In good spirits: Beer cocktails crop up in Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS — “Beer before liquor, never sicker.” But how about beer with your liquor, in the same glass? It’s a more appetizing combination and, in Michigan, certainly an inevitable one.

The beer cocktail has evolved from the Irish car bombs of its frat days. It’s no longer just shots-in-pints to break the monotony of shots-after-pints. It’s porters and IPAs with gins and tequilas and liqueurs and olives. The rise of craft beer has led to the rise of the craft beer cocktail.

That being said, the more creative mixtures — with fancy cocktail names like Black Velvet and Sidewalker — aren’t always easy to find, even in Michigan. Brewpubs abound, but most don’t have a full bar. Often a Black and Tan is the most creative your neighborhood taproom can get.

But there’s one place in Grand Rapids at least that always has a few concoctions ready: Harmony Brewing Company. 

Luke Schmidt, Harmony’s general manager, occasional bartender and cocktail creator, describes beer cocktails as “trendy,” but he adds that Harmony has always had some on their menu. “They’ve evolved a little over time, like everything here,” he says. And though the idea of beer cocktails sometimes meets with some hesitation, especially from patrons more familiar with standard cocktails and less inclined toward beer, most customers are more than willing to try one — and they aren’t disappointed.

Harmony’s beer cocktails fluctuate with the tap list. (That can mean quick turnover at a smaller brewpub, so check in often.) When we visited last week, there were two of the regulars on tap — the beergarita and the Proud Mary.

The beergarita combines whichever IPA is on tap (Fiddlestix or Crossroads), tequila, triple sec and lime juice. From a beer lover’s perspective, it’s better than a regular margarita — refreshing and tart, but with a heartier finish.

The Proud Mary is a Bloody Mary — vodka, tomato juice and some “secret ingredients” — mixed with Harmony’s Black Squirrel smoky porter. It’s a drink that’s almost a meal. 

According to Schmidt, creating a beer cocktail is mostly a matter of common sense and taste buds. “It’s not like I’m a cocktail wizard,” he says. “I approach it just like cooking at home.”

That means mixing flavors that usually go well together, and at Harmony it also means collaboration and a lot of feedback before (and after) a drink lands on the menu.

For those wishing to mix their own beer cocktails at home, Schmidt recommends enhancing a beer’s bitter side with something savory or balancing it with something sweet. Citrus flavors from liqueurs like triple sec are a natural complement to a hoppy beer.

But in the end, a healthy dose of trial and error is needed to achieve the perfect beer-liquor union. “It’s harder to come up with a beer cocktail than a regular cocktail, because beer is such a strong flavor,” Schmidt says.

So if you’re in the mood for some adventure, stock up on Michigan brews (both light and dark), unlock your liquor cabinet, grab some open-minded friends, and mix away.

Philip and Erin Zoutendam

Philip and Erin Zoutendam

Philip and Erin love Michigan, enough so that after two years of exile in Arizona, they moved back to the Mitten State for no practical reason. They share a love for Belgian-style ales, and they also love literature, about which they blog for their other not-day-job.

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