Like so many other crossover hits (Taylor Swift, “Glee”) the beer cocktail is rooted in tradition while toasting current trends. A far and fizzy cry from dive bar chuggables like car bombs and boilermakers, lately beer-infused tipples have been foaming over with fresh flair — and busting genres along the way.
“It’s a good way for beer lovers to be introduced to cocktails,” says Caterina Abbruzzetti, drinks director at British pub Againn (1099 New York Ave. NW; 202-639-9830), who says she grew up drinking beer shandys (half beer, half lemonade or ginger beer). Today’s beer-tails also build on Old World elixirs, from the Snakebite (lager or Guinness, cider, black current cordial) to the Black Velvet (stout and bubbly).
“Mixing beer goes back a long time — it’s not something new that’s been invented,” says Belgium native Bart Vandaele, chef and owner of Capitol Hill bistro Belga Cafe (514 8th St. SE; 202-544-0100). His beer cocktails range from the Pink Elephant (Hoegaarden and grenadine) to popular cocktails reimagined, like his take on the Kir Royale (half champagne, half Kriek cherry beer).
In many such drinks, beer is merged with another style of brew, softened with soda or juice, or jazzed up with a splash of liqueur. “It shouldn’t disguise or smother the beer; it should enhance it, balance well and bring out all the aromas and characteristics of the beer,” Abbruzzetti advises.
Thanks to the rise in craft cocktails, many beer blends also come layered with liquor — flavored vodka and spiced rum, or no-nonsense tequila and gin. At Adams Morgan beer bar the Black Squirrel (2427 18th St. NW; 202-232-0737), co-owner Amy Bowman and bartender Hollie Stephenson dream up concoctions such as White Tea, a simple mix of white ale spiked with a shot of Firefly (sweet tea-infused vodka). Their most popular beertail, the Lambicane, is made with lambic beer, vodka, 151-proof rum and sour mix. The sudsy sip is a pink and potent take on a hurricane (patrons jokingly call the powerful mixture “the Novocaine”).
Lagers and ales bring more than alcohol content to the party. “Beer works well to bring effervescence to a cocktail,” explains Greg Engert, beer director for ChurchKey, Birch and Barley, and Rustico. “The bubbles brighten the drink and add complexity to texture.” Beer is “a complementing nuance,” he says, that adds a dose of “aroma and textural flavor.”
To get started, Stephenson offers a simple formula: “It’s hard to go wrong with fruit, vodka and beer,” she says. (Try blueberry beer, vanilla vodka and creme de cassis for a sweet blend Bowman calls the Blueberry Muffin.)
Abbruzzetti suggests experimenting first with whichever beer style you’re most comfortable drinking, such as plays-well-with-others pilsners. Home-slung cocktails that feature citrus-forward white ales, such as Hoegaarden and Allagash, are perfect for sipping on summer patios.
The Black Squirrel’s Amy Bowman likes to pair tequilas with stouts, which, she says, tastes “like a milk shake” when mixed with kahlua. Tequila teams up well with bitter brews such as India Pale Ales, though she warns that hoppy beers can be a challenge for beginner bartenders. “You have to have an alcohol that’s really high in flavor to cut the hops and make it more drinkable,” she says.
But even as the craft beer movement has helped suds shake their scuzzy image, bartenders say the best part about a beer cocktail is its ability to skew either low- or high-brow.
A simple shandy can go posh when made with Stella Artois and fortified hibiscus-ginger lemonade, such as the Monaco, served at Georgetown’s Bourbon Steak (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW: 202-944-2026). Even so, it’s unlikely to feel pretentious sipping the Cure, mixologist Gina Chersevani’s antidote for the recession (Miller High Life, lemon juice and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur) on the menu at PS 7’s (777 I St. NW; 202-742-8550).
“Beer is low-key, so you can make [beer cocktails] goofy or very elegant,” Vandaele says.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express