Mixology Talk Podcast, Episode #174
We are continuing Beer Month by narding out with bar and marketing consultant Nicole Barker about all things beer cocktails. From the best types of beer to use to issues of water and dilution, we have you covered.
A Note from Chris:
We had this podcast prior to the pandemic that has unfolded over the past few weeks. I know this topic is probably not the most urgent thing on your mind, but we wanted to publish it anyway since it is full of great information.
Please know that we are working hard to create content that can help those that have been greatly impacted in the hospitality industry. COVID-19 Hospitality Resources
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MEET NICOLE BARKER
Nicole Barker has been a member of the service industry for 20 years; she owns a cocktail catering company and a consulting agency and is opening her own bar in Reno, NV this summer. However, Nicole’s true passion is training, and she is currently developing an online comprehensive bar curriculum called Happy Bartenders Thrive!, which will be available later this year.
Nicole lives in Reno with her two children and is happily engaged. She loves to travel, spend as much time at the beach as possible, draw, and paint, and she can’t get enough of creative writing. Her main objective in life is to be happy helping people who help themselves.
Nicole offers an array of tips, so if you want to get into on something specific, use these timestamps:
- 2:10– Nicole’s favorite beer cocktail
- 3:50– The issue of water in beer cocktails
- 5:28– Reverse engineering your cocktail & how to use syrup
- 8:34– Simple beer cocktail example
- 9:45– Standard & obscure beers for cocktails
- 13:45– Ice alternatives & aesthetics of beer cocktails
- 17:15– Tips for working with the water content of beer cocktails
- 19:00– Experimenting with different beers & tips for finding flavor
- 22:40– Parallel and perpendicular flavor profiling
- 28:00– Beer ingredients as inspiration
- 30:50– Nicole’s least favorite beer cocktail trend
- 33:33– Reductions
- 38:35– The coolest beer flavor combo Nicole has seen
- 41:39– Ratios & modifying your baseline beer cocktail
- 45:20– Nicole’s side project: Happy Bartenders Thrive
So Where to Start With Beer Cocktails?
Have a Goal
This advice really works with any drink you’re creating: Reverse engineer your cocktail! What does that mean? Well, it’s a simple, two-part process:
- Ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of this drink? How does it fit in my bar menu?” Do you need a light, easy sipper or a warming drink for winter?
- That intention decides how you use the beer (light shandy style, etc.).
Layer the beer element into the cocktail based on the drink’s purpose. Look at your list of ingredients: Do they match up with your goal for the cocktail?
Telling a Story
Nicole actually researches a brewery and then uses that info to decide on ingredients for her cocktails. Where did the brewer grow up, and is there an ingredient that place is known for? It’s not all about taste! This develops a story to tell your guests, drawing them into the drink.
As Nicoles puts it,
“If it doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t taste good.”
Watch Out for the Water!
The cool thing about adding beer to cocktails is how much flavor you can introduce. But here’s the tricky part about making beer cocktails: Since beer is 5-13% alcohol, the rest is water.
“The trouble with beer cocktails is the water. […] You don’t have the syrup density to kind of balance out that watering agent, and so when you’re adding beer to a cocktail […] you’re diluting every component of the drink; and when you do that, as soon as you put too much water in a drink, you lose your citrus, you lose your syrup, you lose that tight pop that you have in a sour.” –Nicole Barker
Back down on the alcohol a little when working with beer:
- If you’re adding beer on top of a cocktail, you’re adding more alcohol and more water.
- If you over-shake your cocktail, the water and liquor will layer on top of each other, making the drink taste like a mouthful of alcohol.
- Instead of 2 oz of liquor, try 1.5 or even 1 oz.
Don’t use ice in beer cocktails (you don’t need more water diluting your drink).
Nicole talks a lot about the issue of water in beer cocktails, so I highly recommend jumping to minutes 3:50 and 17:15 for in-depth advice about how to work around the water content.
Working With the Water & Flavor: Reductions & Syrups
When working with beer syrups, replacing the water with beer is going to give your cocktail more depth of flavor. In our other podcast this month, bartender Chris Krause had some awesome advice about reductions and syrups. Nicole also loves making syrups, but she has more advice for making them taste the way they should:
“A cooked syrup is going to taste differently. As soon as you cook the beer, you’re removing the alcohol, you’re reducing it out, but you’re also intensifying that base level of flavor. So I definitely recommend when you’re doing it to do it by itself first […] before you add any flavors to it, before you mess with it. Because you really need to understand how those are different. So taste the beer next to the syrup and realize which ingredients come forward. Because when you’re working with […] anything in a hot profile, the bittering agent, when you add heat to that, it’s going to break down the mitochondria […] and it can go really bitter, really bad.”
Nicole’s Process for Making Beer Syrup:
- If using plain white sugar, start with 1.5:1 (sugar to beer) ratio first. How much you use will depend on the type of sweetener.
- Boil the syrup for 10 min and then taste it hot.
- Take the mixture off the burner and let it cool to room temperature;
- Taste it again. Put it back on if it needs more time on the burner. When in doubt, boil it for 5 more minutes.
- Look at the viscosity of the syrup as you cook it. (Think about the practicality for your drink service; you don’t want a sticky syrup that you can’t pour easily.)
- Taste your reduction first to decide which sweetening agent to use (and how much).
- Make small batches of your syrup first so you’re not wasting product if it’s not right.
- Tasting the syrup hot and cold will yield different results, so make sure to compare!
