Liquor Nerd: Celebrated by everyone from Shakespeare to early settlers, beer cocktails have a long and rich history

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      Remember when you didn’t need a football-field–size backyard, Latitude Run Geneva fire pit, and MIRA CBRN Hazmat suit to get together with friends? That’s okay—at this point in the Pandemic, neither do we.

      As a refresher, back in olden times 11 months ago, you generally asked folks if they wanted to go out for beers or drinks.

      If the question was posed for beers, that meant a night at Andina, Red Truck, or Brassneck knocking back flights of Mexican lager, Guava saison, and Zero Visibility hazy pale ale. And if it was cocktails, you settled in at Shameful Tiki, the Keefer, or Key Party for Painkillers, Tokyo Drifts, and Coconut Cream Paralyzers.

      Here’s something that was for certain: no one ever suggested going for beers, and then sat around bitching that moose-fat-washed mezcal Margaritas weren’t on the drink menu. For whatever reason, beers and cocktails have always seemed like separate things, never to be mixed.

      Except that’s not totally accurate, with the key word there being seemed.

      One of the first cocktails ever created was the beer-based Purl. Those who paid attention in Literature 12—instead of mouth-breathing while daydreaming of 4:20 in the parking lot—might remember Billy Shakespeare name-checking the drink in 1602’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Early mixologists fashioned the drink by infusing ale with sea wormwood.

      But beer cocktails pre-dated Long-Winded William. Scribbled Post-It notes from the tomb of King Midas suggested that back in 750 B.C. the Egyptians were taking the harsh edges off their beers with honey, saffron, and grapes.

      Flash forward a few hundred years and early North American settlers initially had as much luck making a drinkable beer as your roomate did producing an edible early-Pandemic sourdough. Which was too bad, because the neighbourhood tavern was not only a place to escape one’s husband, wife, kids, and pet cockatoo, but often the only thing in town resembling a restaurant, post office, general store, or speaker’s corner.

      Eventually, the business of brewing improved. And as the colonial’s slowly refined beer-making they also began experimenting in other ways. Adding rum, brandy, grated nutmeg, and fresh eggs to a mulled ale resulted in an early version of what we now know as the Flip.

      And let's not forget the Rattle Skull, an old-time road to oblivion that started with a brandy or rum free pour which was then augmented by lime juice, ginger-honey syrup, and a dash of salt in a tall glass. After a stir, things were filled to the brim with a heavy porter. Three drinks later and another two more Rattle Skulls before heading home seemed like a world-beating idea—at least until the next morning.

      Drinking preferences changed with the rise of cocktail culture in the mid-1800s. A Bostonian named Frederic “Ice King” Tudor perfected the art of shipping ice from the frozen farm ponds of Massachusetts to businesses and homes across North America. And that led to an explosion in cocktail crafting.

      There’s a reason Mojitos and Manhattans didn’t exist in the pre–Ice King world. Whip one up sans frozen cubes, take two swigs, and then try not to gag. That will drive home why cocktails are served ice cold instead of room temperature.

      Add the novelty factor of shiny and new things, and by the 1920s imbibers were knocking back Sidecars, French 75s, and Angel’s Tits instead of Rattle Skulls. And so, beer-based drinks became novelties—with offerings like the Irish Car Bomb about as classy as green beer and Donald Trump Jr.

      But then something exciting happened at the beginning of this century. As bars like Milk & Honey became one of the big reasons for visiting New York, bartenders began pushing themselves.

      Suddenly there was nothing weird about using preserved lemons, muddled galangal, fresh Clayoquot Sound cedar bark, or triple-distilled butterfly pea tea in a drink. And as part of that, mixologists rediscovered the magic of beer, which can give a cocktail hops notes and roasted malt flavours that are as unique as they are bold and varied.

      Yes, varied. As any card-carrying Yeast Vancouverite knows, beers don’t begin and end with ickily sweet big-brewery lagers. From saisons to stouts to IPA to pale ales to lambics, there are dozens of different styles to work with.

      Next time you’re in Mexico try a Michelada (lager, lime, Worcestershire, celery salt, hot sauce) instead of a Magarita.

      Need a pick-me up at 11 a.m. as you debate whether to change out of your PJs and into your sweatpants? Whip up an Espresso Stout or three (cold coffee, coffee liqueur, and stout in a pilsner glass) to pep up the morning.

      From the Fidelito to the Beermosa, if a drink calls for something bubbly, you can often swap in beer for champagne or soda. Assuming, that is, you know the difference between a German pilsner and an Icelandic whale-testicle porter.

      Here’s a beer-based drink you can make, with the recipe courtesy of the fine folks at Innis & Gunn in Scotland.

      Golden City

      3/4 oz lemon juice
      3/4 oz grapefruit juice
      1 oz whiskey
      4 oz Innis & Gunn Lager

      Stir in mixing glass & pour into tall glass. Garnish with grapefruit slice and pink salt.

      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.