The beer back: A step forward?

August 16, 2011

We talk a lot in this space about fancy cocktail bars, but the truth is, I don’t always hang out in places that charge $12 to $15 for a drink. I often find myself in some joint where there are no house-made bitters (or bitters of any kind), there is no cocktail menu, maraschino is still translated as “fluorescent artificial cherry,” you will get a nasty look if you order a Negroni, and you risk being asked to leave when you order Chartreuse — meaning, of course, I’m talking about the majority of bars in North America.

My order in these watering holes is usually the same: I scan the bar for the most acceptable, moderately priced Irish whiskey or bourbon. Then I order it, neat, with a beer back. In most cases, if the beer is some type of crisp pilsner or pale ale (for the bourbon) or a stout (for the Irish whiskey), everything works out just fine. I sip the whiskey, I sip the beer; it’s a serviceable do-it-yourself cocktail.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the lowly whiskey-with-a-beer-back. Though it has been a staple of working men’s bars for centuries, you rarely hear it discussed among the mixology crowd. And yet, I would guess that whiskey-and-beer ranks way ahead of the martini or the Manhattan — or even the cursed vodka tonic — in ubiquity and popularity.

“A shot and a beer is kind of a standard. It’s how a lot of people drink,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco. “That’s how most bartenders drink.”

In San Francisco, in fact, the whiskey-with-a-beer-back has been widely co-opted by the cocktail crowd, with bartenders around the city offering creative pairings of craft beers and artisan spirits.


Beer back of Pilsner Urquell with Bols Genever photographed on August 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. Shot glass from Ace Beverage. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“As customers come to appreciate higher-end spirits, you can experiment with different pairings,” Ehrmann says. “It’s not about slamming the spirit down. It’s about enjoying a taste of both. You start with a sip of the spirit, then a taste of beer.”

Consider, as well, that the combination of one neat spirit and one beer probably contains less alcohol than the two cocktails you’d slurp down in about the same amount of time.

I used Ehrmann’s list of beer and spirit pairings as my guide, then did some tastings on my own. Who knew, for instance, that Spaten from Germany would pair so well with a blanco tequila such as Milagro? Or that Anchor Steam would highlight the spiciness of Russell’s Reserve 6-year-old rye? Or that Ayinger Brau Weisse hefeweizen complemented aged rums, such as Ron Abuelo 7-year-old? In fact, the Ayinger Hefe-Weizen was a sort of all-around spirits enhancer, improving even a shot of green Chartreuse, something I previously believed impossible.

One surprise was how well white ale, such as Allagash White or Blanche de Chambly, paired with piscos such as Campo de Encanto and Macchu Pisco. The coriander and orange-peel notes showcased the best aspects of pisco’s fruit, which lingered on the tongue long after the beer had been swallowed.

But perhaps the best discovery was Leffe Blonde’s affinity for bourbon, in particular wheated bourbon such as Maker’s Mark 46 or Old Weller Antique 107. The creamy, clove-and-citrus flavor of the beer softened the edges of the whiskey while heightening the grain and fruit notes on the palate.

On the opposite bourbon end, rich Smuttynose Robust Porter, with its roasted malt and chocolate notes, was a perfect match with higher-proof bourbons such as Knob Creek Single Barrel and longer-aged bourbons such as Elijah Craig 18-year-old.

But perhaps my favorite spirit-and-beer-pairing of all time is what the Dutch call kopstootje, “a little head-butt”: a shot of genever and a beer. Genever — which, as I’ve written before, dates to the 16th century and is considered the original gin — is made with a certain amount of malt wine, giving it a funky, earthy quality. It’s a sort of missing-link flavor that falls somewhere between whiskey and modern London dry gins.

Anyway, I’ve spent hours drinking kopstootje in Amsterdam, and the genever is always served in a little tulip-shaped glass, nearly overflowing, so you have to bend over and take a slurp off the bar before you pick it up with your hands.

In the Netherlands, the genever is usually paired with a basic pilsner. Here, Bols genever is the most widely available brand, and it’s excellent, though tempered by slightly more honeyed sweetness than what you’ll find in many oude genevers. Ehrmann suggests a kopstootje with Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dark, which makes a great malty, raisiny, nutty pairing. Even better, however, is to go the pilsner route with hoppy Victory Prima Pils, one of my favorite beers, which wonderfully balances the sweet with a bitter finish.

In the end, I realized my experiments in beer and spirits pairings were really only scratching the surface. I encourage readers to experiment on their own, and to send me any great discoveries you find.

Also, please let me know whether anyone starts seeing $15 whiskeys-with-a-beer-back listed on menus. I know it will happen. It’s the inevitable downside of improvement.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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