The Beer Cocktail: Evolution of Beer

The beer cocktail is something that has been around for ages. The Black & Tan might be the original, but really if you’ve ever seen any of the literature from Guinness there are about 100 with Guinness alone. Of course beer cocktails have been the subject of many a BuzzFeed list, or

Courtesy Chili's
Chili’s (Courtesy)

if you are at your local chain purveyor of Margaritas, and want to contaminate your margarita with questionable beer you can get a CoronaRita™ Margarita. But these aren’t the kind of cocktails I’m talking about. Sorry to disappoint, if that is what you were looking for.

But really what I am talking about is Barrel Aging beer. Yes, oak aging isn’t something new. It’s been done for about a millennia. In Belgium the barrel has been an integral part of their rich brewing history. England had used the Burton Union system at many breweries for many years to ferment and age their beers. Even the first Pilsner spent time in a barrel. But none of these would equate to a cocktail would they?

I am not the most experienced person when it comes to cocktails. Over the years, I have enjoyed the infrequent Gin & Tonic, Margarita, or other pedestrian cocktails. But primarily I prefer my booze neat, or with a little water. In some ways I’m kind of a purist. Or just simple. Probably the latter, but it sounds better to say purist.

But recently I have been introduced to the world of the craft cocktail. In part thanks to a wonderful television show Best Bars in America on the Esquire Network. A recent mini-tour of craft cocktails in Fells Point Baltimore also made me appreciate an artfully crafted cocktail even more. And while I appreciate them all more, I really like my cocktail to be spirits driven. Get a strong feeling for what the main ingredient is. But wait, I’m supposed to be talking about beer right?

Tangents. I’m a sucker for them. Last night I popped open a bottle of Lost Abbey’s Deliverance Ale. It is really unfortunate that this beer isn’t available in Maryland, because it is decadence in a bottle. It is – in some regards a cocktail.

Courtesy The Lost Abbey
The Lost Abbey (Courtesy)

So how can a beer be a cocktail. In the case of this, it is an artfully crafted blend of beers and barrels. Lost Abbey takes some of it’s equally decadent Angel’s Share barleywine which has been aged in Brandy Barrels and blends it with bourbon barrel aged Serpent’s Stout to create this boozy whirlwind of rich decadence.

This gave me realize that with the use of barrels and blending, todays best craft brewers are essentially making cocktails at the brewery. This is really a wonderful thing.

This beer had a rich boozy quality that I could smell from the instant the cork was pulled. Upon tasting it I was able to really appreciate the stout and the barleywine and the barrels in which they were aged. Lost Abbey is certainly not the only brewer that does this either.

This past weekend I shared a bottle of Firestone Walker XV Anniversary ale. This is an ale that is a blend of 8 different beers. From beers that were aged in Bourbon barrels, Brandy barrels, retired Firestone Union Barrels, and some beer that is straight from the stainless steel fermenter. While Firestone Walker likes to compare this particular beer to a blended wine, I think that thinking of it in terms of a cocktail is equally befitting.

I am not trying to claim that blending is this new thing. Because it isn’t. What I am trying to do, is point out that barrels are the past and the future of beer. Combine barrels, blending, traditional, and non-traditional methods of brewing and you have an unlimited supply of high quality choices that can be made to create incredible beer.

Of course blending is an advanced art. Lost Abbey does quite a simple blend of 60% Angel’s Share to 40% Serpent’s Stout. And Firestone Walker doesn’t even attempt their advanced blend. They open the process of blending to some of masters of wine blending in Paso Robles.  In my opinion, the institutes of higher learning of brewing need to begin to offer courses in blending. Of course this means that they will need to become educated in this art themselves. From what I could find while searching the Siebel Institute’s course catalog, the only course that mentioned blending was in a Craft Distilling Operations & Technology course.

Of course I am trying to paint the picture that blending beer is the next evolutionary level of beer. But this isn’t to take anything away from more sessionable beers or traditional brewing methods. What this is supposed to do is move brewers away from using crazy ingredients just to be the first to market and stand out. I have had Bull Testicle Beer. I have wanted to try Roasted Donkey Brain Beer. But that doesn’t mean I want to try a Yak’s Tongue Red or Pig’s Feet Porter. Even if they are good beers they are gimmicks. But no one will ever confuse a barrel aged beer with a gimmick.