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Nuts & Bolts

July 11, 2012

Slate: Elevating the beer cocktail

— The big wet story of this incandescent summer concerns your ice-cold beer, America. Ask yourself: Has that pint in your hand been sugared or spiced or juiced up? Repurposed as a mixer? Elevated with a jigger of liquor?

 All the papers are onto you. News flows from all corners about happy marriages of stout and bourbon and about elderflower liqueurs fragrantly flirting with pale ales. Last May, Frank Bruni reported on "the advance of beer cocktails" (called such "whether or not the drinks include hard liquor"); this May brought notice of the book "Beer Cocktails: 50 Superbly Crafted Cocktails that Liven Up Your Lagers and Ales" (including the Maru - a fruity booze-up inside your Sapporo).

 The mass-market gateway to the new frontier stands in St. Louis, where Anheuser-Busch HQ has launched Shock Top Lemon Shandy, a wheat beer "perfectly complemented by spices and natural lemonade flavor." And meanwhile the kids on happening Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles are infusing gin with hops, mixing it to make "Gin & Chronic," and telling LA Weekly that it evokes a cottonmouthed hint of pilsner.

America, you drink 20 gallons of beer per head per year, and you're definitely adulterating some of it. Yet, despite the efforts of cunning commerce and supple craft, the beer cocktail has never taken off as a respectable beverage. This is uncharted territory, exciting and dangerous. I sense your keen thirst for helpful hints, pro tips and historical context.

 America, I'm bringing over a 12-pack of pocket notes on the theory and practice of beer cocktails.

  I shall begin by cracking open an Anchor Porter for (1) Porter Sangaree, or Porteree: dark beer with a dollop of something sweet and a garnish of grated nutmeg. This here partic'lar porteree relies on a dribble of maraschino liqueur.

 For background about the general history of the sangaree, consult the scholarship of Dr. Cocktail. For a classic take on the porteree, see David Wondrich in Esquire. For a different mood, follow the whims of Food Newsie: "Add one or two shots (depending on your childhood) of Limoncino." For a stout sangaree dressed up with a drizzle of brandy, look in "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending." For actual complete idiots, look to the comments on Huffington Post stories.

  There, beneath a slide show highlighting beer cocktails, you can see ninnies dismissing the category categorically: "What a waste of good beer." I anticipate that similar philistines will object to the article you are reading, and though they are scarcely worth the procatalepsis, I will point them to the fine tradition of the (2) Shandygaff.

   Charles Dickens described this concoction, sometimes rendered Shandy Gaff, as "an alliance between beer and pop." Since the 1800s, some of us have found it agreeable to twirl together earthy English ale and snappy ginger beer. Each elixir celebrates the other - an herbal interplay you could help further along with a squeeze of lemon or dash of orange bitters. The old-school shandygaff is great drink for such outdoor activities as reading detective novels on a patio, attempting hedge mazes, and officiating badminton matches from a hammock.

  The shandygaff has evolved into (3) the Shandy. One version, often known as Lemon Shandy, involves trickling an ounce or two of fresh lemonade into a shy little beer. In addition to Shock Top, Samuel Adams, Harp, Saranac and Labatt are pushing forward into the realm of selling premixed shandies along these lines. In so doing, they follow the English brewers who bottle the most famous sort of modern shandy, an alliance of lager and "lemonade."

  I had been keenly excited to disenjoy my first shandy. Prejudging it as cloying silliness, I had rough drafts of fine insults all ready to roll. Thus, I was disappointed to find that a basic dive-bar shandy made with lager and Sprite is an easy pleasure. It is kind of sweet, yeah, but only half so sweet as soda and twice as interesting, with the two flavors fusing into a zesty third.

  In France, a shandy is a PanacheÃÅ. In Germany, it is a Radler, which belongs to a category of beer cocktails described, naturally, by a mammoth compound noun: Biermischgetränke. In time for the Olympics, someone please invent a drinking game predicated on exploiting the many worldwide variations on this beer spritzer so that a Cuban dissident rooting against his native land's boxers quaffs a Bul (beer, ginger ale, lime juice), while an Argentinian watching basketball sips a mix of lager and orange Fanta with every basket.

 I strongly recommend experimenting with shandy adaptations. The alliance over ice of an I.P.A. and a gourmet grapefruit soda will fortify your yuppie picnic. But maybe you're playing around with something less rarified, like the Broadway, a combo of lager and Coca-Cola, which is full of brightly bitter surprises. In that case, use a beer that is neither conspicuously awesome nor flagrantly crappy. Red Stripe works nicely, and you will be thankful, as day spills into evening, that its squat bottle has a low center of gravity.

  Beware of mixing lager and tonic if you're in a fragile mood. Its bitterness is nothing less than poignant. A member of the beer-cocktail tasting panel I assembled described the Tonic Shandy as "something you would drink, alone, in the tropics while thinking about that woman you really should have written a letter to before it was too late."

  The point should be obvious, but we would be remiss not to state outright that the lightness of the shandy recommends it as a summertime refreshment. Like (4) the Cincinnati Cocktail - one part muscular microbrew, one part chilled soda water, no ice, all good - it's good for when you want to spend the whole afternoon in the sun drinking while keeping your wits about you. It's also good for when you just spent the whole afternoon in the sun drinking and need to ease up before - "Oh, oooh, really sorry. Let me pay for [the next round/the cleaning bill/the cost of pet cremation]."

  Let us briefly lurch down Mexico-way to consider the (5) Michelada and similar drinks such as the Chelada and the Chavela.

    Translating michelada, we encounter a diminutive endearment: My little cold one, it chimes, in a tone indicating that you should cherish its vivid assembly of lime juice, seasoning, salt and Mexican lager. Perhaps this explains why people who get dogmatic about the drink - quibbling over nuances regarding Maggi and Worcestershire sauces - tend toward possessiveness and protectiveness. Many people have many opinions about when a michelada can be called a michelada, but none deny that whatever you call it, it tastes best served at a resort-hotel swim-up bar.

  The matter of adding tomato juice to a Mexican beer, as in a Cerveza Preparada, brings us to the matter of (6) Red Beer, also known as Red Eye: beer mixed with tomato juice. Jane and Michael Stern put a few away in Oregon for their book "Two for the Road," and report that "the exact ratio can vary from an effervescent five to one, in which the beer is merely flavored, to a two-to-one mix as fruity as a drink in a health-food juice bar." (Similar drinks include Red Rooster, Tomboy, Bloody Beer, Red Eye  ala Cocktail, The Brutus and the kinetic Ugly.)

  Red beer, made in the spiceless traditional fashion, isn't terribly thrilling, but it has a certain country-club appeal, a cheerful WASP calm. Goes well with Triscuits, spills well on tennis whites.

  In its brunchiness, the red beer bears some relation to the (7) Beermosa, which is perfectly self-explanatory and only mildly gross. 

 This brings us to (8) the Boilermaker - beer with a shot of whiskey in it - but are we sure we want to go there? Its name is redolent of Rust Belt bars serving 50-cent beers at 10 in the morning. Its tradition embraces the Beer Buster (beer with vodka and Tabasco) and the Dog's Nose (beer with gin in it). (Actually, the Dog's Nose might not count, as it dates from an era when Londoners put gin in everything.)

 The uncountable number of variations on the basic boilermaker points us to a law of human nature: Anything that can be put in beer will be put in beer, including peaty scotches, fruity liqueurs and other beers.

            

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