A 12-Pack of Beer Cocktails

Notes on the theory and practice of the shandy, the michelada, and 10 other beer adulterations.

drink with lime
Drink up.

Photograph by Thinkstock.

The big wet story of this incandescent summer concerns your ice-cold beer, America. Ask yourself: Has that pint in your hand been sugared or spiced or juiced up? Repurposed as a mixer? Elevated with a jigger of liquor?

All the papers are onto you. News flows from all corners about happy marriages of stout and bourbon and about elderflower liqueurs fragrantly flirting with pale ales. Last May, Frank Bruni reported on “the advance of beer cocktails” (called such “whether or not the drinks include hard liquor”); this May brought notice of the book Beer Cocktails: 50 Superbly Crafted Cocktails that Liven Up Your Lagers and Ales (including the Maru—a fruity booze-up inside your Sapporo). The mass-market gateway to the new frontier stands in St. Louis, where Anheuser-Busch HQ has launched Shock Top Lemon Shandy, a wheat beer “perfectly complemented by spices and natural lemonade flavor.” And meanwhile the kids on happening Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles are infusing gin with hops, mixing it to make “Gin & Chronic,” and telling LA Weekly that it evokes a cottonmouthed hint of pilsner.

America, you drink 20 gallons of beer per head per year, and you’re definitely adulterating some of it. Yet, despite the efforts of cunning commerce and supple craft, the beer cocktail has never taken off as a respectable beverage. This is uncharted territory, exciting and dangerous. I sense your keen thirst for helpful hints, pro tips, and historical context.

America, I’m bringing over a 12-pack of pocket notes on the theory and practice of beer cocktails.

I shall begin by cracking open an Anchor Porter for (1) Porter Sangaree, or Porteree: dark beer with a dollop of something sweet and a garnish of grated nutmeg. This here partic’lar porteree relies on a dribble of maraschino liqueur.

For background about the general history of the sangaree, consult the scholarship of Dr. Cocktail. For a classic take on the porteree, see David Wondrich in Esquire. For a different mood, follow the whims of Food Newsie: “Add one or two shots (depending on your childhood) of Limoncino.” For a stout sangaree dressed up with a drizzle of brandy, look in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending. For actual complete idiots, look to the comments on Huffington Post stories.

There, beneath a slide show highlighting beer cocktails, you can see ninnies dismissing the category categorically: “What a waste of good beer.” I anticipate that similar philistines will object to the article you are reading, and though they are scarcely worth the procatalepsis, I will point them to the fine tradition of the (2) Shandygaff.

Charles Dickens described this concoction, sometimes rendered Shandy Gaff, as “an alliance between beer and pop.” Since the 1800s, some of us have found it agreeable to twirl together earthy English ale and snappy ginger beer. Each elixir celebrates the other—an herbal interplay you could help further along with a squeeze of lemon or dash of orange bitters. The old-school shandygaff is great drink for such outdoor activities as reading detective novels on a patio, attempting hedge mazes, and officiating badminton matches from a hammock.

The shandygaff has evolved into (3) the Shandy. One version, often known as Lemon Shandy, involves trickling an ounce or two of fresh lemonade into a shy little beer. In addition to Shock Top, Samuel Adams, Harp, Saranac, and Labatt are pushing forward into the realm of selling premixed shandies along these lines. In so doing, they follow the English brewers who bottle the most famous sort of modern shandy, an alliance of lager and “lemonade.”

All this weekend, in Boston and Washington and Philadelphia, sweat-glazed British tourists will toe into bars and try to order a shandy. If you see one of these persons, clammy as an uncooked veal cutlet, encountering any difficulty getting one, do the right thing and offer a translation. Gently remind the bartender that Britons tend not to speak English correctly: When they say lemonade, they mean a carbonated lemon soda roughly approximated by 7-Up, not the cloudy yellow stuff you purchase when taking pity on urchins sitting roadside with pitchers and Dixie cups.

I had been keenly excited to disenjoy my first shandy. Prejudging it as cloying silliness, I had rough drafts of fine insults all ready to roll. Thus, I was disappointed to find that a basic dive-bar shandy made with lager and Sprite is an easy pleasure. It is kind of sweet, yeah, but only half so sweet as soda and twice as interesting, with the two flavors fusing into a zesty third.

