While Micheladas are a summer staple, what role does a beer cocktail have when the mercury drops? Surprisingly, quite a large one. From winter-citrus shandies to scotch-whisky-heavy nightcaps paired with chocolatey porters, beer can be an exciting seasonal ingredient in the colder months, too.
“As with any cocktail ingredient, your beer choice is heavily influenced by the weather and seasons,” says Danilo Bozovic of Miami’s Swizzle Rum Bar. “Heavier, fuller beers pair so well with spices, ginger, heavy-bodied vegetables, and fruits.”
As a cocktail ingredient, beer contains multitudes. “There's no one way to work beer into your cocktails,” says Charles Joly, the co-founder of Crafthouse Cocktails and the official mixologist for the Oscars and Emmys. “It can be a complimentary topper, work as the broader foundation, be cooked down into a syrup, or even turned into bitters. The bartender's creativity is the only limit.”
Joly finds there’s “a wild diversity of flavors to work within beer,” he says. “Simple, light lagers, bitter-hoppy IPAs, rounded, nutty cacao notes in stouts, and acidic fruit flavors in sours. That said, don’t let creativity get ahead of a good cocktail.” Cocktail experts offer advice on balancing the perfect seasonal beer cocktail.
Select Your Suds
Andra “AJ” Johnson, the beverage manager at Serenata in Washington, DC, has always been a fan of working with beer and ciders in cocktails. “I worked at a place with more than 140 beers, so it was imperative I was able to incorporate the beer culture of the place into my cocktail program. Cross-utilizing your program will better engage your clientele and make them aware of other facets of your menu.”
Johnson points out that bartenders have all the resources. “Most beer companies will tell you what flavors are imparted by the hop infusion,” she says. “The best breweries will be explicit about their malt as well. From there, you can create your cocktails around the complementary and contrasting pairs of those base flavors.”
Johnson pairs chocolate, raspberry, or strawberry with beers that use chocolate malts or have a deeper roast on the barley. “If you have a beer that has Citra hops in it, you can pretty much guarantee that grapefruit will work in your cocktail,” she says.
Highlighting beer has its business benefits. “For cost-effectiveness behind the bar, we use beer on tap,” says Johnson. She’ll use tap beer as a bubbly topper for her drinks, as she would sparkling wine or soda water. “If you are looking to use it as the CO2 for a cocktail, treat the beer as you would any other sparkling beverage; don't shake it, keep it extremely cold to lock in the bubbles as long as possible, and cap it overnight if you can.”
If you don’t have access to beer on tap, however, and you have extra left over in a bottle or can, “You can always turn it into a syrup and repurpose it for another cocktail,” says Johnson.
Brew Up Flavors
“We have worked with IPAs, milk stouts, ciders, and sour ales. Anything with a fruit-forward flavor, or a prominent coffee/chocolate flavor is easy to match in a cocktail,” says Ryan McGowan, the bar manager at Roadhouse Pub and Eatery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Beer, being carbonated, gives any cocktail an extra fizz or adds to the body of the drink.”
McGowan will add IPA as a float in a Blood Orange Margarita. “The beer float adds in tangerine and peach flavors as well as a bubbly component to compliment the cocktail,” he says. “Sour ales are always fun with gin, orange cordials, or possibly vermouth, depending on the flavor in the beer.”
David Rodriguez, the “missionary of beer” at Miami’s Wynwood Brewing Co., pulls cues from foods that pair well with beer, translating those into liquid ingredients. “Any and all citrus pairs with IPAs,” he says. “Chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, etc., all pair well with porters and stouts; dark fruits, too.”
Xavier Zamudio, a bartender at Barebottle Brewery in Santa Clara, California, loves “spicing up an IPA with spicy flavors and comfort food familiar to me,” he says. “I was born and raised in San Francisco Bay, and coming from a Mexican American family, I like to play with a variety of comfort foods. Spicy dishes, decadent chocolates, and cinnamon spice—anything vibrant with color and rich in flavor is essential.”
No matter what you’re adding, it’s best to keep the ingredient list relatively short. “Most beer already provides a pretty complex base, so adding too many ingredients can make the cocktail taste muddy and dull,” says Dianne Lowry, formerly of Sweet Liberty in Miami and now of The Bedford and Macchina in Brooklyn.
Joly adds, “Treat the beer like any other ingredients, and make sure the sum of the parts makes sense.”
With the groundwork laid, get creative. McGowan makes his own suds-spiked Espresso Martini, calling for vodka, Kahlua, and simple syrup, “topped with the nitro beer to give the cocktail a fake 'head,' as the espresso would have created,” he says.
Remember to use the beer component to top the cocktail; don’t shake it with the rest of the ingredients. “Beer is carbonated, and for that reason, you don’t want to release all the gas when you can add fizz to a cocktail,” says Rodriguez. “I’ll add beer at the end, to top off a drink or stir gently with other ingredients.”
While Micheladas and Shandies are standards, you can use beer to lean further into seasonal flavors. Josue Castillo from Boston’s Pazza on Porter opts to match stouts with amari, “and dark spirits like rum and whiskey also go well,” he says. “Ciders can go with any flavor, depending on the type of cider that is being used. An ale like a cream ale would pair it up with a spicy cocktail.”
When it comes down to it, though, there are no hard-and-fast rules and a plethora of options: Make a frothy flip with pedro ximenez sherry and top it up with a malty porter; lean into bright winter citrus and spices of the season; balance weisse beers with ginger syrups; or top up a Paloma with a bitter IPA. Experiment to find your perfect winter beer cocktail match.