Beer Cocktails & Beer Blends

This article first appeared in All About Beer magazine in 1996. It was revised in 2003.

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To most brewmasters, their finished product is a masterwork, perfectly balanced and pleasing in every regard. To mix it with another beer, or worse, some foreign substance, is like whipping out a marker and drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But as with wines and whiskeys, beers have long been blended to balance flavors, to mask unfavorable characteristics, or to create something wholly new that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Blending began early in the history of brewing. When early brewers had a batch go bad, they would often save it to mix with their next effort in hopes that a renewed fermentation and the flavor of the younger beer would reverse or at least mellow the faults of the old. The ancient Scots are thought to have sweetened their heather ales with a form of mead called bee ale.

:: Blending & the Origin of Porter ::

Porter, one of the most revered beer styles, might never have existed if it were not for blending. But the story of porter is especially interesting because the blending was done first by the drinkers, not by the brewers.

In London, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, taxes on malt and coal had led the London brewers to reduce the amount of malt they used, and to kiln their malt with wood fires rather than coal. The result was a brown beer that they hopped more heavily to make up for its shortcomings. But drinkers missed stronger, sweeter ales, so they began mixing the London beers with others produced by specialty brewers, known as ale drapers, to bring back the flavor they desired. They also were drawn to the new pale ales being made in Burton and imported into London for the enjoyment of the well-to-do. But the common people could not afford them, nor could the London brewers — hindered by soft water — make them.

For drinkers, the solution was to create their own compromises by ordering mixtures of brown ale and sweeter ales, or brown ales and pale ales, or all three together. Weary publicans found themselves going to three casks to fill one tankard. London brewers, losing business to specialty and Burton brewers, attempted to produce an economical alternative by aging their own brown ales for up to a year, and then blending the resulting “stale ales” with fresh brown ales to create a more fully flavored compromise. But the cost of storing and aging huge quantities of beer was prohibitive.

Finally, in about 1722, the brewers hit upon a combination of malt, brewing and aging that duplicated the qualities of the blended beers in one brew, at a price that everyone could live with. These beers were the first porters, and they were an almost instant success.

:: Belgian Blends ::

At about the same time, across in the channel, Belgian brewers were learning to blend beers for an entirely different reason and creating a new beer style — gueuze. When a young lambic beer, still containing fermentable sugars, is introduced to a more mature lambic, farther along in its dance with wild yeasts and other microorganisms, a second fermentation ensues, creating new carbonation, extra alcohol, and combining the flavors of the two brews to create something wholly unique. It is a marriage between youth and experience.

“The making of a classic gueuze rests wholly on the judgment of the blender,” Michael Jackson notes in his Beer Companion. The blender must know everything about a cask of lambic — what month it was first fermented, the weather and temperature cycles since it was laid down, the size of its cask and whether it has been aging in the attic or the cellar — in order to decide when and in what quantity it will be added to a young lambic.

The proportions are critical. The older lambic is more expensive, but adds aroma, depth and complexity. The younger confers new life and freshness, but in larger quantities creates an overly lactic character. One producer told Jackson that his gueuze was always a blend of between 40 and 50 casks. Obviously, this is where brewing goes far beyond craft and science, and enters into the realm of art.

:: Colonial American Potions ::

Meanwhile, back in the pubs and taverns, our story returns to earth, and the fevered imaginations of beer drinkers and bartenders alike. Beer historian Gregg Smith notes that there are hundreds of centuries-old recipes for beverages based in beer and enhanced with, well, whatever. And they are not for the faint of heart. Turkish Blood was a blend of English ale and red burgundy wine in equal measures. Purl or Dog’s Nose was beer laced with gin and spices. Buttered Beer included spices, sugar, egg yolks and butter.

The taverns of Colonial America were famed for their flips, punches and possets. Calibogus was a mix of beer and rum, served hot or cold. Marrathan added sugar to that mix, and Tiff topped it with buttered toast. Whistle Belly Vengeance substituted crusts of brown bread for the toast, added molasses, and was served as hot as the drinker could stand it. Rumfustian was made from a quart of beer, a bottle of white wine or sherry, half a pint of gin, the yolks of 12 eggs, orange peel, nutmeg and sugar, sweetened further with a half pint of rum.

