"Beer cocktail" sounds like the ultimate oxymoron. Is it beer? Is it a cocktail? Is it a little of both, and if so, why the hell would you go and do something like that?
The term refers to any number of concoctions made by combining beer with spirits and/or other ingredients. If you've ever had a boilermaker—a shot glass of whiskey dropped into a pint of beer—then you've had a beer cocktail. But today's beer cocktails are more creative and delicious than ever, and they're popping up like mad on menus all over town.
"I think the reason you're seeing so many beer cocktails around is because Cleveland is such a beer-driven city," says David Haynes, bar manager at Dante in Tremont. "The same way that wine really drives the culture of consumption in Northern California, I think beer does so in Northeast Ohio."
Given the explosive growth of the craft beer movement here, it's only natural to want to start playing around with all those tasty new brews. Whether it's a chocolate stout, a fruit-laced lambic, or an explosively hoppy IPA, now more than ever, beer brings a host of unique flavors to the cocktail party.
"Beer is just one more tool in a bartender's tool bag," adds Haynes.
One of the oldest and most refreshing beer cocktails is the shandy—roughly equal parts beer and lemonade. In Germany they're called radlers—or cyclists—where they are appreciated by riders for their extremely low alcohol content (often as low as two percent). Market Garden Brewery and Nano Brew in Ohio City both offer excellent versions of the thirst-quenching beverage made by combining fresh-brewed beer with house-made lemonade.
Another classic beer cocktail is the michelada, Mexico's delicious and unassailable hangover remedy. While there are countless variations, most combine cold cerveza, lime juice and hot sauce in a salt-rimmed glass. Lopez Southwest Kitchen in Cleveland Heights recently created a version of the michelada that they're calling the Mexican Shandalita.
"We kept getting requests for micheladas, so we decided to put our own spin on the drink," explains bar manager Mark Goyetche.
The drink combines Breckenridge Agave Wheat, agave nectar, fresh squeezed lime juice, habanero hot sauce and a couple drops of mole bitters. The rim is dusted with a combination of salt, sugar and dehydrated lemon, lime, and orange.
"It's sweet and tart—a great summer drink," Goyetche says.
Industrious bartenders also are discovering that beer cocktails can be used to convert die-hard beer drinkers into adventurous cocktail drinkers.
"It's a way to nudge beer drinkers over to cocktails," says Emily Pavlik of Mahall's in Lakewood. "Beer cocktails push them out of their comfort zone."
So Pavlik concocted the Cleveland Spritz, an odd arrangement of fresh red pepper juice, tequila, lime, agave, cayenne and Miller High Life. She describes the drink as a cross betwe en a michelada and a margarita.
"I wanted to make a drink with High Life because so many of our customers like that beer," she says. "I thought this would be a nice way to incorporate the beer into a cocktail."
Just as bartenders are using beer cocktails to convert beer buffs into cocktail drinkers, they also are employing them to persuade cocktail snobs into drinking more beer.
"There are always those people who say they don't like beer," says David Hridel of Spice Kitchen & Bar. By being a little sneaky behind the bar, Hridel can encourage the anti-beer crowd to sample at least some beer. "Instead of calling it a beer cocktail, which sounds like a glass of beer tweaked with other ingredients, I sell it as a cocktail topped with a little beer."
Hridel uses beer much like a bartender adding a splash of soda or champagne to a cocktail. "The carbonation lightens it up while softening and spreading out the flavors."
Of course, there are those out there who view beer cocktails as a sin against nature. "Why go and ruin a perfectly good beer?" is the typical response from intransigent beer enthusiasts.
"Out of respect to Matthew, our head brewer, we don't sell beer cocktails," Ted Lipovan, owner of Fat Heads, told me when I asked if they carried any. "Brewers don't always want you to use what is considered a finished product as an ingredient."
But fortunately for fans of the increasingly popular trend of beer cocktails, that belief is not universal.
"I'm a brewer, I understand where those folks are coming from," says Eric Anderson, beverage director at Tremont Tap House. "But if it's okay to cook with beer, what's wrong with putting it in a cocktail?"