One of the oldest professions in the world, bartending has shaped many of the special moments we’ve celebrated throughout our lives. Bartenders have been there to pour our pints, shake our cocktails, and sling our shots. Today, the lines between beer and cocktails are being blurred. In fact, more and more, we’re seeing the two married together.
“If you put beer into a cocktail, it could turn a cocktail drinker into a person who appreciates beer. It is a nice gateway drug for them,” says Cat Cannon, co-owner of Mindful Hospitality Group, a bar consulting, education and event company specializing in helping restaurants with their bar programs. “And you can turn a hard-core beer drinker into someone who might really like cocktails, but never found a reason to be exposed to it. “
A beer cocktail is an eloquent segue between those two worlds.
So to celebrate World Bartender Day on February 24th, we wanted to raise one up, pour one out, and toast to bartenders the best way we know how…by learning how an expert adds beer into her cocktails.
Before launching her own company Cannon spent ten years bartending in Pittsburgh and has been involved in the hospitality industry in one way or another for almost twenty years.
Mindful Hospitality Group even launched its own elevated cocktail-focused bar, St. Claire Social, in Pittsburgh in 2020. “That’s our baby,” says Cannon. “It’s a neighborhood bar with elevated food and drinks. Sometimes you just want to hang out in a space and have really great cocktails without feeling like it’s a special occasion. We wanted to create a place where we wanted to hang out.”
To honor World Bartender Day, we chatted with Cannon about her favorite beer to marry with classic cocktails and a few tips on creating your own pairings.
The Basics on Pairing Beer and Cocktails
Sure, beer in cocktails probably isn’t the first thing on your craft beer-loving mind. But craft beers and confections may have seemed like a crazy combination until we showed you how to pair together beer and desserts. So stick with us here and you’ll definitely be rewarded.
“I think beer can be a great compliment for a cocktail because it can achieve a lot of flavors and nuances that you might not be able to achieve with spirits,” says Cannon. “It’s been especially cool to see breweries brewing a lot more exciting and inventive flavor profiles to set themselves apart… It’s hard to find those flavor profiles in cocktails.”
When looking for a place to start, Cannon says it depends on what she is trying to achieve. Do you want to let the unique profiles of a beer drive a new cocktail recipe or do you want to take an already established cocktail and have the beer enhance the flavors?
Start with the Beer
“A lot of times when I’m working to bring a beer into a cocktail I have a very specific beer with a flavor profile I think would be so cool in a cocktail,” says Cannon.
For example, Cannon loves to use sour beers in cocktails because they are really unique beers with fantastic flavors that she can take to the nth degree in a cocktail.
Start with the Cocktail
On the flipside you can start with an established cocktail recipe and from there use the beer to “achieve something with the effervescence of the cocktail,” says Cannon. In other words the beer can add an additional component to something like a highball that it was missing before the beer.
Either Way It’s All About Guess, Test, and Revise
It’s important to recognize that pairing beer and cocktails isn’t an exact science. And it shouldn’t be! “There aren’t hard and fast rules for beer cocktails,” says Cannon. “People should feel comfortable exploring things. Maybe it’s not great and that’s fine. You learn and know that next time you’ll do something different instead.”
With that in mind, we can at least give you a few good places to start.
5 Beer and Classic Cocktail Pairings
According to Cannon, when it comes to cocktails there are five standard families: old fashioned style, martini or Manhattan style, highballs, sours, and flips. As a jumping-off point, we asked Cannon what beer style she’d recommend pairing with each of these groups.
Hoppy Pale Ale + Old Fashioneds
Because an old fashioned is the most true form of a cocktail, it acts similar to a blank canvas. “You can do a lot with old fashioned because it is truly just the spirit, the sugar, and the bitter,” says Cannon. This means you probably can’t go too wrong here with your beer pairing, but Cannon suggests trying “something bright floral like a hoppy pale ale.”
The nice lightly bitter notes will pair well with the bitters and sugar in an old fashioned.
Pilsner + Martini or Manhattan
In all honesty, this is a bit of a tough pairing, admits Cannon. “A martini could be a stretch just because it is savory, but you could really highlight that with more of a pilsner,” says Cannon. A proper martini includes London dry gin and a good amount of dry vermouth.
In this instance, Cannon highly recommends actually making a beer syrup, where you reduce the beer down into a more concentrated form. Or even experimenting with something like a hop-infused vermouth. Basically, “finding different ways to incorporate beer without actually incorporating the beer,” says Cannon.
IPA + Sours
Daiquiris, margaritas, cosmos, and any cocktails of that ilk fall into the sour cocktail family. Here you’ll want to balance those tangier flavors with the more dank orange and grapefruit notes of an IPA.
“With hoppy beers like IPAs you find a lot of citrus notes that play really nicely with those flavor profiles you’re already going to find in the cocktails in the sour family,” says Cannon.
Stout + Flips
Consider a flip similar to an egg nog, with either whole egg or egg yolk, sugar or simple syrup, and a spirit such as brandy, whiskey, rum, or bourbon.
In general, pairing a stout with any dark brown spirit will usually be a winner. Whether that’s a lovely aged rum or bourbon, “those are easy go-to pairings for stouts for sure,” says Cannon.
Various + Highball
One of the most popular cocktail styles in the world, highballs can be a bit of challenge because the pairing really depends on the liquor of choice. At its simplest a highball is just a spirit plus a carbonated ingredient, meaning Vodka Soda, Gin & Tonic, Scotch & Soda, and even Paloma’s all fall into the highball family. And all feature different types of liquor!
Because highballs include that crucial carbonated component. Perhaps, the best thing to keep in mind here is to consider making beer that carbonated element. From there, you’ll really need to experiment. Our best piece of advice: try to match the beer to your spirit.
As we’ve already learned, stouts go well with darker spirits. So if you’re drinking a Scotch & Soda, consider a stout.
Typically, Palomas include tequila, lime juice, and grapefruit soda. Can you sub a citrus-forward sour in here to give that pop? Even a juicy hazy could work well.
This is a perfect of example that when pairing beers with cocktails there aren’t set rules, but rather guidelines from which you can build and experiment. And that’s half the fun!
“People get really nervous making drinks the way they get nervous with cooking,” says Cannon. “They think they might screw it up, but that’s fine. You’ll make it better next time.”