Believe in beer-tails?

Any self-respecting (or self-loathing, for that matter) tippler appreciates a beer and a bump, alternating sips of a smoothly stern whiskey and a cold, crisp beer. But mix the two and there can be hell to pay, depending on who’s across the bar.

Marco Zappia of Eat Street Social once heard from the detractors while giving a talk on beer cocktails to a bunch of beer nerds. “We spent the first half of the class having a conversation about even having beer in cocktails,” he said. “There were a bunch of purists in the room like, ‘Beer should be beer. Cocktails should be cocktails.’ There’s definitely that camp out there.”

Beer cocktails are nothing new, as shandies and such have been swilled for centuries. But for better or worse, the hybrid elixirs have been enjoying a bit of a moment in recent years, although the results can be hit or miss.

“When I think about the negative experiences that I’ve had, it’s usually been the case where the beer just dominates everything,” said Chad Larson, head bartender at Marin, where beer cocktails are not served. “You can tell there’s something else in there, but it’s not particularly clear.”

Last week, Zappia and fellow Eat Street Social-ite Blue Ballard unleashed a temporary trio of beer-tails combining suds and spirits from Michigan brewery/distillery New Holland as a lead-up to the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Autumn Brew Review. With a hat tip to Dairy Queen’s root-beer freeze, the Crane Hollow was a seductive fall fizz playing New Holland’s oily amber rum off its bready Ichabod pumpkin ale, with the sweet and vanilla-y Licor 43, cream, egg white, simple syrup and Bittercube’s Blackstrap bitters.

“The sugars actually help accentuate some of the flavors that that beer holds, which would be muted if you didn’t add a little bit of sweetness,” Ballard said. “The sugars help round out the flavors.”

Zappia added, “Sugar is butter for cocktails.”

At downtown St. Paul’s beer-focused game bar Rival House, Andrew Campbell uses booze to cut the sweetness of Redd’s Apple Ale in the Czech Yoself — one of a handful of beer cocktails the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel bar offers. The not-quite-cider is spiked with Czech-made herbal liqueur Becherovka and Fee Brothers’ Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters, both of which have heavy cinnamon characters.

Admittedly, Campbell — the beverage director for Rival House’s parent company Graves Hospitality — had little experience with beer cocktails before creating the list with Bradstreet Craftshouse head bartender Jennifer Boutell.

“The first apprehension I had about doing [beer] cocktails that were too unique was that we’re all cicerone trained, we understand that beer is something that’s created by a brewer down to a very specific balance,” he said. “I don’t want to pervert their work. My whole idea is let’s complement flavors, add flavors that aren’t there.”

While Campbell said one of the biggest challenges is selecting the right beer for a cocktail, Ballard and Zappia have found at Eat Street Social that some spirits play nicer with certain beer styles. For example, IPAs tend to agree with lighter spirits, such as tequila and gin — the latter matching the “resin-y, piney, crazy citrus notes” in the Mad Hatter IPA used in their sweet tea-esque Uncommon Nonsense, Zappia said.

As for the notion that beer-tails are blasphemous, Zappia isn’t buying it.

“Spice in beer has a history,” he said, pointing to German shandies and Indeed’s LSD, which includes lavender, sunflower honey and dates. “That’s where we’re coming from. There’s already a bunch of botanicals in these beers. So why can’t we take that to the next level?”


Michael Rietmulder writes about beer, cocktails and nightlife.