a German style known, despite the name, for its usually light and refreshing character.
If beer can stand up to the potency of an Amaro, then pairing it with tequila becomes just as natural -- as long as the flavor profile is well-considered.
At the Morrison, Steve Calabro plays with a Belgian witte beer, which is fruity, wheat-forward and often spiced. He blends this aromatic style with pomegranate-infused tequila and orange juice. Calabro finds that the big citrus notes of the witte beer play off the sweetness of the OJ and tartness of the pomegranate tequila. Blood orange "tears" add an additional fruity element on top.
While beer can be spicy or sweet, wheat-forward or fruity, it's often bitterness that people cite as the most familiar flavor component. And it is exactly this bitterness that makes beer a natural component for dessert-style drinks. The last year has brought a spate of beer floats -- beer topped with various ice cream flavors. For winter, you can sample the Guinness float at Fred 62. Created by Fred Eric, the grown-up treat balances the dry-roasted, caramel quality of the stout with the creamy sweetness of the ice cream, making for a robust but frothy winter dessert treat. Beer ice cream has been around for a long time; the float is a clever and frequently successful (see: Golden State) deconstruction.
Finally, Jesus Gomez at Pasadena's 1886 Bar riffs on what may be the most famous sweet cocktail of them all, the Brandy Alexander, with his El Inquieto, which uses stout and Stumptown coffee–infused El Dorado 12-year rum in place of the brandy.
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"Texture became the essential missing element in this version of a Beer Alexander," Gomez says. "Every now and then, all you need is a hint of those chocolatey notes and aromas from the roasted malt and a little carbonation offered by stout beer to make the difference." Almond liqueur and whipped cream play off the coffee and rum, while tobacco bitters in the drink and cayenne pepper on top ground it, giving this old classic new legs.
Lest you believe that beer in cocktails lack sophistication, maybe heed the words of Gilgamesh: "Enkidu drank seven cups of beer and his heart soared. In this condition he washed himself and became a human being." Now there's a beer campaign for you.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at email@example.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.