For bartenders, the beer drinker is often either a godsend or a figure of little interest. When you’re slammed, the person ordering a draft or bottled beer provides a welcome respite from time-consuming and challenging mixed drinks. At slower times, they generally get their needs met simply and quietly.
As such, beer and cocktails tend to operate in different orbits. Generally, when beer and spirits have mixed in the past, it’s either been in the classic “beer and a shot” format or as drop shots (also known as boilermakers), in which a shot of liquor is dropped into a beer, with predictable results.
Yet some enterprising bartenders have discovered that mixing beer and spirits can do more than just get you drunk quicker; it can create a unique drink. Beer’s richness, texture, and flavor can provide an interesting canvas upon which to splash a few bursts of color in the form of a spirit or two.
My first experience with a beer cocktail was at Solo Bar in lower Queen Anne. There I had a surprisingly delicious combination of Campari and an IPA from Two Beers Brewing. An IPA’s hoppy bitterness is usually a turn-off for me (as many readers might recall), but in this case the Campari’s sweet and herbal notes gave that hoppiness a depth and complexity that the beer alone lacked.
In fact, a beer cocktail can be a great way to experiment with stronger or strangely flavored spirits: I’ve been able to introduce friends to green Chartreuse (mixed with a witbier), Campari (with an IPA), and even Fernet Branca (with a stout). In each case, the beer and the spirit share at least one similar flavor, and the combination allows the spirit to broaden and mellow, as opposed to when it’s drunk on its own or with other distilled spirits.
But you don’t have to get quite that daring: I’ve had great success spicing up the traditional michelada—a blend of Mexican beer, tomato juice, lime juice, fresh chilis, and onions—with a splash of mezcal. Its smokiness plays very nicely with the spice and the tartness.
Perhaps my favorite recent discovery was that you can make something akin to beer sangria (or a fortified shandy, if you’d rather). Belgian beers make for a nice base, but I think even a simple lager or pilsner could work as well. I’ve been adding cut-up apples, stone fruits, and fresh strawberries, then about an ounce of brandy per serving. It’s a strange yet captivating drink: fruity but dry, refreshing yet a bit potent. I’m really looking forward to trying it at barbecues and picnics this summer.
Of course for most beer drinkers, the thought of adding anything to beer is tantamount to sacrilege, and for most bartenders beer exists in its own little world; but you might find that opening that world to spirits for a change is well worth the occasional sneer or confused look.