If I say "beer cocktail," your mind's likely to travel instantly back to college days and any number of liquids in shot glasses dropped into mugs of beer and chugged. Ah, youth. But beer cocktails are refreshing at any age. They have a long tradition in the pub, beyond the iconic boilermaker, and with such wide selections available on tap around town, they are easy to order and oh-so-easy to suck back when killing time on a dark and stormy night.
The ultimate beer cocktail has to be the Black & Tan, a traditional pint of half Bass pale with the balance of the pint filled carefully with Guinness, usually poured over a spoon. With a steady hand, the Guinness sits atop the Bass, ergo the drink's moniker. My favorite beer cocktail comes in handy when I am wicked thirsty and don't want to overindulge—or perhaps have already overindulged: I often partake of a red beer, a light lager with a side of bloody Mary mix or tomato juice. The juice gives you nutrients while the beer elicits the shampoo effect, slowly erasing the hangover, if possible with the aid of greasy hash-browns. I also like to make a shandy, half lager and half ginger ale. Variations of this drink include half beer and half lemonade, or even lemon-lime soda (too sweet). I enjoy the drink more with a beer that has more flavor. Northwest pale ales, with their fruit aromas and hint of sweetness on the palate, make a fantastic partner in this concoction.
If you're not in the habit of diluting your alcoholic beverages with mixer, trade in the shandy for a snakebite, a mix of half lager and half hard cider. Beer cocktails have their own section on the menu at West Seattle's Elliott Bay Brewing Company (4720 California Ave. S.W.), where they blend their award-winning beers with hard cider and lambic—both on tap. This time of year, many bars and restaurants feature a hard cider on tap, but be sure to specify you want the beer version of the snakebite, since the moniker also refers to a shot of whiskey with loads of lime. That's a different occasion altogether. If you're out for one beer, treat yourself to a Guinness with a spoonful of crème de cassis or a healthy pour of berry lambic, usually referred to as a Black & Red. If you like berries and chocolate, you can imagine the appeal. About half the beer cocktail recipes available include Guinness, with the most intriguing being the black velvet: half Guinness and half Champagne. These two opposites taste surprisingly attractive together, like apples in chocolate fondue—but again, be careful to specify, or you might end up with a glass of really bad whiskey of the same name.
Back to those shot-in-a-beer drinks: Would you think less of me if I told you I had a real soft spot for these things? Maybe it was too much time spent in below-zero temperatures in downstate Illinois, but there's something about a flaming Dr Pepper that makes me smile. The classic drink calls for 3/4 ounce of amaretto in a shot glass topped with a generous float of Bacardi 151. Light this on fire and drop into a large mug half filled with beer, usually a cheap lager. Is that so wrong? I guess we could upgrade such a merry drinking ritual to keep in line with our more adult tastes. So I tried to re-engineer it, thinking of things that might give the same effect. I tried Grand Marnier and Drambuie with brown ale. I tried Ramazotti, an Italian amaro that reminds me of Coca-Cola, and a high-minded Belgian beer. No dice. There are some things upon which we cannot improve.