Slate’s Definitive Guide to Beer Cocktails

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
July 6 2012 6:37 PM

A 12-Pack of Beer Cocktails

Notes on the theory and practice of the shandy, the michelada, and 10 other beer adulterations.

drink with lime
Drink up.

Photograph by Thinkstock.

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?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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.

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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.”

All this weekend, in Boston and Washington and Philadelphia, sweat-glazed British tourists will toe into bars and try to order a shandy. If you see one of these persons, clammy as an uncooked veal cutlet, encountering any difficulty getting one, do the right thing and offer a translation. Gently remind the bartender that Britons tend not to speak English correctly: When they say lemonade, they mean a carbonated lemon soda roughly approximated by 7-Up, not the cloudy yellow stuff you purchase when taking pity on urchins sitting roadside with pitchers and Dixie cups.

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 Panaché. 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.