Pale Ales and Painkillers: Why Brewers Find Inspiration in Exotic Cocktails

History & Culture by | Dec 2018 | Issue #133
Illustration by David Perry

Man, it’s said, cannot live on bread alone, and brewers certainly can’t just drink beer. After long shifts in the brewery, sometimes a pint is the last thing on their minds. Follow brewers on social media and you’ll see their surveys of wine, whiskey, and cocktails both homemade and professionally mixed. And one genre of cocktails in particular has captured brewers’ imaginations: colorful tiki drinks. Influential brewers across the country are both escaping their daily doldrums with exotic explorations and bringing tiki’s tropical flavors and escapist ethos back into the brewhouse.

Tiki was born in Los Angeles at the Don the Beachcomber bar in the 1930s, and by the ’60s the palaces of Polynesian pop—ornate bars serving elaborate libations and a taste of paradise—had spread across the globe. While the dark ages of the American cocktail—the disco- and Harvey Wallbanger-fueled ’70s—nearly extinguished tiki’s flame, the tide has shifted in recent decades. Old recipes were rediscovered and revitalized with the techniques of the craft cocktail movement, internet forums and social media facilitated discussion and obsession, and today a new wave of tiki is swelling.

“It’s hard to define what tiki is,” says Seattle-based cocktail writer and tiki expert Matt Pietrek, “there are no hard and fast lines.” Tiki is as much about the place as the potable. The former were dens of bamboo, thatch, and kitsch, where drinkers sailed away from their workaday problems buoyed by the latter: rum-fueled mixtures descended from 19th century Caribbean punches.

Marie King, bar manager of The Tonga Hut—L.A.’s oldest remaining tiki bar—says a true tiki drink is reverential to the planter’s punch formula that tiki originator Donn Beach riffed on for his signature cocktails. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak,” she intones. Beach made dozens of distinctive drinks such as the Zombie and 151 Swizzle with just fresh citrus juices, a handful of offbeat ingredients (think falernum and absinthe), and a vast array of rums he collected from across the world. Rum is the spirit of tiki, and the source of much ardor among tiki aficionados.

“Why do I like tiki? I like rum,” quips Firestone Walker Barrelworks director Jeffers Richardson. “It makes for interesting cocktails in kitschy glasses.” Richardson first explored what he calls “the wonderful world of tiki” at San Francisco tiki palace the Tonga Room in the ’80s. At the time, it was “a location better known as a hangout for your parents or grandparents,” he says. While the rum drew him to tiki, it was the cocktails’ perfect balance between sour, sweet, and spirit that held his interest. He sees a connection between his work blending wild ales at Barrelworks and the way tiki bartenders mix acid, fruit, and oak flavors into a cohesive drink.

Averie Swanson, head brewer at Austin’s Jester King Brewery, is also obsessed with oak and tiki. Swanson fell for tiki culture when visiting Portland, Ore., for the Craft Brewers Conference in 2015. “Every night after the conference we’d end up at a tiki bar,” she says. “The drinks [at Hale Pele and Rum Club] were beautiful and balanced, and they started my love affair with tiki.” The layers of complex flavors and textures in the cocktails were an intense workout for her palate, but it’s not all about taste. The transportive effect of the tiki bar’s decor and vibe also resonate. “An interesting, over-the-top atmosphere can distract from a bad tiki cocktail,” she says. “You can’t take yourself too seriously in a tiki bar!”

Rare Corals, a farmhouse ale from Jester King refermented with 1,200 combined pounds of guava, bananas, strawberries, cantaloupe, toasted coconut, and chamomile.

Rare Corals, a farmhouse ale from Jester King refermented with 1,200 combined pounds of guava, bananas, strawberries, cantaloupe, toasted coconut, and chamomile.

Swanson applied her love of tiki in the brewery by changing her approach to working with Jester King’s barrels of sour ales. “The depth and integration of a great tiki drink, the way they display complex acid components, has contributed to my own approach to blending,” she says. She’d also like to add some rum barrels to Jester King’s aging program, but finding rum barrels in good condition is even more challenging than finding space for more cooperage in the overcrowded barrel room.

Julian Shrago, co-owner and brewmaster of Beachwood Brewing in Huntington Beach, Calif., expressed his love of tiki in the brewhouse more directly when he brewed a tiki-inspired beer without the use of rum barrel aging. Instead, he reverse engineered the flavors in a favorite tiki cocktail, the ’70s-era Tradewinds. First released last November, Trader Jules started as a high gravity wheat ale with “lots of lactose” for extra body and even more apricot puree. Post fermentation additions of lemon zest and shredded coconut rounded out the tiki flavor profile. Deconstructing the flavor of the cocktail and replicating it in the brewhouse was a challenge that Shrago enjoyed, and he’s planning further forays into exotic territory.

Beers inspired by tiki drinks are trending, and Stone Brewing’s Scorpion Bowl IPA is one visible example. The IPA was developed to showcase layers of fruity hop flavors. “Tiki is a natural step once you’ve started down the path of tropical flavors,” declares Steve Gonzalez, Stone’s senior manager of brewing and innovation. He thinks more brews that reference tiki drinks are coming, especially as brewers chase “juicy” hop expressions. Helping to prove his point, Chicago’s Off Color Brewing recently introduced a beer called Spots made with passion fruit and grapefruit peel and described as a “Tiki Weisse,” while in Michigan, Founders Brewing Company released Barrel Runner, a rum barrel-aged Double IPA, in June.

Tiki was a product of the depression. An elaborately garnished cocktail is an affordable escape, and an approachable tonic to the status quo. This invitation to escapism has remained a crucial aspect of tiki culture, which is as inclusive as it is irreverent. Today, tiki flourishes alongside the counter-culture trends of the moment. “Tiki is like a culture snowball,” Pietrek says. “It rolls through and picks up bits of what’s popular at the time.” Craft brewing has never been more popular, and the connection between tiki culture and beer culture is strengthening. How long before beer finds its way into a new generation of tiki cocktails?