Syllabub called for a quart of ale, grated nutmeg and sugar in a china bowl placed under a calm and willing cow, who would stand still while her milk was drawn into the initial ingredients. The warm milk’s plunge from the udder to the bowl was necessary to make the mixture frothy, and a handful of currants plumped before the fire topped the creation.

Possets were especially favored as cold remedies. A typical ale posset featured a slice of buttered toast soaked in a quart of ale, topped with grated nutmeg and sugar, heated and served with a pint of sherry.

The preeminent drink, however, was Flip, the bane of many a barnyard’s mother hen. A single serving began with two quarts of beer and a half-pint of gin, to which were added four beaten eggs and four ounces of sugar. The mixture was poured back and forth from one pitcher to another to make it foam, then served in a large (!) glass and topped with nutmeg. Flip could also be mulled with a red-hot iron poker (a loggerhead) from the fireplace, creating an agreeably burnt flavor, and then topped with rum.

You will note that all of these concoctions tended to be highly spiced. They were invented long before fermentation and hygiene were understood and appreciated; many barrels of beer, ale, wine or cider turned out to be almost undrinkable by themselves, but with the time, labor and ingredients invested, they could not be wasted. A heavy dose of spices could mask the off-flavors and reclaim the spoiled goods for use.

With the development of brewing science and technology, most beers came to stand on their own. But still today, there are beers that are well known for being mixed with other items. Pale, acidic and refreshing, Berliner Weisse beers are famous for being served with a dash of woodruff or raspberry syrup. They are also enjoyed hot with lemon juice, or laced with Kümmel (caraway) schnapps, or a splash of fresh orange juice, cassis or grenadine.

:: New Excitement for Old Classics ::

“Beer cocktails may offend purists,” Michael Jackson notes, “but some of these work well, and they are a commendable effort to add excitement to an old classic.”

One such moment of excitement was recently related by Charlie Papazian, president of the Association of Brewers. On a pilgrimage to Bavaria, he visited the monastic brewery of Andechs on the shores of the Ammersee. At the adjoining stube, as he prepared to sample the malty Andeker beers, he found the locals, in great numbers, drinking them mixed half and half with Coca-Cola. Upon inquiring, he was informed that it was a tradition of long standing.

In Japan, beer and cola is known as a Broadway, a mix which has enjoyed popularity with young professionals. Other beer-based treats for those with the Yen to try them include the Caribbean Night, beer and coffee liqueur, and the South Wind, beer and melon liqueur. The Japanese also enjoy a Red Eye, beer and tomato juice, but that is a fairly universal combination, also known as Tomato Beer, a Red Rooster, and, when hit with Tabasco sauce, a Ruddy Mary.

In England, two traditional although somewhat passé beer blends are Shandy, ale mixed with ginger beer, and Lager and Lime, a light lager with lime juice. A twist on the latter which is currently turning heads in the United Kingdom is Lager and Blackcurrent. According to Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Lindsay Marshall, it is a vile purple in color, equally vile in taste, but everyone looks at you when you order it, thus saving time in the initial stages of the mating process.

Snakebite, a mix of beer and cider, is said to speed inebriation, but it is open to debate whether the added velocity is worth the taste. A special version of Snakebite is Guinness stout and Woodpecker cider, known to those with the courage to order it aloud as a Black Pecker.

Speaking of Guinness, the world’s classic beer-based cocktail is half Guinness and half champagne, a Black Velvet. Even diehard purists admit that here are two ingredients that are truly worthy of one another.

:: The American Beer Cocktail ::

In the U.S., the use (and abuse) of beer has proceeded with the least amount of restraint, probably due to the sad state of American beer in the early twentieth century. Frankly, for most of the 1900’s, American beer needed something, and what the brewers wouldn’t put into it, the drinkers did. The Boilermaker, a shot of whiskey in a glass of beer, gained its popularity at bars adjoining factories where a lot of alcohol needed to be sucked up in a short time. The Depth Charge — a shot glass of whiskey dropped right into the beer glass — was no doubt invented by a clever dentist.

In Central and South America, the Submarino substituted tequila for the Boilermaker’s whiskey with predictable results and more than a few siestas. In the Caribbean, the Steel Bottom paired light beer and light rum to create a drink that enabled drinkers to hear steel bands playing while the musicians were still on break.

