As a brewer friend of mine likes to say, there are two types of beers in this world: drinking beers and impression beers. The former are for knocking back many of, while the latter are for sipping, contemplating and nursing—much like you would a Sazerac or a Martini. To create these impression beers, brewers are increasingly looking for influences outside their own confines, and often gazing toward the cocktail world itself for guidance.
Cocktail beers aren’t new, of course. Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has been drawing inspiration from classic cocktails for years, with beers like his Improved Old Fashioned and The Concoction (the latter based on the Penicillin). Sierra Nevada now brews its Sidecar-inspired Sidecar Orange IPA year-round. But the range of cocktail influences on craft beer continues to grow.
Hopewell Brewing Company co-founder Samantha Lee says she takes inspiration from a variety of beverages, including wine, cider and coffee, but especially cocktails. “Anything liquid and drinkable, we’re into,” she says. “We’re generally very pro-beverage.”
In particular, Lee loves the balance and creativity she gets with a good drink. “I would probably make a garbage cocktail if you asked me to,” says Lee, “but we enjoy talking to bartenders and hearing flavor perspectives from others in the industry.”
Last spring, Lee’s Chicago-based brewery collaborated with their Logan Square neighborhood bar, The Whistler, for a Clover Club-inspired beer. The base is a kettle-soured saison-style ale spiked with gin botanicals from Letherbee Distillers and conditioned with fresh raspberry purée. “We approach everything with balance,” says Lee. “Acidity, bitterness, sweetness—it all has to come together, and the Clover Club has all of those.”
At The Veil in Richmond, Virginia, founder and brewmaster Matt Tarpey looks to cocktails as a way to keep his palate sharp and stimulated. “I find that, if I drink a lot of beer outside of work, the beers that I make [at The Veil] will become influenced by those other beers, and I don’t want that,” he says. To avoid this, Tarpey typically orders a tiki drink when he goes out after work, “or something else with a strong spice component,” he says.
Those drinks have influenced his “Tastee” line of sour ales. He describes the base beer as “a creamy, smoothie-style sour ale brewed with a lot of oats and lactose,” which is then compounded with additional adjuncts like fruits and spices, depending on what specific cocktail profile he’s going for.
One of the first to be released was Pain Killer Tastee, which is conditioned on loads of pineapple and orange purée, hundreds of pounds of coconut and a small dash of nutmeg. Others include Mai Tai Tastee, made in collaboration with Richmond cocktail bar The Jasper, brewed with almond milk, lime, orange and spices; and Zombie Tastee, a collaboration with Brenner Pass, highlighting grapefruit, lime, sweet cherries and spices. Many other breweries, including Off Color, Stone and Modern Times have mined the tiki realm for innovation, too, making tropical flavor-inspired beers that meld fruity hops with spices reminiscent of some aged rums.
Other brewers are pushing the envelope further. One of the most seasonally appropriate (not to mention craziest) cocktail-inspired beers I’ve seen recently comes from Greeley, Colorado’s WeldWerks Brewing. Their Eggnog Barleywine, released the week of Thanksgiving, starts as a 10.5 percent blonde barleywine brewed with malts, flaked oats and turbinado sugar. The finished beer is then aged on toasted and charred American oak spirals with nearly 250 pounds of pasteurized egg yolks, a dusting of ground nutmeg and fresh ground cinnamon. Due to the use of real egg yolks in the mix, the brewery warns: “…we recommend storing Eggnog Barleywine COLD AT ALL TIMES and enjoying fresh.”
Brewers aren’t just taking inspiration from the cocktail world—they’re also hoping to compete with it. In fact, going toe-to-toe with the wine and spirits world was one of the driving forces behind Anheuser-Busch (A-B) acquiring Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing last year, a play to flip consumers back onto beer.
Felipe Szpigel, the president of A-B’s High End division, told the beer industry website Brewbound about the Wicked Weed acquisition: “What makes them really special, and what got me really excited, is that they are reinventing what craft beer can be,” he said, citing Wicked Weed’s position as a sour and barrel-aged beer producer as key to taking share back from wine and spirits makers. Wicked Weed co-founder Walt Dickinson added that the brewery aims to “break down the walls between wine, spirits and beer.”
Wicked Weed has produced many cocktail-inspired beers, like Bramble Barrel, a wild ale inspired by the gin- and blackberry-based Bramble cocktail. “It’s an incredibly whimsical beer,” says Wicked Weed lead blender Jen Currier. The base sour ale is fermented with Brettanomyces and conditioned on a pound and a half of fresh blackberries per gallon. It’s then aged in gin barrels for a botanical kick.
“Finishing with lemon zest is just about the most cocktail-inspired thing we could do,” says Currier, “and I think it really does read like a classic Bramble—complex, leathery, bright and fruity.”
Four Cocktail-Inspired Beers to Try
Hopewell Brewing Co. Clover Club Kettle Sour | 6.2 percent
Formulated in collaboration with neighboring Chicago cocktail bar The Whistler, Hopewell takes a kettle-soured saison base beer and ferments it on raspberry purée spiked with a gin botanical tonic from Letherbee Distillers. It’s an easy-drinking, slightly tart ale with a big nose of raspberry and a whiff of juniper and coriander.
The Veil Brewing Co. Tastee Series | Various
Look for the latest iteration in this rotating tiki drink-inspired series from Richmond’s The Veil Brewing, most of which are developed in collaboration with one of a handful of local cocktail bars. Each relies on a creamy kettle sour ale as its base with a variety of fruits and spices added post fermentation to create tiki-like flavors. They’re typically available in cans from the brewery and on draft at the tasting room.
Wicked Weed Brewing Bramble Barrel | 7.8 percent
Inspired by the gin-based Bramble cocktail, this beer from Asheville’s Wicked Weed is aged with a pound and a half of local blackberries per gallon in North Carolina-made Cardinal Gin barrels and finished with strips of fresh lemon zest. It’s tart and complex with aromas of vanilla, lemon zest and a big blackberry kick.
WeldWerks Brewing Eggnog Barleywine | 10.5 percent
The base for this holiday-themed beer is a textbook English-style blonde barleywine that’s smooth, rich and slick. It’s aged on toasted and charred American oak spirals and nearly 250 pounds of pasteurized egg yolks (the equivalent of one yolk per pint) and finished with freshly grated nutmeg and cinnamon. A big, burly beer for cold winter nights.