I'm not talking about those old-style slammers favored by Brits, who - depending on one's viewpoint - either flavor their bland lager with ginger ale or spike their soda with beer and call it a Shandy. These new drinks are beer plus booze plus a flavor - like the Nut and Honey at Essex Public House in Hollywood. It's made with AleSmith Nautical Nut Brown Ale, Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur and honey syrup. Or the Belga at the Belga Café in Washington, D.C.: St. Louis Peche lambic, Hangar One lime vodka, Creme de Peche and Rose's Lime Juice. Or Curious Georgia at Smokin' Betty's (11th and Sansom, Center City): Allagash White plus peach schnapps with a slice of peach in ginger syrup.
Other than finally finding a use for all those multicolored bottles of flavored liqueurs that are usually collecting dust on the bottom shelf at most bars, what accounts for the trend?
Terry Berch McNally, who runs London Grill (23rd and Fairmount, Art Museum), recently added a lineup of beer cocktails, among them the Flower Bud: creme de violette, elderberry liqueur and Budweiser. Adolphus Busch just rolled over in his crypt. Why would anyone foul the flavor created by professional brewers?
"Why not?" McNally replied. "I mean, these days brewers are putting all kinds of stuff into their beer. Why can't I?"
She has a point. Craft brewers make beer with everything from fruit to nuts. Even the Germans, who have laws forbidding the use of improper ingredients, stir herbal woodruff syrup into their Berliner Weisse. But traditional cocktails are designed to mask the alcoholic flavor of spirits. Beer can stand on its own, right?
That was one opinion voiced last May by hard core aficionados who each month participate in Beer Blogging Friday, an online "tasting" of various styles. When they tackled beer cocktails, several opted out, repulsed by the whole idea.
"I hope the guy that invented a beer cocktail meets up with a lot of very large Ninja brewmasters in a dark alley while carrying one of their tarted-up, yuppie, fancy-pants cocktails," wrote the Canadian beer blogger Devoid. But he was in the minority.
Most of the group at least offered imaginative beer blends (barrel-aged Firestone Walker plus Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout).
One Australian blogger discovered that a shot of espresso, two teaspoons of 15-year-old Scotch whisky and a dash of cinnamon turned a pint of Rogue Shakespeare Stout into an aromatic winter warmer. Back at London, McNally plied me with a few of her inventions, including one she calls Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em: Victory Prima Pils, mezcal, chipotle-infused vodka and lime with a salty rim. The peppery heat bit my tongue, then eased away with a wash of the pilsner's hops. It wasn't beer, but it was good. Which probably explains the rise of these new cocktails. Rather than overwhelming the suds, flavored spirits can complement the distinct character of a strongly flavored ale. Today's craft beer can stand up to abuse.
It turns out, beer is more flexible than I am.
"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.