Craft beer cocktails are a hot trend in Baltimore bars

Featuring high-quality spirits, fresh ingredients and canny flavor combinations, these inventive drinks offer depth and unique textures.

  • Will Helfrich, bartender at Heavy Seas Ale House, puts the finishing touch, a sprig of rosemary, on his "Sea Shandy" beer cocktail. The cocktail is made with Heavy Seas lager and pomegranate-rosemary lemonade.
Will Helfrich, bartender at Heavy Seas Ale House, puts the finishing… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
April 24, 2012|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

To make a cocktail, a bartender performs a complicated ballet involving spirits, mixers and garnishes, somehow juggling them all and finally bringing them in for a graceful, neat landing in your glass. At Heavy Seas Alehouse, bartender Will Helfrich has a simpler approach.

He grabs a tall glass, sets it underneath the beer tap and pours eight ounces of sudsy, golden beer, Heavy Seas Classic Lager. And then tops it off with homemade pomegranate lemonade. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary and you have the Little Italy bar and restaurant's Sea Shandy.

When it opened in February, the Alehouse was noteworthy mainly for being the first brick-and-mortar outpost under the name of the Baltimore craft brewer Heavy Seas. But when I sat down for dinner soon after the opening, it was its cocktail list that caught my eye: 10 items and all but three made with some combination of the house's signature beers and a spirit, from tequila and chartreuse to rum and vodka.

Beer cocktails have been popping up with greater frequency in Baltimore in recent months. You can find them at Ten Ten, Jack's Bistro, Woodberry Kitchen, Mr. Rain's Fun House and B&O Brasserie. The trend stems from a high interest in craft beers.

"In the last two years, it's really come into vogue," says Tim Riley, beverage director at Harbor East's Ten Ten. "There weren't many of them then, and now you see more, and you see more variety in beers used."

Though beer cocktails have existed for generations, in the form of drinks like the boilermaker, the emphasis now is on craft beer cocktails. They use high-quality spirits, fresh ingredients and canny flavor combinations. They have depth and unique textures.

"Beer cocktails have been around for a long time, but they've just gotten more sophisticated," says Brendan Dorr, beverage director at B&O Brasserie

"As the cocktail craft develops, people are looking for new flavors and ingredients," confirms Ten Ten's Riley. "Beer brings with it a breadth of flavors."

Kate Krader, Food & Wine magazine restaurant editor and editor of its annual cocktail book, says that the beer cocktail trend has taken off as beer itself has become "a huge alternative to wine and harder spirits." She says that it just makes sense that bartenders would start to play around with it.

In Baltimore, Dorr was one of the first to introduce beer cocktails on his menu, and he has been rotating them for three years at the B&O. At Woodberry Kitchen, beverage director Corey Polyoka introduced a shandy a year ago, and this winter had a fizz with bourbon, apple cider and a dark, malty beer. Polyoka points to their Blackberry Fizz as an argument for the appeal of beer cocktails. Fizz cocktails are typically made with egg whites and soda water, but soda water normally dilutes the drink.

"We thought, 'Hey, beer tastes good and brings something to the party,'" he says. By using Flying Dog Woody Creek White, a wheat beer, he can bring out "an insane" tropical and spice flavor to the drink. Thanks to the beer's carbonation, it's also "the creamiest fizz I have ever had," he says. He says from now on, fizz cocktails at Woodberry will use only beers.

At Ten Ten, Riley has been serving a variation on a 'beermosa,' a beer-accented mimosa, at brunch for over a year, a drink he first saw in Chicago. His uses Allagash White, a Belgian-style beer, as well as orange bitters and orange juice.

He's been rotating beer cocktails since then. Instead of making beer the cocktail's signature element, Riley prefers to use it as an extender. His Stillwater Cup — several spirits mixed with a muddle of cucumber and mint and topped by Stillwater Cellar Door Saison – "tries to mirror Stillwater's herbaceousness," he says. The bitters add nuance to the cocktail, and cut the sweetness of the ginger liqueur and the simple syrup. And the juices from the mint and the cucumbers make it remarkably refreshing.

Dorr's first beer cocktail at B&O was called the Boxcar and was a play on a Snakebite, a traditional half-beer and half-cider mixed drink. His version featured Allspice Dram liqueur, organic hard cider and a nut brown ale.

The combination of beer and liquor made sense because beers are now made using an increasingly vast list of yeast strains, spices and herbs, which leads to more variety in flavor, Dorr says.

"Herbal notes, sweet notes, candied fruit notes — a lot of the flavor profiles are very similar [to those in liquor]," he says. For instance, an India pale ale and a tequila share a herb taste, and so the two complement each other.

That kinship was the basis of Dorr's latest cocktail, the Trainwreck — made up of aged tequila; Hum, a botanical spirit; and orange juice, shaken and topped with six ounces of Guinness.

"I was just playing around with the most bizarre combination I could imagine," he says. "Hum has cardamom, which has a lot of spice, and tequila plays nicely off it."

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