Basil Lee grew up making Mai Tais and Piña Coladas at his parents’ Chinese restaurants in Rhode Island. While Lee considered the drinks to be tacky in his youth, he still understood their history in Chinese-American restaurants and how well they paired with the Cantonese and Szechuan dishes that his family served. Recently, the founder of Queens-based Finback Brewery has found a more unorthodox pairing for tiki flavors: beer.
“Tiki is a great inspiration, because one, it’s a thing that exists as a fixed set of drinks and flavors, and two, it’s just so much fun,” says Lee.
Other breweries are following suit, creating rotating and one-off beers inspired by tiki’s tropical fruits and spices. Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, San Diego’s Modern Times and Nashville’s Southern Grist Brewing, who recently launched an entire collaboration series of beers with the Music City’s first tiki bar, Chopper, have all released their own tiki beers. And it’s not just small breweries, either. Big players in the craft beer world—including Stone, Founders and Avery—have also released tiki-inspired beers over the last several months.
“It just makes sense to search that realm for inspiration,” says Trevor Williams, co-founder of Columbus, Ohio’s Hoof Hearted Brewing. Williams believes that taking a page or two out of classic tiki cocktail books can only help brewers that were already using ingredients like tropical fruits and tropical hops. “They enhance IPAs and simple kettle sours, in particular,” he points out.
Lee also sees the term “tiki” as a handy way to communicate flavor profiles to consumers. “Just calling it a ‘tiki beer,’ even if it’s not necessarily the verbatim flavors as a specific drink, it immediately classifies it as this thing. Like, if you say ‘Milkshake IPA,’ that gives people a reference point,” he says.
Khristopher Johnson of St. Petersburg, Florida’s Green Bench Brewing Co. agrees. He recently brewed a collaboration beer with Sweden’s Brewski; when it came time to name it, his mind immediately went to tiki. “It wasn’t developed as a tiki beer per se but it kind of became one as we built it.” The beer, called Tiki Tack (tack is “thanks” in Swedish), was a passionfruit-guava gose fermented with brettanomyces (which often produces a distinct, overripe-pineapple aroma) and spiced with coriander and pink sea salt.
“The way it came together—with the base acidity, tropical fruits on top and then the coriander and sea salt—really reminded me of the build of a lot of tiki drinks,” says Johnson, a self-proclaimed tiki geek who takes weekend pilgrimages to the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
As Lee sees it, there’s an even deeper connection. He believes the conceptual elements of tiki have plenty in common with the modern, boundary-pushing beers that he and his contemporaries are brewing.
“Both are totally constructed, kind of fantasy beverages,” he says before pointing out that tiki started out as an irreverent celebration of beach life that pushed sweet and fruity flavors to the forefront.
“And, for better or worse, there’s a lot of that happening in beer right now, too,” he continues. “The tiki attitude is in line with [that of] beer people who are like, ‘Let’s just have fun with this.’”
Five Tiki Beers to Try
Founders Barrel Runner
“I drink tiki cocktails probably more than I should and looked to them for inspiration when creating Barrel Runner,” says Founders Brewmaster, Jeremy Kosmicki. “You get a lot of bright, tropical character from the abundance of Mosaic hops plus a nice kick of oak and rum from the barrels. Add a tiny umbrella and you’ve got yourself a beer perfect for enjoying poolside.” At 11.1 percent alcohol, it almost has the fortitude of a tiki cocktail. Almost.
Off Color Spots
This tart little beer incorporates tiki elements like passionfruit and grapefruit peel to morph from a run-of-the-mill Berliner Weisse into a self-described “Tiki Weisse.” A gentle funk runs through the background, reminiscent of some of the ester-y rums from Jamaica and Guyana. The name, derived from the tropical jungle-roaming jaguar, is in line with Off Color’s relentless obsession with feline species.
Stone Scorpion Bowl
A prime example of how notes of tropical fruit and citrus can be derived from hops alone, Stone’s recently released Scorpion Bowl IPA is a tiki-inspired beer made without the addition of any actual fruit or spices. “It was initially brewed with the intent to add fruit,” says Jeremy Moynier, Stone’s Senior Innovation Brewing Manager. “However, once we brewed it, we couldn’t believe the amazing fruit aroma and flavors we’d coaxed from the hops alone. To heck with the fruit.”
Modern Times False Idol
Most tiki beers feature either a base IPA or a simple kettle sour. But when Modern Times sat down with the folks at the San Diego tiki bar False Idol to collaborate on a beer, they decided to structure it around a clean pilsner instead. “The beer itself was made to embody the tiki spirit,” says brewer Andrew Schwartz, “but in the end, it’s just a summer crusher.”
7venth Sun Brewery Freak Your Tiki
Tampa Bay area 7venth Sun Brewing threw an all-out tiki party for last month’s release of this collaboration ale with neighbors Overflow Brewing Company. The base is a tart cherry wheat ale that’s been conditioned with mango, guava, passionfruit and vanilla.