It’s no real surprise that brewers are, in aggregate, an inquisitive bunch. Brewing is part art, part science, and the relatively short time required to go from raw material to finished beer has always allowed for a certain degree of experimentation.
Since the craft beer revolution in the 1980s, and especially in the early aughts, American craft brewers have made beers that taste like pizza, raw oysters, and steak. While those examples are rather rare attempts to push the medium, an emerging trend of beers brewed to taste like other beverages — cocktails or tea, for example — both satisfies brewer creativity while also bringing in a new and different audience that might otherwise ignore more classic beer styles.
This can be observed (and tasted) at long-established craft breweries like New Belgium, whose Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza (inspired by the Mexican fruit drink) rolled out nationally in 2019; and Schafly, which has expanded its cocktail-inspired beer offerings. Additionally, the experimental strategy has helped boost business at smaller outfits like the less-than-five-year-old Lucky Envelope Brewing.
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The Recipe for New Clientele
At Seattle’s Lucky Envelope Brewing, which hosts regular events tied to its cocktail and teahouse beer series, operations director Raymond Kwan has noticed the impact these specialty beers have on attendance. “In the tasting room we’ve seen a new demographic coming in for special events,” he says. “It started with our raspberry sour, which is popular with people who aren’t actually beer drinkers. We’ve started seeing more and more of that demographic with cocktail beer days and teahouse beer days. They’ve become new regulars that we have: people who don’t drink IPAs every day but love trying new beers.”
These specialty beer days feature two to four limited-release beers from Lucky Envelope, and are often tied to holidays or other special events, like recently for Chinese New Year, when it unveiled beers based on Lapsang Souchong tea and another based on the Red Lotus cocktail. Each is made in small batches and is often only available for a few days before selling out.
Lucky Envelope’s brewmaster, Barry Chan, elaborates, saying “because hazy IPAs have become so popular, and because the base flavors in those aren’t necessarily beer flavors, we as a business have to recognize that there’s a significant portion of drinkers who didn’t grow up drinking Natty Light or Rainier. Their first beers were hazy/milkshake IPAs. That’s their base reference for craft beer, and it would be disingenuous for us to try to impose what our perception of what flavored beer is. We have to be welcoming.”
Welcoming is a nice sentiment; for Lucky Envelope it’s also a strategic move. In addition to creating new customers, beers made to taste like a Blackberry Margarita or Earl Grey tea can have another benefit for breweries: driving business to taprooms and brewpubs, as the majority of these releases are limited-quantity and often draft-only. Like many other seasonal, limited-release, or otherwise special beers, they help create a unique on-site experience.
(On a personal note, the Blackberry Margarita Gose could easily be mistaken for the real thing if you weren’t paying close attention; given the natural sour and salty notes of a gose-style beer, it was a perfect fit, with fresh blackberries helping to round out the flavor profile and mask the lack of agave notes that you would otherwise expect in the cocktail.) Chan also envisions a future cocktail beer based on the Rob Roy, which would feature a relatively obscure Swedish beer made with smoked malt called gotlandsdricka, to emulate the Scotch flavor in the classic cocktail.
Lead brewer Jared Williamson of Schlafly Beer, which operates two locations in St. Louis (soon to be three), explains: “We have a handful of things we release only at the pubs, which helps bring people in and offers a unique experience at our locations. In an ever-growing market of people vying for tap handles at bars and shelf space in stores, it’s good to have stuff you can only get exclusively at your own properties. We’ve had a really good response to these; visitors get really excited, especially people from out of town who have never seen the cocktail beers before.”
Lucky Envelope has been curious to see just how big of a draw these special beers and events are. “The most recent Teahouse beer day was on MLK Day Monday, and the last Cocktail Beer Day was on a Wednesday,” says Kwan. “[Those days were] chosen specifically to see if traffic and sales increased due to the day of the events. Overall, we saw an uptick in sales compared to historic averages. We believe both concepts will continue to grow in popularity and translate to greater sales — but I suspect for the first half of this year we will continue to observe trends by having the events on different days of the week.”
These styles also allow brewers to draw inspiration from all sorts of places. For Williamson, Schlafly’s Kentucky Mule Ale, its first- ever cocktail beer, started at a concert. “One summer six or seven years ago I was at a music festival in Louisville, Ky.,” he says. “Of course, the drinks there were very bourbon-focused, and I was sitting under a tree drinking a Kentucky Mule and thought, ‘I could really deconstruct this into a really cool beer.’”
Taking cues from a Kentucky Mule’s ingredients, Williamson says: “Obviously you have ginger, lime, and bourbon, so I had to figure out what a good base for all that was. I took inspiration from bourbon recipes and did a big wheat ale at about 8 percent ABV with very low IBUs [international bitterness units].” From there, Williamson used ginger, fresh lime juice, and bourbon- barrel chips to create a beer that deeply evokes the cocktail. As he says, “It’s still a beer, but it’s very much inspired by the cocktail, and doesn’t really fit into any classic beer style guideline.”
For Lucky Envelope, inspiration has come from Kwan’s regular trips to Hong Kong, where he makes a point of visiting the city’s finest cocktail bars. “The last couple of trips I’ve made to Hong Kong I’ve checked out establishments that are really focused on craft cocktails, and through taking photos and conversing with people there, I’ve tried to figure out, ‘I just had an amazing cocktail, is this something we can translate into a beer?’” Kwan says. “We’ve found that those cocktails use a lot of ingredients that work well in beer: herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers, and the cocktails we’ve been successful in translating into beers have fallen into those categories.”
Cocktail beers and their ilk may be destined to remain small-batch, taproom exclusives. Their higher cost of production, more complicated recipes, and use of perishable ingredients might preclude them from widespread distribution. But then, much the same argument was made about hazy IPAs not all that long ago.
In the end, breweries will gravitate toward any style that can help bring in new and curious drinkers — and, ideally, curious customers will continue to respect and respond to brewers’ innovations. If making beers that taste like Mai Tais or hibiscus agua frescas creates a fun challenge for brewers and drinkers alike, all the better.