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Session #27: Beer Cocktails

This month is our 27th monthly Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday. The topic this month is “Beer Cocktails: Beyond the Black & Tan,” hosted by Joe Ruvel & Jasmine Smith at Beer at Joe’s. By cocktails or mixed drinking that include beer as one of the ingredients, here’s what Joe has in mind:

Most people have had a black & tan, which is a combination of two kinds of beer and think it’s pretty tasty. Most people have heard of a Shandy, beer with lemonade or soda added, and think it’s not so tasty.

But beer cocktails go far beyond these two famous examples. Many countries have their own versions, and many new chefs and bartenders are getting creative with beer as an ingredient, not just a standalone drink.

What’s your favorite beer cocktail (and yes, despite the title of this post, it can be a black & tan or a shandy)? Find a recipe for that or a new one, try it, and tell us why you did or didn’t like it–even if you think beer cocktails are nothing but a good way to waste a beer. Have fun and try something new!

While I’d wager that the idea of mixing beer with other liquors and liquids strikes most as a bad idea, I’ve actually had some very good experiences with mixed beer drinks, though I suppose the majority of those are guilty pleasures. I have, for example, very fond memories of Spotie Oties (or possibly Spodie Odies), a drink I first learned about at tailgate parties at Penn State, where several good high school friends of mine went to college. A Spotie Otie is simply a mix of equal parts cheap beer and cheap Sangria. I know, I know. But it sounds much worse than it tastes. Its flavor actually reminds you a lot of a fruit punch and it’s very easy drinking, or in A-B parlance it had great “drinkability.” And don’t forget that this was at a time before craft beer so it was far more necessary than it might be today.

Another favorite beer cocktail is another very simple one, though I don’t now if it has a name. Take any dry Irish stout and add a few drops of Crème de Cassis. It just gives the beer a certain something, just a nice hint of fruitiness.

So I’m not opposed to mixed drinks with beer per se, but it seems it was a better idea when it was harder to find a decent beer.

Even when I wrote my guidebook to Silicon Valley, in 1991-92, it was often difficult to find a bar with anything different on tap. So having an appendix with Beer Cocktails made sense. If I wrote it again today, I might not include them, but looking back there are some fun recipes all the same.

I know that cocktails have their origin in the 17th century and the first mention of them in print was 1803, April 28th to be precise. And I know that the word “cocktail” itself was once a specific drink that included any distilled spirits mixed with sugar, water, and bitters. Over time it became a generic term for any mixed drink, but I think my original sense of it stems from Prohibition, when it took on a new importance to mask bathtub gin and other homemade alcoholic drinks’ imperfections. I’m probably wrong about this (Maureen? Bob?) and I’m in a field in Boonville — not the middle of nowhere, but you can see if from here — but I seem to recall that the number and creativity of cocktails exploded during that period precisely because the need was so great to cover defects in the homemade spirits served at speakeasies and elsewhere.

That was certainly my initial experience with beer cocktails, they always used cheap beer that was lacking in flavor as the base liquid for mixing. For that reason, I never felt too bad about mixing with them, since I wouldn’t want to drink those beers anyway. It always seemed like finding a home for an orphaned beer that otherwise would just be left alone to go bad. Effectively, it was adulteration with purpose. And that’s probably where it would have ended, an old idea whose time had passed. But recently my mind was changed by my friend Sean Paxon, the Homebrew Chef, who made me a special mixed beer cocktail for my birthday party in March of this year.

Whatever Sean named it (I can’t recall), it used Westmalle Tripel as the base liquid. I confess my first reaction at the time was revulsion at what I perceived was ruining such a fine beer. But that was before I tasted it. To the Tripel, Sean added a foam made with coconut, ginger and something else, and I think Mango juice may have been involved somewhere. I’m pretty sure we were all guinea pigs for an upcoming article in Beer Advocate magazine, so the full recipe will most likely be in the next issue. Whatever was in it, it was delicious, and it definitely changed my mind that a beer cocktail can use a decent beer without fear of death threats. So I obviously need to rethink my bias against the mixed beer cocktail. Cheers!

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