In our nation’s capital, the Brickskeller, a legendary bar for those who prefer their beers straight up, has numerous “beertails” buried on page nineteen of its menu. The Black Bart takes the beer and cola mix one step farther, making it a dark beer and cola. The Teacher Creature is made with Scottish ale, Teacher’s Highland Cream and Drambuie. And you will find the American fraternity party classic, Skip and Go Naked, made with beer, lemon juice and gin, and a dash of grenadine for color. (Imagine the drink’s color without the grenadine.) Tom Tiemann, today a professor of economics, notes that to be authentic, this undergraduate classic should actually be made in a clean garbage can and mixed with a ski pole. “This was a great punch to have with a band. Somebody doing Motown covers and a lot of Skip and Goes… it was 19-year-old heaven.”

It would be a daunting task indeed to keep track of all the beer-based cocktails being created at the bars of America, but the story of Stephanie Voss, a private detective in San Francisco, may prove sufficiently illustrative of the genre. Voss was in the Midwest interviewing a bodybuilder who had been working as security for Hollywood types and sending threats to prospective clients to drum up more business. He refused to talk until they had shared a few drinks. And the drink du jour was a Dr. Pepper Shot, a shot glass of flaming amaretto dropped into a beer glass and then chugged. “It does taste like Dr. Pepper,” Voss noted, “but this is not a recommendation.”

In the clouded history of the beertail, a few domestic brewers have been unable to resist the temptation to mix their own. In the 1970’s, Pittsburgh Brewing’s Iron City Beer found itself in bed with Gatorade in the ill-starred Hop n’ Gator, and National Brewing presided at a shotgun wedding of malt liquor and wine in an effort to cash in on the mercifully brief “cold duck” craze with Malt Duck. The empty cans, at least, are of value to collectors.

With the variety and quality of beers available today, you would think that individual blending was no longer necessary. But indeed, the microbrewing boom has only fueled imaginations, with some happy results.

When out at a beer bar or brewpub, Charlie Papazian frequently mixes his beers, although he warns that if you’re asking for more than two in one glass, you’d better know the bartender. Why mix? If a brewpub has an extremely hoppy IPA, and a very light and undistinguished ale, neither of which he’s in the mood for, Papazian might ask for a half and half, and end up with a nicely balanced pint.

:: The Genius of Judy Ashworth ::

But for a truly inspired blend, Papazian and many others pay homage to Judy Ashworth. The publican of Lyon’s Brewery of Dublin, California, Ashworth is a pioneer and perhaps the leading alchemist in the blending of microbrewed beers to producing combinations the brewers, as talented as they are, never dreamed of. And the names of her creations are as romantic and evocative as the drinks themselves. Imagine “A Foggy Night in the Sierras,” a blend of Anchor’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Prepare to get “Lost in the Orchard Again,” with Pyramid Apricot Ale and Old Foghorn.

For the holidays, consider a “Drunken Turkey,” a blend of Foghorn and Cranberry Ale from San Andreas Brewing in Hollister, California. Or brace yourself for “The Ultimate Hop Head Ale,” Sierra Nevada Bigfoot in the same glass with Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, a wildly hoppy blend available only in January when both are on tap. Ashworth’s patriotic creation, “Paul Revere’s Last Ride,” three quarters Liberty Ale and one quarter Old Foghorn, has gained national popularity and is also referred to as a “Foggerty.”

“You just have to be very careful,” Ashworth notes, “that you respect the two beers, and that their flavors enhance one another.” For example, with “Anchor’s Aweigh,” a splash of Old Foghorn tops off a pint of Anchor Wheat Beer. Riding on a lemon wheel, the darker barleywine swirls gracefully down through the pale beer, like the first tendrils of fog rolling onto San Francisco Bay, and imparts just the right touch of flavor on its way. For those with a sweet tooth, Ashworth’s Raspberry Stout starts with a small amount of Raspberry Ale carefully topped with an Imperial Stout; as the ale rises through the stout, it is said to taste just like a raspberry chocolate truffle.

With such a beer in hand, be it a perfect match of micros or a fine gueuze, even a purist might budge a bit and allow that blending has its proper place and moments in the beer drinker’s life.

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Sources: The Ale Trail by Roger Protz (Eric Dobby Publishing, 1995), Porter by Terry Foster (Brewers Publications, 1992), Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (Running Press, 1993), Wines and Beers of Old New England by Sanford Brown (University Press of New England, 1978), Falstaff’s Complete Beer Book by Frederic Birmingham (Award Books, 1970).

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