Where's My Beer?

A New Jersey bartender has taken on the Harry Potter quaff known as Butter Beer, in which Full Sail Saison ale is an important component. The recipe, combined with the arrival (finally) of some spring heat to Brooklyn, N.Y., and the advent of the fast-approaching Philly Beer Week celebration (June 3-12), one of the country’s most significant brew events, reminds me it’s time for my semi-annual rant about beer in cocktails.

There are, of course, many venues that take beer seriously as a cocktail ingredient, although they generally break Beerdown into two types: gastropubs and ethnic restaurants with ties to Northern European traditions or brewpubs and other beer-focused restaurants. The Dutch and Danish-themed Vandaag in New York City is a fine example of the former, where a trio of beer cocktails accompany the Genever and aquavit-based tipple list, including the Bitter Linzer (Calvados, Batavia arrack, sweet vermouth, lemon, egg white, spiced syrup and Timmermans Framboise) and the Radler (pineapple-infused aquavit, ginger syrup, lime and Blanche de Bruxelles witbier). There also are beer fans such as Phil Ward at New York’s Mayahuel, who is featuring a handful of classic cerveza drinks on his menu, including the Michelada as well as his original El Jimador’s Shifty (pineapple-infused mescal, lime, sugar cane, Negra Modelo and a salt rim).

Culinary-minded bartenders, such as Gina Chersevani at Washington, D.C.’s PS 7, always seem to keep at least one beer cocktail on the menu; Chersevani's Boiler Room (Bulleit bourbon, lemon and Allagash white) is a favorite. These are exceptions, though: Of the dozens of menus I see each month, a very small percentage include even one beer- or ale-based drink; those that do are mostly from the numerous brew-savvy restaurants and bars concentrated in such beer-mad markets as the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia and San Diego.

When writer and colleague Stephen Beaumont developed beer cocktails for Toronto’s beerbistro, he drew inspiration from his travels in France, where good beer bars routinely offer cocktails made with Amer Picon, such as the Amer Biere; his drinks routinely drew praise, but few imitators. True, the idea is spreading, but it’s long overdue; cocktail fans say modern drinkers have quality cocktail choices like none before them, but given the breadth and depth of flavors and creativity in fare produced by the American brewer, it seems to me a gross oversight that beer hasn’t taken a more important place on the cocktail menu.

Part of the problem is advocacy; bitters, tinctures, market-fresh mixology, rye whiskey, white whiskey, barrel-aged cocktails, new cordials, etc., all have their advocates, while few brewers seem willing to stand up and promote their wares as cocktail ingredients or even put any money into supporting the concept. I can’t think of a single giant international brewer or even a major American craft company that, having observed the constant mixological experimentation going on in U.S. bars, has said, “Hey, we’re already in those bars — why don’t we encourage these bartenders to come up with ideas using our beers in some great drinks?”

During the aforementioned Philly Beer Week, local firm Dock Street Brewery is hosting a beer-cocktail competition, but honestly, if there’s been another, even regional, competition like this in the past few years, I’m not aware of it. This says something about the way brewers communicate, if nothing else; in the midst of the most important and arguably creative beverage trend since the birth of brewpubs, beer makers have opted to stand on the sidelines and watch. Boo to them. However, boo also to the bartenders who have overlooked the flavor opportunities available in using today’s beer in cocktails.

Beside the obvious quality connection, there’s some business savvy in beer cocktails; how many strong and stirred cocktails can the average guest handle in one sitting, anyway? Now that the weather is warming, the idea of a long, tall pilsner spiked with something herbal, fruity or strong holds some appeal, doesn’t it? A wheat-beer Mimosa? A lambic lightened up with limoncello? A ginger-hibiscus Shandy with a tot of Jamaican rum? All of these examples are worth exploring, so the next time you spy a sweltering customer perusing the beer taps, think about your summer menu and make room for beer.

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