Read some of the recent studies and statistics on beer and you might think the entire category is dissipating faster than the head on a pint of IPA. But look a little more closely and you’ll see that it’s not all doom and gloom.
While market research firm IRI Worldwide discovered that dollar sales of domestic premium brands declined 2.9 percent in 2017 and volume sales decreased 3.8 percent, craft dollar sales increased 5.6 percent and their volume increased 3.6 percent; likewise, domestic super premiums’ dollar sales increased 11.3 percent, while imported dollar sales increased 8.4 percent. So, it’s not so much that beer is slipping, it’s just that what guests are drinking is changing.
And while beer’s use in cocktails is often limited to the quaffable, non-cerebral Shandy or the brunch-friendly Michelada or Beermosa, one bar manager is using suds in sips in exciting new ways. Topside, a restaurant and bar located atop Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon neighborhood inside the new Hotel Revival, touts a rotating selection of 13 beers on tap and 60 bottles and cans, with a lot of local craft breweries represented.
Chelsea Gregoire, who oversees the beverage menus for the hotel’s concepts, wanted Topside’s cocktails (all priced at $13) to mirror its elevated beer hall concept. “They had to reflect those flavors one seeks out in beer: bitter, citrus, pine, malt, toast [and] smoke, just to name a few,” she explains. “Breaking it down to that molecular level not only satisfied my nerd heart, but has struck a chord with those who have visited us this far.”
Gregoire uses a honey syrup infused with cascade hops in the Whiskey Sour variant Two Dope Georgez (In a Sour Riff)—a play on an Outkast song title—with George Dickel Rye Whiskey, spiced pear, amaro, bianco vermouth and citrus blend. The syrup adds sweetness and herbal notes that play well with the drink’s bitterness and baking spice notes.
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For the Devil Wears Prata, Gregoire created a beer-lime cordial with the hotel’s house beer, ThirStay by Peabody Heights Brewery, as well as limes, sugar and an orange-infused beer syrup made with byproducts of some of the bar’s edible garnishes; it’s mixed with Avuá Prata Cachaça and grapefruit bitters, and garnished with dehydrated lime. “This cordial adds the depth of malt from the beer, while also contributing the citrus of the lime and orange, making this drink a stirred Gimlet riff.”
A decidedly boozier and more complex Shandy does find its way onto Topside’s list. Shandi, You’re a Fine Girl (an ode to Gregoire’s wife) features bourbon, Génépy des Alpe, seasonal fruit syrup (most recently it was apple-thyme), lemon and bitters. It’s topped with ThirStay, with the rest of the can served on the side for the guest to moderate the flavor and alcohol content—or not.
And there is even a drink that doesn’t technically contain a beer element, but one that Gregoire based on several brews’ flavors. Why’d it Have to Be Snakes? (one of the quintessential lines from Raiders of the Lost Ark) shakes Lost Ark Spiced Rum (obviously) with Martell Cognac, honey and cardamom bitters, garnished with thin peels of grapefruit “snakes.” “The spiced rum [is] reminiscent of a spicy Belgian beer or a saison, the Cognac express[es] the roasty but fruity notes of an amber ale, and the bitters add depth and sweetness.”
A section of the menu is also dedicated to six elevated Boilermakers—local craft brews paired with spirits or tiny cocktails—for which Gregoire used a little reverse-engineering. “I thought of the classic cocktails I loved, and what beers express those flavors.”
The Tiniest Sidecar with VSOP Cognac, dry curaçao and Shrub District Lemon Shrub pulls out the biscuit, orange and clove notes of the RaR Brewing Groove City Hefeweizen. A Coconut Snaquiri with Don Q Coco Rum, Shrub District Lime Shrub and hopped honey pairs with the coconut notes in the Dogfish Head Lupu-Luau IPA. Guests are instructed to take a few sips of the beer and pour in the cocktail, but are also free to alternately sip them. She admits they can be a little polarizing, with some guests declaring “Yes, this is what I wanted!” and others telling her they don’t even know what a Boilermaker is. “I think it is something we’re doing that sets us apart; there is a thoughtfulness to it that the guest can see.”
Beer has the capability to add so much to drinks depending on the style, she says. Tart gose lends acidity or salinity, while an amber ale contributes maltiness, baking spice or red fruit much the same way whiskey can. She’s got lots of other ideas on tap, and looks forward to incorporating seasonal produce and keeping focus on sustainability—and beer will always be a big part of the beverage program, she predicts.
So, what does she make of the predictions out there about the beer industry? In this boom of craft brewing, she believes it’s natural for people to get a little skittish when sales fall flat, worrying things are going to bottom out. “Beer was one of the first alcohol beverages, [and] if history has taught us anything, [it] isn't going anywhere,” she says. “In the same vein, creating cocktails with beer elements and flavors works because people love beer, how it tastes, and the culture around it.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.