In France, a shandy is a Panaché. In Germany, it is a Radler, which belongs to a category of beer cocktails described, naturally, by a mammoth compound noun: Biermischgetränke. In time for the Olympics, someone please invent a drinking game predicated on exploiting the many worldwide variations on this beer spritzer so that a Cuban dissident rooting against his native land’s boxers quaffs a Bul (beer, ginger ale, lime juice), while an Argentinian watching basketball sips a mix of lager and orange Fanta with every basket.

I strongly recommend experimenting with shandy adaptations. The alliance over ice of an I.P.A. and a gourmet grapefruit soda will fortify your yuppie picnic. But maybe you’re playing around with something less rarified, like the Broadway, a combo of lager and Coca-Cola, which is full of brightly bitter surprises. In that case, use a beer that is neither conspicuously awesome nor flagrantly crappy. Red Stripe works nicely, and you will be thankful, as day spills into evening, that its squat bottle has a low center of gravity.

Beware of mixing lager and tonic if you’re in a fragile mood. Its bitterness is nothing less than poignant. A member of the beer-cocktail tasting panel I assembled described the Tonic Shandy as “something you would drink, alone, in the tropics while thinking about that woman you really should have written a letter to before it was too late.”

The point should be obvious, but we would be remiss not to state outright that the lightness of the shandy recommends it as a summertime refreshment. Like (4) the Cincinnati Cocktailone part muscular microbrew, one part chilled soda water, no ice, all good—it’s good for when you want to spend the whole afternoon in the sun drinking while keeping your wits about you. It’s also good for when you just spent the whole afternoon in the sun drinking and need to ease up before—“Oh, oooh, really sorry. Let me pay for [the next round/the cleaning bill/the cost of pet cremation].”

Let us briefly lurch down Mexico-way to consider the (5) Michelada and similar drinks such as the Chelada and the Chavela.

Translating michelada, we encounter a diminutive endearment: My little cold one, it chimes, in a tone indicating that you should cherish its vivid assembly of lime juice, seasoning, salt, and Mexican lager. Perhaps this explains why people who get dogmatic about the drink—quibbling over nuances regarding Maggi and Worcestershire sauces—tend toward possessiveness and protectiveness. Many people have many opinions about when a michelada can be called a michelada, but none deny that whatever you call it, it tastes best served at a resort-hotel swim-up bar.

The matter of adding tomato juice to a Mexican beer, as in a Cerveza Preparada, brings us to the matter of (6) Red Beer, also known as Red Eye: beer mixed with tomato juice. Jane and Michael Stern put a few away in Oregon for their book Two for the Road, and report that “the exact ratio can vary from an effervescent five to one, in which the beer is merely flavored, to a two-to-one mix as fruity as a drink in a health-food juice bar.” (Similar drinks include Red Rooster, Tomboy, Bloody Beer, Red Eye à la Cocktail, The Brutus and the kinetic Ugly.)

Red beer, made in the spiceless traditional fashion, isn’t terribly thrilling, but it has a certain country-club appeal, a cheerful WASP calm. Goes well with Triscuits, spills well on tennis whites.

In its brunchiness, the red beer bears some relation to the (7) Beermosa, which is perfectly self-explanatory and only mildly gross.

This brings us to (8) the Boilermaker—beer with a shot of whiskey in it—but are we sure we want to go there? Its name is redolent of Rust Belt bars serving 50-cent beers at 10 in the morning. Its tradition embraces the Beer Buster (beer with vodka and Tabasco) and the Dog’s Nose (beer with gin in it). (Actually, the Dog’s Nose might not count, as it dates from an era when Londoners put gin in everything.)

The uncountable number of variations on the basic boilermaker points us to a law of human nature: Anything that can be put in beer will be put in beer, including peaty scotches, fruity liqueurs, and other beers.

But this is not the place to get bogged down discussing the depth charges, car bombs, and theatrical bad ideas with which young people amuse themselves—except to note that a teenager banging a table in a sushi restaurant to detonate a sake bomb is continuing a distinctive undistinguished tradition. Here is David Wondrich in The Oxford Companion to Beer: “Beer features prominently in what may be called ‘folk mixology’: mixology that takes places in the field, without the mediation of a trained bartender.” We are talking, in other words, about traditions passed along orally at dive bars and in off-campus undergraduate housing, in a manner similar to, and indeed sometimes coincident with, herpes of the mouth. In the 21st century, thank goodness, the Internet collects such knowledge, so that an anthropologist stumbling across Urban Dictionary can discover an improbably heavenly concoction called the Orange Blastaphon (three parts wheat beer, one part gin, one part Fresca or Wink or Squirt): “Sounds terrible but it is actually refreshingly delicious.”

