New Brew Odyssey: Cocktail Beers

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By now readers of this site are well acquainted with Ezra’s ongoing beer cocktail projects—the Brewing Up Cocktails series, work at Cocktail Camp and the Spring Beer and Wine Fest, and so on. At Breakside this week, we begin releasing beers in a series that start from the same concept as Brewing Up Cocktails but end with a different result.

Over the past three months, we have been working on a series of cocktail beers, that is, beers with flavor profiles designed to mimic that of a spirit-based drink. There is some referent for this—Garrett Oliver is widely seen as the first brewer to have attempted something along these lines when the Brooklyn Brewery released The Manhattan Project in 2009. I heard Oliver once describe it as the most difficult beer he had ever brewed. Naked City Brewing in Seattle makes a beer called The Big Lebrewski, which is an imperial stout aged on Kahlua-soaked oak cubes; while it does not intentionally mimic the flavor of a White Russian, it clearly takes inspiration from the Dude’s drink of choice.
The ambition to make these beers stemmed originally from a lack of inspiration: after landing in the ‘dark and low’ category of this year’s Cheers to Belgian Beers dart toss (more info on that here), I was at a sort of loss for what to do style-wise with a yeast strain called Trappist High Gravity. Given the restriction of 6% ABV in my category and being neither a fan of dubbels nor oud bruins, I sought a more unusual way to take advantage of the requirement to brew dark and low. (As a side note, perusing the list of beers in this year’s fest, the dark/low category clearly left people with a lack of conventional style choices, and some of the most intriguing-sounding beers at this year’s fest are in it: Widmer’s dubbel with figs and Italian plums and Block 15’s Belgian dark chocolate beer, for example). At this point, Ezra and I started discussing the possibility of doing a series of collaboration beers inspired by cocktails. We had just acquired a handful of barrels courtesy of Ransom Spirits and the Hop and Vine, so the opportunity and inspiration were suddenly there.
In early February, I brewed a low-alcohol Belgian brown ale with Ezra and Jacob Grier (local mixologist and co-conspirator in the Brewing Up Cocktails work). Brewing to the barrels, or to the cocktails, in this case, was critical, and it is, in my esteem, the key difference between creating a cocktail beer and aging a beer in a spirit barrel. In the latter, a brewery uses a beer it normally brews and puts it in a barrel for aging without any modification to the recipe. This clearly leads to brilliant beers: Upright Four Play, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Hair of the Dog Cherry Adam from the Wood, etc. The base beer in all of those examples is also excellent on its own, and the base beers were originally designed to be drunk on their own. With a cocktail beer, however, the objective is to create a beer that functions just as one ingredient in the larger beverage, and in order to mimic the qualities of certain spirits or aspects of cocktails, the base beer may not work as well as a stand-alone beer. This is not to say that the base beer should be unappealing. Rather, it might have some roughness around the edges on its own that becomes complementary once added to the barrel with the remaining ingredients.
Playing with beer cocktails. Original Brewers Bramble cocktail on far right
Our base beer uses Belgian pilsner, Vienna, aromatic, and caramel malt with a very small addition of German carafa for color. Mashing very warm, the objective was to keep the finished beer relatively sweet, as it was to function in part as the simple sugar in all three of the cocktail beers. We hopped the beer with Sterlings for the final 30 minutes of the boil for a very modest hop character. Yeast-wise, we pitched the PCTBB strain at relatively low temperatures, with a slightly low pitching rate. The goal was to encourage the production of some higher alcohol character to give the base beer additional heat and complexity despite its modest ABV. At the same time, the cooler fermentation regime kept the ester profile of the base beer in check, which was important given the reputation for the strain to be a so-called ‘banana bomb.’ The resultant brew was a sweet-ish, malty Belgian brown ale with a moderate-low set of yeast aromatics and a touch of alcohol heat.
The 7 bbl batch of base beer was split between three separate barrels, all from Ransom Spirits. The first release is the portion of the beer that was aged in an Old Tom Gin barrel. We call it the Brewer’s Bramble, and it is our official entry into this year’s Portland Cheers to Belgian Beers Fest. The bramble cocktail, occasionally called the English cosmopolitan, is a cocktail lover’s favorite that balances elements of sweetness, fruitiness, acidity, and gin. We aged our Brewer’s Bramble with blackberries, lemon peel, and juniper berries to increase the perceived ‘gin’ character. The result is a balanced beer with a distinctive hint of blackberry and gin. I believe it accurately represents our goal with this Cocktail Beer Project: to innovate with beer flavor and character by harkening to the world of mixed drinks.
The beer will tap tomorrow at 3 PM in a very limited quantity; it is going to be served at a lower level of carbonation to further mimic the cocktail that inspired it. We are sending a full keg to PCTBB for this Saturday’s fest, and the remainder will be served on draught during special releases and events at Breakside; if all goes to plan, we may bottle some as well for a special release later in the summer.

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