What do you think of when you conjure the flavors of beer? The grain, toast, caramel and roast of malt? Bitterness? Spicy, fruity or herbal hop character? Or maybe it’s the banana and clove notes given off by some strains of yeast?
But what if these familiar flavors were absent or disguised? What if the beer in your glass tasted like something altogether un-beer-like?
There is a small but growing trend among brewers to craft beers that taste like other things. Careful combinations of the traditional brewing ingredients with others that are not so traditional are yielding brews that mimic everything from classic cocktails to sticky desserts.
These beers are not without controversy. There are some in the beer-drinking circles who insist that beer should taste like beer. If you want a cocktail, drink a cocktail. If you want beer, drink beer. In the end, they say, you will be more satisfied drinking the real thing than some gimmicky, wannabe concoction.
But gimmick or not, these non-beer beers have proved popular with consumers who are always on the lookout for something new and different. As long as people are buying them, brewers will keep making them. If their popularity grows, more and more breweries will hop on board.
If you would like to see for yourself what all the fuss is about, here are a few currently-available options to try.
Old Fashioned Lemonade IPA is brewed for Evil Twin Brewing by Swedish brewer Omnipollo. Called an “IPA with added lemon,” it is actually a quite convincing impression of lemonade and just as refreshing as the real thing. Lemony hops combine with the lemon to give the beer a bright acidity and the flavor of both lemon pith and pulp. Bitterness is low for an IPA, lending a sense of crispness without taking over. What really sells this as lemonade is an underlying sugary sweetness that just balances the tartness. I could drink a few of these on a hot summer day, but at 7 percent alcohol, perhaps I’ll limit it to just one or two.
I don’t often drink distilled spirits. But when I do indulge in a cocktail, it’s typically a gin and tonic. Insight Brewing’s Crazy Aunt takes aim at my favorite mixed drink. This golden-colored ale is brewed with juniper, coriander, lime juice and tonic water. Does it taste like a gin and tonic? Maybe vaguely. The basic flavors are there, but it’s missing the alcoholic cut of the real thing. The tonic tastes too sweet, like a low-quality generic brand, lending the whole thing a somewhat muddled character. A contrasting and clinging bitterness in the finish takes it further from the mark. It’s not an unpleasant beer, but it misses its target audience.
Rowdy Uncle, also from Insight Brewing, is modeled on a Moscow Mule. Ginger is the main player here. The aggressive spiciness almost burns in all the right ways. The spiciness is countered by sugary sweetness that creates a spot-on impression of ginger ale. A hint of lime juice brings a lifting brightness. With a lighter touch on the ginger, Rowdy Uncle would be a reasonable twin for the cocktail. But the question remains — why wouldn’t I just order a Moscow Mule?
Moscow Mule Ale from Ballast Point Brewing in California is another attempt at recreating that classic cocktail. This one is built on a kettle-soured base beer, making tart lactic acidity the main driver. Ginger and lime are evenly matched here, as the citric lime juice flavor is enhanced by the kettle souring. Toasted malt sweetness adds balance and complexity, while the 10-percent alcohol gives a sense of distilled spirit. This is certainly the most subtle, complex and cocktail-like of these beers. It’s really quite tasty. But I question the use of a sour beer in something called Moscow Mule. The cocktail itself is not at all tart.
Wells & Young’s Brewery in Great Britain has been making Well’s Banana Bread Beer and Sticky Toffee Pudding for years. These two beers represent a different twist on the non-beer-like theme — dessert.
Banana Bread Beer sounds like a terrible idea, but it actually works. It tastes just like banana bread. There is pronounced banana — fresh and ripe. There are toasted walnuts and sweet brown sugar. These are wrapped up in a doughy loaf of malty, quick-bread goodness. It goes out dry with just a touch of bitterness to remind you of the fact that it is indeed beer. While Banana Bread Beer is probably a one-and-done beer, that one is certainly worth it.
Sticky Toffee Pudding tastes like raisin bread drenched in toffee syrup and sprinkled with chocolate. It is convincingly like the real thing. The aroma is all gooey caramel with supporting notes of bread and nuts. Sticky toffee leads off and comes back strong in the finish.
In between comes raisin, bread, vanilla, chocolate and light hints of rum. This sounds like a heavy, syrupy mess, but the sweetness and body are actually moderate, letting the flavors come through that much better. If you want to drink your dessert, this is an excellent choice.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.