Greg Schaefer, bar manager and beer program director at Watermark, a cocktail and tapas bar and lounge in Asbury Park, New Jersey, has found a way to unite two of the hottest trends in beverage alcohol. “Watermark is known for its cocktails and craft beers,” he says. “With our craft beer cocktails, we’ve been able to successfully marry both.” Much like the venue’s spirits-based cocktail program, Watermark’s beer cocktails ($6-$10) take their cues from the culinary world and feature seasonal and house-made ingredients, such as lavender syrup.
While the Shandy and Snakebite are familiar beer-based cocktails, many of today’s offerings incorporate beer into variations on classic spirits-heavy drinks. Schaefer replaces Angostura bitters with Kane Overhead American imperial IPA in the Watermark Double IPA Manhattan ($10), a variant of the classic cocktail. Meanwhile, at the newly opened Blvd & Main taphouse and lounge in the Strat Hotel, Casino & SkyPod in Las Vegas, beverage director Jason Shullo takes inspiration from the Aperol Spritz for his Naked City Spritz ($14), which includes Absolut Grapefruit vodka, Aperol aperitif, strawberry purée, and fresh lemon sour, topped with Modelo Especial beer and garnished with a grapefruit slice and a sprig of mint.
Latin-influenced beer cocktails are also having a moment, especially the Michelada, which is seeing a resurgence at the bar and on the shelf with packaged RTD options. “The more traditional and exotic Mexican flavor combinations found in the Michelada combine the sweetness of lime and Mexican lager with the savory flavor of Clamato juice,” notes Lindsay Certilman, Dos Equis brand manager at Heineken USA. Heineken is currently targeting casual dining with its “Mucho Michelada,” comprising Dos Equis lager, Clamato picante, lime juice, and tajín seasoning. Certilman notes that cocktails like the Michelada help attract new consumers to the brand.
Beyond lagers, wheat and white ales have a heavy presence on beer cocktail lists. Schaefer notes that topping off a cocktail with white ale helps maintain carbonation. Sour beers are also finding their place on cocktail lists, including at the pubs operated by Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery. “We’ve been using fruited sour beers in Tequila and Margarita-based cocktails with a lot of success,” notes Deschutes director of product development Veronica Vega. One of the most popular beer cocktails at Deschutes, however, is the Botanic ale and tonic ($8), featuring the brewery’s 7% abv ale—which was specifically developed to be used in cocktails—and tonic.
Dogfish Head Brewery and its Dogfish Head Distilling Co. subsidiary also promote beer cocktails at the company’s on-site restaurants. According to distillery general manager James Montero, the Sea Mule—which mixes the company’s Compelling gin, house-made ginger beer, and lime and lemon juices, topped with SeaQuench ale ($10)—has been so popular that it has gained traction at restaurants throughout the mid-Atlantic region. SeaQuench is used elsewhere too; at bar and grill The Anchor in Wichita, Kansas, “Cocked Ales” ($7-$9) are offered as gateways to beer for non-beer drinkers. One variant is the Cherry LimeAle, combining SeaQuench, Zodiac Black Cherry vodka, house-made lime sour mix, and ZerGüt sour cherry syrup.
While the world of beer cocktails is certainly expanding, there are still challenges. “Beer can sometimes become overpowering in a drink, so it’s best to work with a lighter style, or else focus on a dark, richer style,” says Shullo. “With the more hop-forward beers, you have to play around with the spirits to overcome the hop aroma.”
Still, there’s plenty of upside. Dogfish Head’s Montero notes that beer cocktails can bridge beer drinkers to higher-priced drinks. “Beer cocktails are a great way for bar and restaurant operators to flex their creativity behind the bar,” he says.