Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A Guide to Using Beer in Cocktails

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Why would anyone mix good beer with anything? As it turns out, beer can add a complexity to simple cocktails without adding a lot of alcohol content. Called "hoptails," these mixtures achieve unique taste profiles that can be hard to recreate without beer.

Though this practice is probably most commonly associated with dumping a beer into a frozen margarita, it’s recently become popular in upscale cocktail bars. To introduce this trend, we’ve put together a primer on fermentation and some flavor compounds common to beer.

Brew Something Up

Each beer’s flavor profile comes from a combination of its ingredients and fermentation. At its simplest, the four main ingredients in beer are barley and/or wheat, hops, yeast, and water.

The first step in brewing beer is malting the barley or barley/wheat mixture. Here, the grains are germinated (sprouted) and then dried in a process called kilning or heat drying. This step preserves enzymes that will later break down starches and proteins.

It’s also where much of the beer’s character is created. Using a lower temperature results in light malts popular in lighter styles of beer, whereas high temperature kilning denatures more of the natural enzymes and breaks down complex proteins and starches into amino acids and sugars.

Malt-ered states

The malt is then ground and loaded into a temperature-controlled vessel called a mash tun. Water is added, and the tun is heated to different temperatures where the enzymes will begin breaking down starches into glucose and maltose.

After mashing, the grain and water mixture is filtered. Called "wort," this solution is then boiled to sanitize it. Hops are added during this stage. Each varietal of hops has a slightly different chemical makeup. This diversity means that resultant beers have the potential for many, many different taste profiles.

For bitterer beers, hops are added early in the boil. Hops contain α-acids, a class of chemical compounds that isomerize (chemically rearrange) when boiled. For less bitter, often more aromatic beers, hops are added later in the boil or as the wort is cooling.

Yeast mode

Choosing a particular strain of yeast for fermentation is one of the last big decisions. In brewing, a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae breaks the wort’s sugars down into ethanol and CO-2. During this process, a series of side reactions also occurs to form other products such as esters and ketones that can have a big impact on the beer’s final taste.

Here’s a short list of some common taste compounds found in beer:

• 4-Vinyl guiaicol smells like cloves and is common in Hefeweizens.
• Acetaldehyde occurs most commonly in under-fermented beers. This little compound is usually described as tasting of green apples.
• Diacetyl is often described as a buttery or butterscotch-y smell. Concentrations of this compound tend to increase with the age of the beer.
Dimethyl sulfide gives some beers the smell of canned vegetables.
• If you’re smelling some red apple and anise, it’s probably the ethyl hexanoate.
Geraniol is the compound that gives beers a geranium- or rose-like floral taste.
• Ever had a beer that tasted or smelled a bit like fake bananas? It was probably the isoamyl acetate.
Limonene is one of the many taste compounds named for the food in which it’s most commonly found. It’s also what gives some beers a citrusy character.
Lactic acid is what gives some sour beers their sourness.
Linalool is most commonly associated with beers’ hop aroma.
Myrcene is the infamous green hop aroma. Also described as resinous, herbaceous and balsamic, this compound can get a bit overpowering in high levels.

Hit the Lab

Craft beers’ unique taste profiles win over or push away drinkers every day. To experiment with hoptails, first taste the beer you’d like to use. Is it citrusy? Rich? Coffee heavy? Bitter? Consider some simple cocktails that are topped with soda. Which beers could easily replace the soda? For example, a light, not-so-bitter IPA could easily replace the soda in a Tom Collins, yielding an easy hoptail.

Likewise, a cucumber or raspberry saison would be a delicious addition to a Pimm’s Cup. Since the only two requirements for this drink are that it contain Pimm’s and be served in a cup, the possibilities are endless. Be careful—if a beer is sweeter, you may have to add a bit more citrus juice to balance it.

Wikimedia Commons

Summer Pimm’s Cup

Several thinly sliced pieces of ginger root
1 oz simple syrup
1 oz lemon juice
2 oz Pimm’s No. 1
Beer of your choice 

Muddle ginger slices in a cocktail shaker. Add all other ingredients and ice. Shake vigorously for 20-25 seconds or until chilled through. Strain into a chilled collins glass full of ice and top with cucumber or raspberry saison (a pale ale) or other beer. Garnish with a mint sprig and a straw.

Dr. Tracy Hamilton’s presentation on zymurgy (beer chemistry) was a huge resource for this article.

What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?

If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.


Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.


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