In the throes of a steamy summer, few rituals are as satisfying as reaching for an ice-cold beer. But in recent years, amid a surge of quality craft brews, bartenders are encouraging patrons to think beyond the usual trifecta of cans, bottles, and draughts. According to the pros, sipping the likes of lagers and porters in cocktail form is just another creative way to savor flavorful concoctions.
The grande dame of this canon is undoubtedly the non-fussy Michelada, the Mexican brunch-time favorite, which melds beer and lime with all manner of sauces—maybe Worcestershire, maybe Sriracha—and spices from cayenne powder to paprika. Although it’s a simple drink, numerous restaurants and bars like to put a more elevated version in the spotlight. One such example is at John Besh and Aarón Sánchez’s Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. Here, the signature Michelada, which was dreamed up by Executive Chef Miles Landrem, is a fiery complement to dishes like blue crab tostadas and chicken enchiladas. The abundance of fresh ingredients, a hallmark of any fine cocktail, is what Landrem thinks sets it apart from other renditions. Served in a pint glass rimmed with worm salt from Oaxaca, Landrem pairs Sánchez’s from-scratch habanero and guajillo-laden hot sauce with a shot of blanco tequila and Dos Equis XX lager. The star, however, is Landrem’s house-made sangrita. Typically relished as a non-alcoholic chaser, this one has a base of tomato, onion, garlic, and pepper that is roasted on the restaurant’s custom mesquite wood grill and then blended with cilantro and lime. It’s brightened with fresh-squeezed lemon and orange, and for a touch of natural sugar, agave nectar. Beer is a universally loved product, Landrem points out, and showcasing it in a mixed drink “gives the guest a chance to try something new and discover a different Mexican experience without leaving his comfort zone.”
Just as today’s cocktail drinker is exceptionally savvy, so are beer lovers. Michael Neff, proprietor of Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York City, describes them “as a pretty adventurous lot.” Beer tipples, he believes, aren’t mere crossover territory for IPA and pilsner fans to hopefully develop a passion for Old Fashioneds and Corpse Revivers. Rather, he thinks their popularity “speaks more to cocktail professionals expanding their repertoire to include various components. In general, bartenders are well-versed in spirits and modifying flavors, but beer and wine education has often been neglected. As this starts to change, we’re rediscovering these flavors and incorporating them more directly into our cocktail programs.” With a plethora of stellar beers now turned out at breweries across the country, Neff thinks it’s a thrilling time for customers to partake of drinks that embrace them. “As someone who makes cocktails, unique flavors are my stock in trade. The first thing I think when I taste anything new and exciting is, ‘How can I integrate this into a cocktail?’” One such example is his Candelabra Flip (Elijah Craig bourbon, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, Amaro Montenegro, fresh lemon juice, whole egg, Narragansett lager, Angostura bitters, and nutmeg) that was served during the colder months at Holiday. “I was playing around with a few separate concepts, specifically ginger, amaro, and flips. After working on them for a while, I decided to try combining all three into one cocktail. The lager was added as a vehicle for the other flavors, and it worked to tie them together pretty well,” he explains. However, as Neff points out, one caveat for the experimental bartender: beer’s coveted carbonation. The risk of losing that effervescence means certain applications simply won’t work.