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A Quick Guide to Mixing Cocktails With Beer

Though beer has long been used in drink-making, the incredible variety of beer styles now available to bartenders has made for a swiftly evolving canon of wholly original drinks. Nathan Mattise on the state of the beer cocktail, plus a primer on how to pair spirits with IPAs, stouts and more.

For the past half-decade, beer has been turning up in cocktails everywhere—from Campari Radlers to reinvented shandies to nouveau boilermakers to entirely new inventions, like The Roux at New Orleans’s Willa Jean, which pairs Intelligentsia coffee with Great Raft’s Reasonably Corrupt Dark Lager and spiced rum.

But what might seem like a trend that won’t go away isn’t new at all, beer cocktails are as old as cocktails themselves.

“I vaguely knew that there were a few historic beer cocktails out there,” says Jacob Grier, a Portland bar consultant who released a book dedicated to beer cocktails, Cocktails on Tap, last year. “But when I started doing the research, there were more than I ever realized: [my] book ended up being almost a 50/50 split with historic recipes [and new ones].”

Grier combed through old cocktail books, scanning for the work “ale,” and searched for the same in Google Books, a remarkably useful tool since many early cocktail books have become public domain. He found mid-19th century recipes in famed titles, like Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide (1862) and Oxford Night Caps (1871).

In looking through old English and American books, Grier noticed that most of the beer cocktails relied on malty, English-style ales that were prevalent in the late-19th century; bars at the time simply didn’t have the breadth of styles available today. In fact, before railroads or refrigeration, pubs brewed their own beer onsite and stored the barrels in their cellars—not exactly the meticulously temperature-controlled way in which beer is handled today. The marginal quality (to say nothing of cleanliness) of this beer made it almost necessary to spike it with spices or available liquors, like rum or ginger beer, to improve the taste.

“I think we can safely say the old colonial-era beer cocktails were more about covering up the flavors of bad beer than they were about making new, great creations,” says Stephen Beaumont, a beer writer and blogger. “Beer was an elemental beverage and there was lots of it about, but there was probably a good deal wrong with much of it. So, if you had a beer that had become infected, you’d spike it with some whiskey, put some eggs in it, heat it all up and nobody was any wiser.” And thus, the Hot Ale Flip was born.

Today’s beer cocktails are based in the exploration of the increasingly vast array of beer styles and an embrace of current trends in beer, from super hoppy IPAs to the wide spectrum of sours.

Beaumont attributes this new wave of beer drinks to the fact that the cocktail bar community has gotten behind them just as fervently as beer lovers have. “You see the most innovation coming from the cocktail side,” Beaumont says. “I still go into beer bars and see their section of beer cocktails and it’s not always imaginative. But on the cocktail side of things, mixologists are so used to taking flavors and finding new applications for them.”

The most clever drinks call on the strength of the beer and use other ingredients to amp up that quality even further. Take bartender Karen Grill’s cocktail, Beer and Loathing, from LA’s Sassafras Saloon. Playing on the idea that tart saisons (much like wheat beers or Hefeweizens) pair well with citrusy flavors, Grill added grapefruit and lemon juice and balanced out the whole thing with a dose of bitter Aperol.

Of the new styles of beer bartenders have to work with, high-octane double and triple IPAs are often the most challenging. “It’s a lot easier to use sweeter flavors from beer in a cocktail than it is to use a strong bitterness,” says Beaumont. “But again, because mixologists have gone through phases of embracing amari and various bitters, they come to beer and say, ‘Hey, this has the same family resemblance in terms of its flavor profile.’”

It’s hard to pin down precisely when beer cocktails started to advance like this. Beaumont presented on them at Tales of the Cocktail nearly a decade ago and saw the topic as “fringe stuff,” and, even three or four years ago, he wasn’t seeing them universally on menus. In contrast, when Grier and his colleagues presented at Tales this summer, they were able to share tips on everything from making beer simple syrup to the best practices for hot beer drinks, like using beer with residual sugar.

Whatever sparked this new wave of gin barrel-aged Radlers and bro-mosas, it’s clear there’s been a swift evolution that incorporates a wider variety of beer styles and utilizes an increased knowledge of complementary flavors. “I go into places all across the U.S. and Canada and see a separate section of beer cocktails both from the cocktail side and the beer bar side,” says Beaumont. “It’s remarkable and a very recent turn of events.”  

A Quick Guide to Mixing with Modern Beer

Beer Style: IPA
How it works in drinks: IPAs tend to offer boldness in every direction, with intense hoppy bitterness and fragrant citrus or herbal flavors. Pair IPAs with spirits and other ingredients that pack a similar punch—and that won’t be overpowered by the beer. Spirits with a complementary bitterness work especially well.
Mix with: Bitters and aromatic spirits like pisco, amaro, mezcal, blanco tequila, orange or cherry liqueurs and Campari.
Drinks to Try: Cold in the ShadowsThe Detroiter, Arrowhead Limited, McIntosh

Beer style: Stout
How it works in drinks: Deep, rich, malty stouts superbly accompany spirits that have been aged in barrels and that have a toasty, caramelly side of their own. Stouts also go well with spice flavors, as found in older rums and amaro.
Mix with: rye whiskey, bourbon, aged rum, brandy, mezcal and amaro
Drinks to Try: Averna Stout Flip, Black Velvet, “Root Beer Float”, Gulf Coast Martini

Beer style: Wheat Beer
How it works in drinks: It’s not uncommon for bartenders to garnish wheat beers with a wedge of lemon or orange and this principle extends to using the beers in cocktails, too. They’ll work well with spirits that are also elevated by citrus.
Mix with: gin, blanco tequila, white rum, Genever, pisco, Campari and orange liqueurs.
Drinks to Try: White Bull, Hop Over, Trigger Warning, Bananas Is My Business, Rustic Pimm’s Cup, Winter Lady

Beer style: Saisons and Sours
How it works in drinks: More aggressively sour wild ales can lend perceivable acidity to drinks, but often need sweetness to counter the dryness that is characteristic of this style, while saisons play nice with lighter drinks that rely on citrus and herbal flavors. For richer or more fruit-forward styles of sour beer, like kriek or Flanders red ale, look to heavier ingredients like bourbon, sweet vermouth and other aromatized wines.
Mix with: gin, mezcal, bourbon (kriek and sour red ales), bianco vermouth, stone fruit liqueurs, Aperol.
Drinks to Try: Knob Kriek, Gambol and Snap

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Nathan Mattise is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and editor at Conde Nast's Ars Technica. He's previously written about bars, beer and booze for Wired, Paste and Fast Company, among others.