As a dedicated craft beer geek, there are certain trends in the beer world I try to ignore, hoping they’ll go away. One of these crazes is the rise of beer cocktails, which has bartenders blending beer, spirits, and juice to create funky new flavors.
It’s been easy to stay away from these frivolous (and, admittedly, sort of fun) beer blend-ups until recently, when Red Robin Gourmet Burgers introduced a pair of the drinks for the masses. This counts as a pop culture crossover of sorts for the beer cocktail, taking the trend from the independent gastropubs and funky beer bars into a national, casual-dining chain.
I’m all for creative expression, but as a beer geek, it makes me uneasy to see people messing with the precise flavors and sensations a brewer worked so obsessively to create. It’s like someone airbrushing the Mona Lisa to jazz the old girl up a bit, or making a dubstep remix of the Beatles’ Let it Be. Whatever happened to simply enjoying the work of a great artist as he intended?
Love it or hate it, the idea of mixing things with beer goes back more than a dozen centuries. There’s record of a beer, wine, and mead mashup being served at the funeral of King Midas in 700 B.C., and colonists in 18th century America used to enjoy a “Flip,” where a red hot iron was plunged into a pitcher of beer, molasses, and rum, flash-roasting the grains and caramelizing the sugars in the blend, creating a very unique tipple indeed.
These days, examples of people taking the flavor of their beers to new places by adding ingredients can be found around the globe. In Northern Mexico, the Michelada is made by blending cerveza with lime juice and dashes of hot sauce, soy sauce, and Worcestershire—and serving it in a glass with a salted rim. When the weather gets hot in the U.K., the British are known to enjoy a “shandy,” a 50-50 blend of beer and lemonade—or ginger ale or whatever other sweet and fruity fluid they think will make a beer extra refreshing.
One of the bars at the forefront of the beer cocktail movement here in America is Denver’s Euclid Hall, a gastropub that blends a solid menu of craft beers from Colorado and beyond with dressed up comfort foods. It’s a place that likes to take the familiar and serve it up with a delicious twist—like their chicken and sourdough waffles with black pepper Béchamel and maple gastrique, and their wild mushroom poutine, a grab of hand-cut fries topped with porcini gravy and cheddar cheese curds.
The beverage menu at Euclid Hall features intricate beer cocktails, like Plant City Patio Punch, a mixture of Pueblo Viejo tequila, Luxardo Triplum triple sec, black pepper simple syrup, jalapeño-strawberry purée, and Kölsch beer.
Euclid Hall’s beer cocktail program was pioneered by Ryan Conklin, who started playing around with blending beer and booze a few years ago. These days it’s bar manager Jessica Cann who leads the charge to find new and interesting ways to mix beer, liquor, and whatever else is on hand.
“Beer cocktails are a lot of fun, because we have a ton of craft beers in Colorado, and it’s a playing field that can go in any direction,” says Cann. “We’re always trying to keep things fresh and interesting here, and beer cocktails help us do just that.”
New recipes come through a process Cann calls “The Cocktail Lab.”
“I ask everyone on the bar staff to create a beer cocktail, and then we vote on what’s best,” she says. The winners often make the menu.
So what makes a good beer cocktail? “It’s really all about balance,” Cann says. “It can’t be all booze or syrup—you have to be able to taste the beer as well.”
“Take our Fresh Prince,” she says, referring to their blend of Avery IPA, Jack & Jenny Pear Brandy, Mandarin vodka, and lemon. “The hops from the IPA pull out the pear notes of the brandy, and the citrus notes from the Mandarin vodka and the lemon,” she says. “It all works in harmony.”
Euclid Hall also tries to work in harmony with the seasons. As the days get cooler, beer cocktails like the Naughty Girl Scout make their way onto the menu, a hearty concoction of milk stout, peppermint schnapps, and chocolate liqueur.
“You’d be surprised who’s dinking these,” says Cann. “We get curious beer nerds, cocktail enthusiasts, and the other day we had a table of elderly ladies who drank three apiece!”
This broad appeal might explain why a mainstream causal-dining restaurant like Red Robin has decided to get in on the beer cocktail trend.
“I’d been hearing about beer cocktails for a long time, and thought they’d be a great fit with our gourmet burgers,” says Donna Ruch, master mixologist for Red Robin.
This summer, the national chain launched a pair of “can-crafted cocktails,” refreshing blends of beer, liquor, and citrus juices—one based on Coors Light, the other on Blue Moon.
The Coors Light cocktail blends that beer with ginger liquor and lemonade, topped with fresh-squeezed lemons, and the Blue Moon offering adds SVEDKA Clementine Vodka, orange juice, and fresh lime juice to the popular Belgian-style wheat beer.
They are called “can-crafted” because they are served in distinctive aluminum glasses that look very much like beer cans, but with sipping straws poking out of their tops and slices of fruit clinging to the open edge of the vessels.
“I wanted our customers to know at first sight that they were looking at a beer cocktail, and the cans help to do just that,” says Ruch. “People get it right away.”
“People see them going by on a tray and are like, ‘what is THAT!’” says Marti Schenck, general manager of Red Robin’s Rockaway, New Jersey, location. “It’s something new, something different, and people really seem excited about them.”
This isn’t the first time Red Robin has done something a little fun and funky with beer. Last fall they launched their first beer milkshake, a blend of Samuel Adams Oktoberfest, vanilla ice cream, and caramel syrup, all served up in a Samuel Adams perfect pint glass. It was a hit, and its success launched a string of seasonally themed beer milkshakes that have followed.
Red Robin’s senior vice president and chief menu and marketing officer Denny Marie Post thinks the same will happen with the beer cocktails. “Feedback has been great so far,” says Post. “We’re seeing great pull across all generations, male and female alike.”
While there are no immediate plans for a follow up to the can-crafted cocktails, it’s almost a sure thing that Red Robin has something a little heartier up its sleeves for the fall.
“We’re in the lead here,” Post says about being the first national chain to offer beer cocktails, “and we’re leaning in.”
Back at Euclid Hall, Cann is thinking about what’s next. “Beer cocktails are a trend, and like fashion, I don’t see them being a long-term staple of the bar scene—but it’s fun for now,” she says. According to Cann, avant-garde mixed drink fans have started to move on to blended wine drinks, and that’s fine by her.
“Brewers put all this time and thought into brewing these craft beers, and we go pouring all this stuff into it,” Cann laments. “Myself, I’d rather just drink a nice beer.”
I couldn’t agree more, Jessica. But those beer cocktails are pretty tasty.