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Foodie Friday: Beer cocktails – the best of both worlds

By Tobi Cohen on June 20, 2014

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Beer before liquor – never been sicker.

But what about beer and liquor? And juice, and bitters, and grenadine, and cordial, and muddled fruit, and herbs and garnish?

Umm, the perfect patio beverage for both lager lovers and anti-ale types on a hot summer afternoon.

Now I’m not gonna lie, a few beer cocktails may knock you on your ass but I promise it’ll be worth it.

The first time I had a beer cocktail was my 32nd birthday. About a dozen friends joined me at the now defunct Exchange Pub at the Rideau Centre for a multi-course beer and food pairing dinner hosted by Quebec microbrewery Unibroue.

I can’t remember the first course but I’ll never forget the delectable Blanche de Chambly-based cocktail it was paired with — superior Belgian white ale, cranberry juice and lemonade on ice.

Delicious. Refreshing. I wanted more but the next time I found a beer cocktail — a simple blonde with raspberry jam and vodka — was a couple years later at an airport bar in Orlando.

The Standard on Elgin once featured a lovely Kronenbourg Blanc, vodka and fruit juice medley but when I asked for it on a subsequent visit, the waitress thought I was nuts.

Fortunately, beer cocktails are no longer just a one-off special here in the capital. You can actually find them on the menu at several bars.

With craft beer enjoying a renaissance right across the country – there are now more than 20 local breweries, brew pubs and soon-to-open breweries operating in the National Capital Region alone – the beer cocktail is giving bartenders an opportunity to flex their creative chops as well.

Mill St. Brew Pub bar manager Paul Boudreau serves up one of his latest summer offerings, the Lemon Tea Peach Schnapper. As the name suggests, this beer cocktail features Mill Street's Lemon Tea beer and Peach Schnapps.

Mill St. Brew Pub bar manager Paul Boudreau serves up one of his latest summer offerings, the Lemon Tea Peach Schnapper. As the name suggests, this beer cocktail features Mill Street’s Lemon Tea beer and peach schnapps. Photo by Tobi Cohen.

And perhaps nobody is flexing harder than Mill St. Brew Pub bar manager Paul Boudreau.

During my last visit to the downtown restopub a few weeks ago, I noticed there were no fewer than eight beer cocktails on the menu.

From the Brass Monkey, which features a Belgian Wit with apricot liqueur and orange juice, to the Irish Stout Coffee featuring Cobblestone Stout, Baileys, Bushmill’s and whipped cream, the options are plentiful and more creative than I could have imagined.

While white beers, blondes and ciders are among the more common beer-based cocktails, Boudreau insists the sky’s the limit.

“The wits and the blonds, etc., are very much used as the sort of standards (but) they really only highlight a small portion of what we can do,” he says in an interview over his latest creation, the Spicy Beergarita, which should be available this month.

“Why would everyone not want to be a little more creative? Why not have the fun? That’s the joy of this business, we get to have fun playing with beer.”

The Spicy Beergarita is a perfect example of Boudreau’s sky’s the limit theory. It features 12 onces of the Palomar Diablo chocolate chipotle lime ale – or the less potent Palomar chipotle amber ale once the Diablo runs out – mixed with an ounce of tequila and two-and-a-half ounces of bar lime that’s been shaken with ice.

“It’s designed to utilize complementary flavours,” Boudreau explains. He suggests it’s the more innovative of the two chief approaches to designing a beer cocktail.

“With the Diablo, it essentially has the flavourings of a good mole . . . It’s designed to reflect a Mexican or Caribbean character so in order to highlight that, I went with a Mexican/Caribbean cocktail and sort of combined the two.”

That, said Boudreau who has helped design many of the 15-plus concoctions featured at Mill Street over the last two years, is very different than simply replacing an element in a standard cocktail – like swapping champagne for a Belgian wit in a beer mimosa – which is the other approach to beer cocktail making.

Sir John A Pub on Elgin, which boasts of having the “largest selection of draft beers in Centretown,” has long had five beer cocktails on its menu as well.

The Sir John Punch made with Kronenbourg Blanc, rye, Smirnoff raspberry vodka, pineapple juice and grenadine, and the Somersby Sangria made with cider, peach schnapps, triple sec, orange and pineapple juice are two of my personal favorites, but I have yet to see much creativity in terms of new additions.

Brothers Beer Bistro's strawberry lemonade beer cocktail. Photo by Tobi Cohen.

Brothers Beer Bistro’s strawberry lemonade beer cocktail. Photo by Tobi Cohen.

Meanwhile, Brothers Beer Bistro in the ByWard Market doesn’t have a regular selection of beer cocktails printed in black and white, but the bar features seasonal beer-based specials throughout the year.

Co-owner Nick Ringuette recently mixed me up a glass of his latest summer offering, a strawberry lemonade made with gin, muddled strawberry, simple syrup and fresh lemon on ice with Montreal microbrewery Dieu du Ciel’s spectacular rosee d’hibiscus floral wheat beer.

He describes his beer cocktail clientele as young professionals looking to switch things up after a couple of pints or younger ladies in their early 20s who are “not fully feeling beer” and “might want to cut it with a little bit of fruitiness.

“But I’ll serve it to anybody that has ID,” he quips.

Ringuette has been trying out beer cocktails on customers since his days as a bartender at the Black Thorn, but suggests they remain a “rarity” in Ottawa.

Noting “beer is very accessible flavor-wise,” he agrees there’s no limit to the varieties one can come up with, still he admits there is such thing as a beer cocktail fail.

For fun he once tried an Irish-themed float with Guinness, Jameson and Baileys only to have the beverage curdle.

“I thought Baileys and Guinness would go really well together. But obviously no dice,” he says.

Tobi Cohen has worked as a journalist for more than a decade at Postmedia News, the Canadian Press and the Ottawa Sun. Born and raised in Ottawa, she loves this city and spends far too much time frequenting its many bars, restaurants and music festivals.