Whether you've sidled up to a dive-y cavernous pub or sexy speakeasy, it's hard to ignore the growing popularity of beer cocktails. Online, their ubiquity is noticeable, with such cocktails even starring as the marquee feature on such sites as Ashley Routson's www.beermixology.com. Here in one of America's greatest beer states, Colorado, their surging fame directly impacts some of the country's best-loved breweries. While beer cocktails have been ushered in with seemingly unanimous praise, their decaying novelty brings with it debates about legitimacy and their impact on the increasingly exhausting beer vs. wine debate.
One of the first public questionings of beer cocktails in the Mile High City came from Westword magazine's own beer guru, Jonathan Shikes (@ColoBeerMan) via Twitter, as he mused about how beer cocktails reflect on craft beer. He wrote, "Conflicted about #beercocktails. Would you mix expensive wine with other beverages?" While his later answers wink at an original moment of gadfly-ism, Shikes' questioning of beer cocktails began a line of debate amongst Denver Twitter users about beer, wine, cocktails and the notion of "craft." When I caught up with him a few weeks later, he elaborated:
I am not convinced that craft beer should be used in cocktails and, while I am willing to be persuaded, it seems to me that the beers should be appreciated for what they are and for the thought and ingredients that went into making them. In other words, they have already been mixed. They are already a final product.
While he now doesn't believe that beer cocktails hurt craft beer's pedigree, Shikes sees them as a potential distraction from the endemic ethos of craft beer -- a handcrafted final product. Amongst many who tend bar in some of Denver's most well-known and well-respected establishments, beer cocktails are a hit. Kevin Burke, head bartender at Colt and Gray and Westword's Denver's Best Bartender 2011 sees beer cocktails, when mixed by the same moderate, thoughtful process as any cocktail, as unique, beneficial creations. "With cocktails in general I think a level of restraint forces creativity on the maker's part. Sometimes I have a beer and that beer inspires a cocktail and sometimes there's a cocktail that needs tweaking and beer is the ingredient that's missing," he said. This symbiosis between beer and cocktails, like cocktails and any other ingredient, largely rests on the skill of the barkeep. Likely, most well-respected bartenders would hardly consider the heinous bastard child of Bud Light and Clamato known in a 16oz. can as Chelada, a beer cocktail.
Burke touched on Shikes' original tweet, saying, "There's a danger of arrogantly trying to make beer better by adding shit to it, but I think it can also be possible to take a great beer and push it around to explore the depth of its flavors, shine a light on some of its more subtle graces..." Indeed, this playfulness of beer is one of the things that separates it from wine (except, perhaps, champagne, which is often used in mixology). By playing with beer in cocktails and using it as a revered ingredient, we don't degrade the craft, we explore it, Burke argues.
While Shikes' questioning of beer cocktails began the whole discussion, both he and Burke agree about how beer cocktails affect the craft beer industry itself. That is to say, they both see beer cocktails as beneficial to an-already booming industry. Shikes expounds, "I think beer cocktails help the industry because they provide another way for people to enjoy craft beers, another way for bartenders to offer them and another reason for people to talk about them." This increase in conversation can only be beneficial to a market segment that has been blessed with astronomical growth for the last couple years. That, coupled with an increasingly-educated customer base makes for a brave new world in craft brewing.
Shikes' original assertion that beer is somehow degraded by its use as an ingredient makes for a nice linchpin in a complex debate. If we value beer as a finished product, does that make it unusable in any other capacity? If we see fine champagne being used as an ingredient in a bubbly, delicious, thoughtfully-crafted cocktail, does that mean it is any less sophisticated or regarded? Does the purported finality of a craft product mean it's the end of its journey? There are few hard-and-fast answers but most sides seem to agree that, at the very least, beer cocktails are an interesting and worthwhile experiment in the human palate's recognition of beer.
The beer-as-ingredient conversation focuses largely on where the industry is going. However, I think it's about where the industry is today. Whether you agree or disagree that beer should be used as a cocktail ingredient, I imagine we can all agree that a world in which a reasoned, serious discussion about the consequence of craft beer as a cocktail ingredient only happens is a world in which craft products are more respected, better appreciated and, thereby, better in quality.