- If you’re going to shake your cocktail, your syrup needs to have the perfect viscosity. Make sure it doesn’t have too much water but isn’t too thick and sticky!
Nicole’s Favorite Beers to Work With
A light pilsner is easy to pair with something like strawberry, according to Nicole (our other beer cocktail expert, Chris Krause, isn’t as big of a fan of using pilsners, so just remember to experiment for what works for you and your guests). One of Nicole’s favorite syrups she makes uses Trumer Pils instead of water and strawberry purée. Something simple can be really delicious and bring a lot of flavor to your cocktail! (I really want to try this now; how about you?)
An acquired taste for many, you have to know your audience with sours. But Nicole says they work really well in beer cocktails as an added element. That’s right: You can’t replace the citrus component of your existing cocktail, so you are layering (and adding alcohol, too, so be careful!). As Nicole explains:
“You have to have that layer in there to fortify. You should be using the beer as […] a weak component in your drink, not as a replacement for a sour. You can’t just pop this into a margarita.”
Nicole personally loves porters and darker beers, and she says you can do a lot with them if you don’t get too carried away. For one, the sweetness of those darker beers works really well for beer syrups (check out minute 2:10 to hear Nicole talk about how she won an Anchor Steam competition by using a caramel-porter syrup in a cocktail).
When it comes down to it, don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of beers! Go pick up something unique and play around with it. Taste it, reduce it, and find those flavors so you understand the beer’s nuances and can use them effectively in your cocktail.
Tips & Tricks
First Thing’s First: Taste It!
Where do you start when deciding how to use a beer? Well, you should probably taste it first!
So, I had never thought of this, but Nicole recommends tasting a flat beer to get a better idea of how it actually tastes.
- Leave the beer out (opened) overnight.
- The next day, taste it flat. (Getting the carbonation out allows your palette to really find the flavors.)
- Once you figure out the flavors, those are the flavors to work with.
The Salivation Test (Say What?!?)
OK, I really was surprised by this super specific advice: Notice how much you salivate when you swish the flat beer around in your mouth.
- If you still salivate, then the beer has a strong structure and will stand up in a sour cocktail.
- If it doesn’t cause you to salivate, there isn’t enough structure to use this beer in a citrus-based cocktail. Instead, use it in a “softer context” with a rounder mouthfeel, like an Old Fashioned.
Congrats, You’ve Made a Beer Cocktail! But is it Good?
Nicole recommends creating and tasting three drinks side-by-side. You might taste your first creation and think it’s good enough; but if you compare three drinks, you definitely know which one is best.
“And knowing which one is better is how you create cocktails that make sense in the long run and how you start to get your brain to reverse engineer from the intention forward.” — Nicole Barker
Besides doing a comparative analysis, invite other people to taste-test with you to get a sense of whether or not your beer cocktail will appeal to others (and sell to customers).
By understanding the basic building blocks of ratios (how much beer with how much liquor, etc.), you’ll create a basic go-to cocktail that you can manipulate. Once you have one cocktail you love, you can swap out the ingredients in this baseline version.
Try swapping in different beers and liquors! You’ll build your flavor palate and see what works (and what doesn’t).
Parallel vs. Perpendicular Flavor
Parallel flavor: When ingredients have similar profiles that brings out that flavor even more
Perpendicular flavor: When ingredients are not the same but still complement each other
Certain flavors, like rosemary, don’t need more added onto it, or else they just become too much.
- Example 1: Nicole says that dried apricot and rosemary as perpendicular flavors; they still pair nicely together but in different directions so that the rosemary flavor isn’t overwhelming.
- Example 2: Hops are overpowering, so you need to match an IPA with a softer fruit flavor.
- Example 3: Nicole uses 10 Barrel Crush cucumber sour to top off a margarita of Don Julio blanco tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup. But she leaves out the liqueur element because that flavor would compete with the cucumber sour.
Understanding the base notes of a beer will let you play with complementing flavors. This also goes back to what the purpose of your cocktail is. (Do you need something refreshing or rich and warming?).
Other Quick Tips
- Think about the aesthetic: Don’t just make it brown! That’s easier said than done when working with beer, so you’ll have to get creative. Sour beers are great for aesthetic reasons because of their lighter color.
- Practice on your customers: Give out shooters instead of full drinks to try new things.
- Keep it simple: You don’t have to put every single thing in a drink. Try new things, but don’t go overboard and weigh down your cocktail.
- Don’t get too attached: Experiment, but just remember that it might not work. And that’s OK! Don’t make something that you can’t sell just because you’re clinging to an idea that doesn’t pan out.
- Don’t rely on the carbonation of beer: The bubbles in beer are larger than that of soda or champagne, so it’s a softer carbonation that is easily flattened by syrups and citrus.
Anything to Avoid?
This is a personal preference, but Nicole hates jalapeños in beer cocktails. In fact, she is very passionate about not combining spicy and refreshing elements, especially in beer cocktails because beer already contains a lot of heat. (Jump to minute 30:50 if you want to hear it in her own (very enthusiastic) words.)
Let’s see yours!
Alright, are you scared off yet? I hope not, because I really want to see what you create! Beer cocktails are a unique and fun challenge, but hopefully Nicole’s advice will help get you excited and give you the guidance you need to make something amazing.
Don’t forget to post in the comments or head on over to the Craft Cocktail Club to share your delicious beer cocktails. We are a community here for each other, so come join us and get inspiration as well as support.
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