Embracing the Creative Niche of Craft Beer Cocktails

By: Alyssa L. Ochs

The basic concept of the cocktail revolves around mixing ingredients with traditional spirits, such as vodka, gin, whiskey and rum. However, craft beer can blend surprisingly well into cocktails, too – if you only have an open mind and give it a chance!

  Mixing beer with other ingredients is nothing new, but it has never caught on popularly in the brewing industry. This drink strategy is still attempted mainly by at-home mixologists looking to entertain guests at parties. But as an increasing number of breweries are now branching out to offer wine and cocktails for non-beer drinkers, there are excellent opportunities to add craft beer cocktails to the menu for an even greater diversity of choice.

What’s In Craft Beer Cocktails?

  Although you can use any kind of beer to make a cocktail, certain beer styles lend themselves better than others to mixing in creative ways. It is very common to see light, easily palatable beers, such as lagers and blonde ales, in beer cocktails because they are not overpowering and can easily take on the flavors of other ingredients. Dark and rich beers, namely stouts and porters, work well with cocktail recipes because of their inherent sweetness and full-bodied nature that pairs well with chocolate, coffee, caramel, berries and vanilla.

Some adventurous mixologists have found success mixing bright and hoppy IPAs with other ingredients to tame down a bold beer and make it more versatile for different palates. With a bit of mixing practice, certain cocktails, such as the Long Island iced tea, can work exceptionally well with an IPA or hoppy pale ale. Aside from the traditional beers that you’ll find at breweries, hard ciders are becoming especially popular in cocktails because of the sweet and tart flavors that work well with fruity mixers.

  Some of the most common ingredients that you’ll find mixed with craft beer to make cocktails are non-alcoholic beverages, such as lemonade, orange juice, sparkling soda and ginger beer. To give beer cocktails an extra kick, mixologists can use hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, or to make them sweet, they can add a bit of simple syrup or fruit-based liquor, which also increases the overall alcohol content. Garnishes make craft beer cocktails festive and fun, so, depending on the flavor profile, you can top them off with a lemon wedge, orange slice, cherry or salted glass rim.

Beer Cocktail Recipe Ideas

  Within the realm of spirit-based cocktails are the tried-and-true favorites, such as the Manhattan, gimlet or martini. Even though craft beer cocktails aren’t quite as famous, there are still traditional recipes that are easy to make and familiar to recognize.

  For example, a summer shandy recipe may mix wheat beer, lemonade, a splash of sparkling soda and lemon garnish. If you prefer beer over Champagne, try a beermosa, a beer-centric version of the mimosa that mixes a lager with orange juice and has an orange slice for the garnish. Yet one of the most common beer cocktails you will see on brewery menus is the michelada, a tamer take on a traditional bloody mary. A michelada mixes a light Mexican lager beer with clamato or tomato juice, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, Tajín seasoning and a lime wedge for garnish.

  Beyond these classic recipes, brewery bartenders can use their imaginations and get creative with mixing their own beer. Beer cocktails are ideal drinks for brunch because they’re light, fun and don’t take themselves too seriously. At your favorite local brewery, would you try a porter mixed with cold-brew iced coffee and a bit of cream? Or perhaps you might kick your weekend off with a peach-inspired beer cocktail that mixes an IPA with vodka, peach nectar and lime juice? Of course, these are just a few examples, but the sky is the limit with how you can alter your beer to create interesting combinations that excite the tastebuds and entice beer fans to walk into your tasting room.

The Appeal of Craft Beer Cocktails

  When local craft beer scenes started emerging all over the country in the 2000s and 2010s, brewers focused on making traditional beers well, with some experimentation thrown in to keep things interesting. But these days, some beer aficionados will tell you that the craft beer market is oversaturated and that too many breweries are producing similar products for any one of them to stand out as unique and be successful.

  In many places, breweries have become social gathering places, food destinations and event spaces just as much as they are beer providers. Consumers are always looking for the next big thing from their local breweries, whether it is a rotating schedule of events, versatile venues that welcome kids and dogs or expanded menus that cater to diverse tastes.

