Spirits: Beer cocktails

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The first time I saw a beer cocktail was as a teenager in Jersey at a spot called Crazy Ellis' Hideaway, down by the river near my home town. At Crazy Ellis', the chain-smoking old lady tending bar might have asked whether my friends and I were "of age," but she never actually demanded proof. With the rough-and-tumble crowd that frequented her establishment, a few kids were probably the least of her problems.

If you happened to be at Crazy Ellis' around 4 in the afternoon, you made sure you weren't sitting on any of the regulars' stools when they rolled in, still in work clothes. The first cocktail of choice for several of these gentlemen was the boilermaker, the recipe for which follows: shot of cheap whiskey; mug of beer, preferably something like skunky Budweiser; drop whiskey, shot glass and all, into beer; drink swiftly.

If a similar milieu springs to mind at the mention of beer cocktails, I understand. But trust me: The beer cocktail, like beer itself, has a come a long way from the boilermaker. In fact, this spring I've been seeing so many interesting cocktails that call for suds, I think we can declare that the beer cocktail is having its moment.

Of course, certain beer cocktails have always been with us. Everyone knows the Black and Tan, which combines pale ale and a darker beer such as a stout or porter. I've written before about the Black Velvet, with its mix of stout and champagne. The Snakebite, made by adding cider to lager, is an age-old standard, as is the Shandy Gaff, equal parts beer and ginger ale (or lemon-lime soda, such as Sprite). Years ago, in Mexico, I was introduced to the Michelada, a cerveza preparada in which lime juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire are added to Mexican beers such as Tecate or Corona and the concoction is sipped from a glass with a salted rim. All of these are classics to varying degrees.

What's different about the new wave of beer cocktails is twofold. First, bartenders are now boldly adding spirits (beyond cheap whiskey) to the mix. Gina Chersevani at PS 7's, for instance, had a popular $5 recession-buster called the Cure on her menu last year: Miller High Life, lemon juice and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. Second, as the variety and availability of new and interesting beers continue to grow, so do the mixing possibilities. You can do a whole lot more fascinating pairings with a white ale or an oatmeal stout or a black beer than you can with Bud Light.

"Beer adds complexity to a drink as well as effervescence, depth, flavor," said Rachel Sergi, head bartender at Againn. "Some might say that beer on its own is better, but I say everything is better with beer." Including booze.

With a little direction from Sergi, I spent a week playing around with beer as a mixer, and I'm hooked. Beer has more layers than almost anything else you'd add to a drink to give it fizz, more than soda, ginger ale and even sparkling wine.

Sergi's favorite cocktail beers are white ales, and I was surprised by how well they worked with spirits such as rum and brandy. She even suggests substituting white ale for wine in sangria recipes. White ales such as Allagash and Hitachino Nest are natural pairings with citrus; why do you they think they serve you that little orange slice with your Hoegaarden? So it made sense that they tasted great mixed with orange liqueur, muddled citrus and orange bitters in the Oranj-a-Bloom, which is my new hot-afternoon drink.

Even more complex is the Saint, which calls for schwarzbier, or black beer, to be floated atop a combination of Old Tom gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and Earl Grey tea-infused vermouth. Yes, it sounds bizarre. But the results are dazzling.

One thing is for certain: Ordering the Saint at Crazy Ellis' back in the day surely would have gotten you thrown out, or worse. Thank goodness the world -- at least at the bar -- continues to evolve.


The Saint


Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company