Not long ago, beer lived down the pub. With the lads. It was heavy, it was bready, and it usually made you burp. But it didn't care. Because it was beer. And it didn't need love or any of your metropolitan affectation. It was happy alone in saloon bars, and on football terraces, maybe in your living room, certainly in the fridge. But you wouldn't find it in fancy restaurants, unless you were in Belgium. It just wasn't its scene. And cocktail bars? You're kidding, right?
But now, like old friends from school, it's changed. These days it's often to be found with vodka and embracing tequila. For beer has become nuanced and mannered, and is now has a seat in all the smartest bars in town.
In growing numbers, bars are going the way of the hop, and adorning their menus with cocktails made with beer. And, no mistake, beer cocktails are an adornment. They are, as The Good Food Guide points out, the drink of 2013. For no longer does the canon begin with Black Velvet (a drink, appropriately enough, created to mourn the death of Prince Albert in 1861) and end with a snakebite and black, that sure-fire route to the big white telephone. Today deft-handed mixologists are using beer to make cocktails of ballerina-like poise and grace.
Bartenders are everywhere throwing over the accepted wisdom on beer cocktails. The effervescent qualities of beer may well be at their most appealing in the summer, but is that reason enough to remove it from the list once the nights draw in and the coats go on? Are not long cocktails – and they do tend to be longer than their spirit-and-mixer counterparts – just as good in the autumn, and winter, even? And anyway isn't beer more interesting a mixer than, say, soda?
The answer, if the range of bars that now serve them is anything to go by, is a big, fat empathetic yes.
Head to east London, and to that well-known place of beards and body art, the Hawksmoor bar. Here, so convinced are the mixologists of the wonder of well-made beer cocktails, they have made it the house's signature. A British gin, London Pride, a tot of lemon juice and homemade ginger syrup go into Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew, and out comes a drink that crackles and pops on the tongue.
"It is our biggest seller by a factor of two," says Ali Reynolds, the man with the shaker at Hawksmoor Spitalfields. "Especially in the morning as a hangover cure." Certainly it awakens my taste buds; though whether I'd want it with my poached eggs is another matter.
If you like your cocktails in a coupe, rather than a pint glass, go to London's chicest new hotel-cum-hangout, the London Edition. Grab the cocktail menu, take a seat at the lobby bar and let your eyes come to rest on the Henry and the Beast. This affable drink, bar manager Davide Segat explains, is an alcoholic tribute to the noted mixologist Henry Besant. After Besant's death, Segat set about creating a mixed drink using his favourite tipples – tequila, mezcal and beer. With them, he did something rather clever.
Instead of making a cocktail and lengthening it with beer, he took a bottle of Anchor Steam ale and reduced it down to a syrup, to which he added a spot of tamarind and then mixed, with infinite care, with the mezcal and tequila. The result? A poem of slow unfurling flavours.
Segat, a man exceptionally well versed in the way of the cocktail, enjoys experimenting with beer. "I like to take something popular and move it on a little. Beer is an example. The culture around it – especially the craft stuff – has exploded in recent years. So it's fun to take that familiarity and play with it," says Segat, "make it something surprising."
If Segat is a beer cocktail apostle, Oskar Kinberg is god in heaven. His exaltation of the drinks extends to devoting an entire section of his bar's menu to them. His establishment is below Dabbous, the restaurant where the wait for a table is nearly as long as a pregnancy term, and is one of the few places in the country where you find Oscietra caviar listed as a bar snack. They don't mess around at Oskar's Bar.
"Beer cocktails started as a novelty for me, but they've gone far beyond that," says Kinberg, who drew inspiration for his creation from the Jul Mumma drinks of his native Sweden. Belonging to that rough-and-heady class of drink known as the Christmas tipple, they usually contain a headache-inducing mix of gin, porter, lager and "table seasonings".
Kinberg has, mercifully, leavened the mix in his own bar, by eschewing fortified wines and using IPA or white lager. "Bartenders are always looking for new and interesting ingredients to use, and the range of new beers makes it very interesting at the moment," he says.
Tim Blake, the Blake in Bury St Edmunds' Benson Blake, agrees. "We serve lots of craft beer, so it would seem foolish not to make use of them," says Blake. As he points out, though, beer, like any other ingredient, has its limits. "You can't make a cosmopolitan with a pint of bitter. You have to be aware of flavour profiles and whether they match up."
Hops, he says, can make a drink bitter, so you have to think of a way of dealing with that. An example is his "lagerita", a distant cousin of the traditional Mexican michelada – beer, lime and spice in a salt-rimmed glass – in which the sweet agave tequila and lime juice takes the edge off the beer.
"People don't just want pina coladas these days. Like the rest of food culture, cocktails have moved on – people are more adventurous, so we sell a lot of beer cocktails."
These adventures in beer reach a natural conclusion at London's Underdog. Here, they have decided that so worthy and laudable is the brew, that they need no cocktail on their menu save for those made with it. The list is a triumph of invention and includes a Boil Your Maker, Hot Dawg, Dead Pony-Groni and, my favourite, Snakebiterita (beer with cider brandy, Cointreau and agave syrup).
There are, then, many reasons to add beer to your cocktail. The flavour it offers; the effervescence it imparts; its yeasty ability to rescue fruit cocktails from the abyss of excessive sweetness.
And yet there is one reason greater than all of these, and it is a simple one: beer adds volume. It slows things down, lengthens the pleasure. And renders the last bit of F Scott Fitzgerald's famous dictum : "First you take a drink... then the drink takes you" somewhat obsolete.
That little glug, well, it shoos away encroaching drunkenness, keeping you on your stool a little longer, which, I think most will agree, is quite a bonus... if only so you can enjoy a few more.Reuse content