Half and Half

On the Nature of Beer Cocktails and Brew Mixing

By: James Burt

“…Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whiskey, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne…it tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.”

~Writer and drink enthusiast Anthony Burgess’ [1917-1993] recipe for a ‘Hangman’s Blood’ beer cocktail

Hangman’s Blood. Dr. Pepper. Snakebite. Black Velvet. The Boiler Maker.

For some, they are the best creative outlet of bartenders and certain types of beer enthusiasts that demand something new. For others, they are the worst sacrilege behind the brass taps since they ruin several well- and time-crafted beers the way less-than-savvy drinkers use Coca-Cola to damage a fine vintage Scotch in order to get a ‘nicer taste’. In any case, beer cocktails are popular and ever-present for today’s drinkers, especially now that the holidays are approaching and festive partygoers often seek something exotic from behind the taps.

“We do a mix of Liefman’s—a Belgian Kriek Brut made with mixed fruit berries—with vodka,” said Amanda Chodur and Raz Rabin, bartenders at the midtown Toronto pub The Wallace.  “It’s big on Saturdays…and mostly with the ladies.”

Over the years, the list of beer cocktails that are served in bars and nightclubs has grown. Everything as foreign to beer, from Clamato juice to champagne, has been added to them to create new colours or flavours out of the existing barroom roster of straight ales, lagers, stouts, and porters. Results can often be chaotic but also surprisingly successful.

“Once at a friends’ get-together, I came up with what I called a ‘Blueberry Pancake’,” said Greater Toronto Area-based independent bartender Andrew Vaillancourt. “I used just a bit of blueberry juice with a wheat beer plus maple syrup and ice. The friends liked it and I have to say it wasn’t bad.”

It comes as no surprise that beer cocktails are on the agenda at most bartending education institutes. The Bartending School of Ontario in Toronto’s East End has been offering beer cocktails as part of their mixology education for years.

“Right off the bat, if you think of the pubs, mixes like the Irish Car Bomb and the Black and Tan are served regularly,” said the school’s co-owner Diana Roberts. “Even the beers you think never have anything combined with them often have a cocktail recipe somewhere.”

When quizzed about the history of beer cocktails, Roberts explained a key Anglo-Irish connection.

“Years ago, we heard from a student that a man with an English father went into an Irish pub. They added some black currant to the father’s Guinness and the father really enjoyed it.  It grew from there. But most of them are just accidents that are recorded over time and re-used based on demand. Like the Black and Tan—a mix of Guinness and other ale…”

Roberts hesitated before pointing out the politically sensitive and slightly humourous nature of beer cocktail naming:

“…of course, you don’t call them ‘Black and Tans’ in Ireland. There, it’s just a ‘Half and Half.’”

When asked about some of the most popular beer cocktails they emphasize on their curriculum, Roberts and her co-owner Rob Berry pointed to the White Summer.

“It’s been around for about three years,” said Roberts. “It’s half Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc and half apple cider.”

“But you’d be surprised what you can mix into beer,” added Berry. “We tried some set-ups with pumpkin, balsamic vinegar, and even beet juice of all things. Depending on your tastes, they are worth a try to experience something new.”

Beer cocktails come in many forms but Roberts pointed to the fact there isn’t a great amount of new or increased beer mixology going on at present. The newer breweries themselves are the ones crafting the new concoctions in their own laboratories before putting them on the market place. This includes pre-made beer cocktails like the Shandy and various apple-beer mixes that can be bought in cans or bottles over-the-counter.

“There’s no great expanded or new demand for beer cocktails in the bars today, nor for the students learning mixology,” she said. “The new breweries are doing their own flavour experimentations with various existing beer recipes, and they seem to be doing a good job with them. I suppose, if anything, you’ll likely see more selections of those types of beer-flavour combinations on store shelves.”