I like the simplicity of a cold beer, but sometimes I crave the extra flavor kick and complex layering of a more elaborate cocktail.
One day, my friend and bartender Nick Lappen of Somerville’s Backbar showed me his trick: dropping a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters into his Miller High Life, which instantly elevated the taste.
Turns out, people have been flavoring their beers with bitters for some time. “It originated as Picon Bière in Northern France,” Lappen explains.
Essentially, it’s a French take on a shandy that combines a light beer with dashes of Amer Picon, a French bitter orange liqueur with pronounced caramel, orange, and herbal notes.
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Stateside, it’s a widely shared secret among the bartender community because it makes a light beer a lot tastier, especially for those who suffer from palate fatigue after a long night shift. “A lot of bartenders have their preferred bitters and beer combinations,” he says.
In terms of the types of bitters to add, Lappen suggests reaching for the non-potable bitters, which provide contrasting flavors and a depth of bitterness that adds body to an otherwise plain lager.
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As the non-potable bitters are often too bitter and too alcoholic to drink on their own, a few drops into your beer glass and a gentle swirl should suffice. “On the other hand, some potable bitters like Amaro can go really well with sour beers; that balances out the tartness,” he adds.
In addition to creating contrast, layering is another approach that Lappen sometimes uses when building the beer and bitters formula. “I especially like a Czech fernet called R. Jelinek Fernet Liqueur in a porter, as the liqueur’s cinnamon notes stand up well in this dark and malty beer.”
How to Pair Bitters and Beer
So how do different bitters pair with different styles of beer? Here are Nick Lappen’s recommendations. (And check out our guide to shopping for beer if you don't know where to start.)
- Lagers and/or Pilsners: Peychaud’s and Angostura Bitters
- Pale Ales: Grapefruit bitters (these amplify the hoppy notes of the beer nicely)
- Porters and/or Stouts: Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro or Fernet
- Sours: Cynar and Pathfinder non-alcoholic Amaro
- Ambers and/or Red Ales: Amaro Montenegro
- IPAs: Bittermens Scarborough Savory Herbal Bitter
For those who want to further zhuzh up their beer cocktail, try Spaghett, a three-ingredient spritz-inspired cocktail that combines Miller High Life with Aperol (or Campari) and lime or lemon juice.