  This evolution of modern breweries creates opportunities for craft beer cocktails to emerge and brewpubs to stand out in the competition. These cocktails have a unique appeal because they can be lighter and more balanced than a standard pint of beer. When you mix beer with other ingredients, the result is often a more complex body, enhanced carbonation, less acidity and altered sweetness or bitterness, depending on the desired style. Beer-inspired cocktails also challenge brewers and consumers to rethink everything they thought they knew about the taste of beer and celebrate the changing seasons.

Breweries Giving Beer Cocktails a Try

  However, you still won’t find a list of craft beer cocktails on most breweries’ menus today. The trend has yet to catch on significantly, as these drinks remain niche and are only offered by the occasional brewery bartender with a cocktail background. Yet this only makes breweries with an open mind and spirit of experimentation stand out in the industry even more.

  Located in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Brew Lab 101 is a family-friendly brewery and cidery with an extensive cocktail list. In addition to serving spirit cocktails, Brew Lab 101 also serves beer and cider cocktails. Examples are the A La Chelada, a Mexican lager paired with bloody mary mix, and Dill with Pickle Beer, a blend of a lager or blonde ale with pickle juice and served with a big slice of pickle.

  Dry Dock Brewing of Aurora, Colorado, introduced its Docktails line of drinks based on classic cocktails. The brewery’s first releases in this series were a beer-based strawberry basil daiquiri, cucumber margarita and paloma. Another Colorado brewery, Living the Dream Brewing Company, has released beer cocktails in cans to tap into this market. Living the Dream has produced beers replicating classic cocktails that people know and love, such as the old fashioned, Moscow mule, margarita and mojito. The Durango, Colorado-based Ska Brewing has offered a barrel-aged whiskey sour and raspberry julep on its menu to combine both beer and spirits – the best of both worlds.

  Meanwhile, some breweries have also become interested in distilling spirits and dabbled in both industries at the same time. This unique craft beverage model lends itself well to craft cocktail mixing and individual experimentation. Maplewood Brewing & Distilling in Chicago, Illinois, is an excellent example of this model and has developed beer-inspired spirits, such as the Fat Pug American Malt Whiskey, inspired by the brewery’s popular oatmeal stout. Other Chicago breweries, including Burnt City Brewing and Casa Humilde, have been leaning into the michelada-inspired cocktail and hard soda trends to test the waters of alternative beverages and meet the demands of customers who want greater variety.

  Proper Brewing Company in Salt Lake City, Utah and Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York are a couple of other breweries to keep an eye on if you are interested in what’s next for beer cocktails. In addition to breweries that produce their own in-house beer, trendy craft beer bars are also jumping on the beer cocktail trend. Vandaag in New York City, Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen in San Francisco and The Tripel in Playa del Rey, California, are just a few examples of bars experimenting with beer mixology.

Integrating Beer Cocktails Into the Menu

  Indeed, some challenges are involved in creating beer cocktails and serving them at local breweries. To start, traditionalists may scoff at the very notion of mixing beer with anything else and reject the idea because it ruins the way beer was intended to be. Adding beer cocktails to a brewery’s menu showcases the mixology talents of the brewery team, but it can also require additional training for the staff. In these post-pandemic times, many breweries are still struggling to retain staff at all, and adding more work to their teams could put a considerable strain on more essential operations.

  Yet there are plenty of potential benefits to adding craft beer cocktails onto a brewery’s menu and seeing if this trend resonates with a loyal customer base. It may be worth offering discounted specials on beer cocktails on particular nights of the week to entice customers to try them. Seasonal-inspired beer cocktails featuring the flavors of pumpkin, apple and cranberry can be festive additions to a rotating menu lineup. Yet it’s essential to provide detailed descriptions of what is contained in each beer cocktail so that patrons understand exactly what they are and appreciate the flavor pairings. Mixing other ingredients with beer on tap is a great starting point for local breweries to try this trend, but there are also opportunities to branch out into pre-mixed, packaged beer cocktails for retail sale.

  It’s impossible to tell whether craft beer cocktails will catch on in the industry in a big way or whether pure, authentic beer will always be the preferred drink of choice in the end. But for now, it’s definitely a fun way to switch up your standard drink order at the local watering hole or get crafty with a few ingredients in your kitchen for a cozy night at home.

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