Wondrich cites the 1970s-style (9) Beer Margarita, equal parts cheap beer, frozen limeade concentrate, and tequila, as the “very model of the popular American beer cocktail,” but I respectfully wonder whether that distinction more properly belongs to (10) The Skip and Go Naked.

The skip and go naked is a punch traditionally made with thinly fizzing domestic lager, frozen lemonade, and gin or vodka—or gin and vodka—plus whatever else at hand looks good. When made with pink lemonade, the skip and go naked is known as The Pink Panty Dropper. Its most evocative cognomen is The Porchcrawler—one unhyphenated word, with the crunch of consonants enhancing its cinematic imagery. You can feel the floor beams creaking under your knees.

The skip and go naked has been in circulation since at least the mid-1960s, when a Rochester, N.Y., rock group called The Invictas was distinguishing itself as the great upstate bar-band of the first garage-rock era. The lyrics for “Skip ‘N Go Naked,” a reunion-tour ditty, memorialize the band’s golden days:

In the back seat of my car,
The windows got steamed up.
The cops knocked on the door,
Said, “Get your clothes back on”
We blamed it on our drinking.

I enthusiastically recommend this reader-submitted Epicurious recipe for the pink panty dropper. (“If it’s hot, you’re low on cash, and want to have a lot of fun, this is the answer!”) The recipe below represents a pastiche of wisdom from it and the following websites: DrunkInCollege.com, AskMen.com, Food.com, CoedMagazine.com, GroupRecipes.com, and Boozemixer.com. I am especially inclined to credit the Boozemixer recipe on account of the author’s academic credentials and the extracurricular expertise they imply: “drink recipe by: CSU Chico Student.”

Best made in big batches, this is a great alternative to Jungle Juice.

Start with a CLEAN 5-gallon bucket of some sort. Seriously, anything.

Mix four cans of frozen pink-lemonade concentrate with the cheapest handle of 80-proof vodka available.

Pour in a case of canned beer. Get the worst beer you can. Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) and Miller Genuine Draft (MGD) are always good here because they’re watery. Cheap Canadian beers are even better. You could also step things up and substitute a 30 pack of Natty Ice.

It’s rather unavoidable that there will be a LOT of head from all that beer, but it will go down after a while. Also, don’t be concerned about the beer going flat as the day goes on. You won’t be able to notice.

Be in a safe place. Toss some ice in a glass or clear plastic cup and drink responsibly!

Determined to invent an upscale version of this drink, I walked into my regular place and asked for something like a Tom Collins, but topped with beer instead of soda water. The bartender and I tinkered our way into using Cherry Heering, the brandy-based Danish liqueur, as the sweetener. Its dark-cherry ripeness was divine.

The drink was a winner, but the problem was what to call it. There is no dignity in requesting a Skip and Go Naked Cocktail, and my whole point had been to concoct an adult beverage that a real live adult might actually order. Obviously, we couldn’t call it the Pink Panty Dropper Cocktail, either, because the finished drink is not so much pink as puce. So ladies and gentlemen, as a matter of default, with a measure of pride, I give you (11) Slate’s Porchcrawler Cocktail.

Boom: A porchcrawler cocktail is wrought with 2 ounces gin, ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice, ¾ ounce Cherry Heering, and ¼ ounce simple syrup. Shake these with ice. Strain this into a chilled Collins glass filled ¾ with ice. Top with cold wheat beer—ideally a Bavarian crystal wheat.

Whatever success you have crawling from the porch to the place you’re supposed to be sleeping, you’re going to be sleeping, eventually, after a few of these. And when you wake up (as you probably will), you’ll want a (12) Black Velvet.

The black velvet originated, according to legend, to mourn the 1861 death of Prince Albert, and it is the perfect balm for your hangover. Its excellence is a matter not only of its texture—Guinness and Champers combined to soul-soothing effect—but also of its process. There will be a LOT of head on this cocktail unless you pour these liquids very carefully. Forcing yourself to concentrate on the task will prove a restorative exercise. This is the new morning in America: The most elegant of the beer cocktails draws a cool curtain against the day’s punishing heat and the night’s punishing excess.