When it comes to brewing beer, the line between gimmicky and experimental may well mirror that between a fool and a genius. The former is doing what they can to get a rise out of cerevisaphiles, maybe even garnering a blink of attention from someone looking for the next big thing. The latter approaches their idea with foundations in brewing knowledge, culture, and history to broaden existing connections in a thoughtful manner meant to enhance the experience of drinking a beer rather than catering to trend jumpers.
With that in mind, I believe the gimmick can become something authentic in the right hands. It’s a matter of educating the drinker as well as the brewer. The phrase beer cocktail might be offensive to some, and maybe that’s because it comes across as cheapening the beer. But it’s not about asking what a cocktail can do to a beer, but rather what the beer gives to a cocktail.
“The first thing I think is it gives it some body. The amount that we’re putting in is not going to affect the flavor and taste a ton,” says The Lone Girl Brewing co-owner Kevin Abercrombie on many of their beer cocktails. That seems like a solid starting point before getting too crazy with adding beers to cocktails. Take away what different flavors and complementary styles of beer bring to a cocktail and see what will inherently change by adding a beer.
Then keep it simple. There’s no need to take a beer that nails a style, say the now-extinct Hausgeist White IPA, and put it in every spirit on hand. Experiment with acidic Beermosas for IPAs and different elements inherent to different beer styles. New Belgium Brewing has some really simple ideas that just add juice to their beers. Take a Belgian Trippel and a quarter cup of pineapple juice, you got a nice Beermosa. Take one part of that Trippel; add in a traditional wheat beer, perhaps a Hefeweizen; and finish it off with a splash of orange juice—now you’re drinking what they call a SunTrip.
All that knowledge then comes together to start crafting some well-thought-out cocktails. If I have a beer that balances coffee, I can start to dissect some coffee cocktails and find where the beer would add more than body to the experience. “We have a few cocktails,” says Kevin, “where the beer takes over a little bit. We have one called The Dude that highlights our Dark Hondo Porter. It’s our take on a White Russian, right, from The Big Lebowski. ” There’s an obvious component of understanding what the Dark Hondo Porter has inherent to itself as a beer. It’s robust and roasty with a dry finish—a sound complement to a coffee liqueur. Add some local honey liqueur and hand-whipped cream, and the result is as eye catching as it is delicious.
Once the beer cocktail is embraced, there’s an offshoot of drinks that bridge the world of spirit and ale. That world can be a playground for the brewer and mixologist. “We’ve had some fun with dessert cocktails,” says Kevin. “We have our Quadnado Belgian Quad, and we’ve turned that into a Quad Alexander. It’s our turn on a Brandy Alexander. It’s so good.” They also threw around some ideas with Calliope Ice Cream involving beer floats. Using Calliope’s Lemon Lavender ice cream and Lone Girl’s Belgian Blonde, Towhead, something that “tastes like Fruit Loops” is born. Or take Calliope’s Brandy Old Fashioned ice cream and add an Amber Ale. “That’s a Wisconsin homerun.”
Some of these drinks may sound goofy to the purist. It’s a hazy endeavor to find that elusive line thou shalt not cross. Sometimes, the best course of action is to lower the shields and let the taste of the drink speak for itself. If it works, and everything is cohesive, why apply a veil of what is or isn’t acceptable? Kevin’s take: “We’re over here [in the United States] having fun. People are blowing ABVs out of the window. People are barrel aging. People are introducing fruit beers. Why not try to work with cocktails and spirits? It’s just fun.” In his mind, barrel aging with rum, tequila, and whiskey barrels already leaves us with one foot in the door. I tend to agree that it takes less than a push to start down the beer-cocktail road.
It’s good to remember that not everyone who enjoys beer is a beer nerd. I imagine we all know people who prefer a Bud or Miller to a craft beer. Some lean toward simple rail cocktails. “If there’s three beer nerds, and they’re playing golf,” says Kevin,” and the fourth is a friend who’s like, ‘I can’t go over to x place because they don’t have anything that I like.’ The three beer nerds are all going to defer and say, ‘Let’s just go where that person’s comfortable,’ because they don’t want to leave him or her out.” A beer cocktail may be a way to entice the non-beer-drinking friend to go to the brewery. Over time, who knows, maybe they’ll decide they deserve better than…tried-and-true mediocrity.
So if you’re sitting out with a vodka lemonade, maybe add one or two shots of a Blonde. If you’re enjoying a Long Island, maybe an ESB or a Wit. Rum and Coke, how about a Gose? If it’s a fun night out, you can’t miss with a Boilermaker. I get it—there are more days than not where I just want to enjoy the beer for what it is. But I’m not ready to put up these walls to limit my experience with beer, and I think there’s ample opportunity to be daring. As Kevin says, “It’s beer. Just drink it, enjoy it, explore it. Try different things.”
To mistakes aligned with discovery. We don’t always know why we do the things we do, but we do them just the same.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.