The Duvel - Flemish for devil - cocktail lives up to its name. It's a refreshing combination of 8.5-per-cent Belgian beer, gin, tonic and a twist of lemon that tastes a little like hoppy lemonade. It glides down refreshingly, glass after easy glass, until you suddenly realize that you're incredibly drunk, says Ian Bowering, author of In Search of the Perfect Brew: A Guide to Canada's Brewpubs and Microbreweries .
"It's so refreshing that you drink it really fast," says the Cornwall, Ont., resident, who likes to serve it to his in-laws to ease any tensions. "Then you try to get up and you can't. I call it the Paralyzer."
The Duvel, or whatever you'd like to call it, is part of a growing trend of cocktails whose the main alcohol isn't spirits, but beer. These beverages, once considered déclassé, have gained converts as bars across the country serve up their own specialties. Featuring ingredients such as spicy peppers and fresh juices, they go a long way to distance themselves from earlier examples of the genre, such as the red eye (a bland combination of beer and tomato juice that's a Calgary "classic").
"This is the latest stage in beer's evolution," says Fabien Maillard, a mixologist and owner of Montreal's Le Lab. He has created a number of complex drinks, including the captain broujito (rhymes with mojito), made with brown beer, spiced rum, mint, lime and rhubarb bitters. The dark side is another of his creations, a pick-me-up with espresso, brandy, lavender syrup and a dark ale. "We see a desire to play with beer and to be experimental about what we drink," he adds.
Indeed, the new breed of beer cocktails takes many different forms, from patio quaffers to dessert sippers. Vancouver's West Restaurant recently introduced a summer number, made with light Spanish beer, jalapenos, a splash of tequila and a bit of cilantro. It plans to add a few more to the mix when the drinks menu expands next month. In Toronto, the Beerbistro serves two signature ale cocktails, the mimosa bianca and the black forest cake. The latter is a creamy, rich drink: Oatmeal Stout sweetened with a black raspberry liqueur. It's a chocolaty, fruity combination, best suited to evening, with a silky texture and a rosé head. For lighter fare, it suggests the mimosa bianca, a twist on the popular champagne drink, this time made with two parts wheat beer to one part orange juice.
"The mimosa is very popular among the ladies," says Jenna Dotzert, Beerbistro's hostess. "A lot of women like it because it cuts the bitterness of beer."
The beer cocktail appeals to the adventurous or those who want something new with each sip. And while those qualities can be savoured, critics charge that premium beers don't need to be spiced up with other flavours. A good brewery works tirelessly to make a distinct taste that stands alone, says Christine Sismondo, author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History . Beer cocktails replace a complex, subtle drink with a slap-dash concoction in a "desperate hunt for the new."
What separates the barley from the shaft, so to speak, is how people approach mixology, she says - whether as a precise science or more of an anything-goes-with-beer approach.
At Helm Brasseur Gourmand, a Montreal gastro-pub where cocktails are often made with brews produced onsite, mathematics does indeed come into play. Beers can be light or heavy, and a mix of different alcohols can change the look of the drink. For example, the black velvet is equal parts cider and stout, and the white velvet is similar, but it replaces the stout with a wheat beer. The alcohols are different densities, so they stay separate: The heavier cider sinks to the bottom, while the lighter beer rises to the top, manager Sebastien Richer says. The coloured layers are a signature aesthetic, but they also create a unique taste that evolves from mainly ale to more cider-like. "By the time you've finished, it's a different drink," Mr. Richer says.
And that's the point, fans say. For Toronto-based beer writer Stephen Beaumont, beer cocktails are a way to open people's palettes to complexities. Experimentation encourages the drinker to analyze flavours and learn more about ingredients, says Mr. Beaumont, who wrote a chapter on the topic for The Beerbistro Cookbook , published in April. These drinks are about taking risks, he says, pushing your comfort zone past the Belgian microbrew, into an unknown combination of spices and flavours.
"A lot of people are beer purists," Mr. Beaumont says. "But when you start blending, you really open up your mind to the immense possibilities."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Recipes:The Duvel cocktail
1/2 bottle of Duvel beer, or similar dry Belgian ale
same amount of tonic water (about 1/2 pint)
1 ounce gin
1 lemon wedge
The dark side
1 shot of espresso
1 ounce brandy
3/4 ounce lavender syrup
Shake together, then add 1 bottle of dark beer such as Boréale Noire