Lifestyles · Reviews

The Drink with Many Names

*I originally wrote this article for my Journalism class in the Fall 2019 semester. I had hopes of submitting it for publication with a local newspaper for summer 2020, but COVID has not only affected the publication of my beloved RN&R, but a lot of our local restaurants and bars as well (many mentioned here). So, I’m not sure how well this article will hold up in a post-pandemic world, but I am proud of it and of our local businesses. If you can, please safely support them during this time – especially with the holidays.

The Drink with Many Names

“You should try a red beer.”

            “What’s that?”

            My mom and I waited in the line for the bar, my mind racing for a drink that wasn’t wine, and this was her suggestion. Now, I didn’t like beer—not fancy IPAs, not domestic—and she knew this. My mom was also aware of my weekend quest for a cheap drink since my favored Jack and Cokes raised the tab rather quickly.

            “Beer and tomato juice. It’s like a Bloody Mary.”

            “I’ll try it,” I said, “but if I don’t like it you have to finish my drink.”

            The Lake County Fair and Round-Up has an unwritten rule, particularly in my family: thou shalt imbibe. Hard liquor is only served in the Re-Ride Room and costs an arm and a leg. Wine and beer are available, but the selection is low; the local domestic of choice is Coors. At the bar, the bartender grabbed a plastic bottle of Bloody Mary mix and poured into a cup of Coors Light. The resulting color was less of the dark red I was used to from my favorite tomato-based drink and looked kind of how I imagine the ocean does after a shark attack. It was filled to the brim and I had to lean over a trashcan to sip it down before my mom and I could locate our seats for the rodeo. I’ve never found the yeasty taste of beer appetizing but covered with the wild flavor of the tomato and blended… It wasn’t bad.

            I finished the drink and had two more before the day was over.

            If we choose to define red beer as basically beer and a tomato component then we find many names and variations across the United States. However, it does seem to be more common outside of the Northeast side of the country. Additionally, there are international versions with the Calgary or Saskatchewan Red-Eye in Canada and the popular Michelada from Mexico. What I learned of as “red beer” is also known as bloody beer, red-eye, red rooster, tomato beer, Montana Mary, red draws, hair of the dog, and more localized versions. Similar to its sister-drink, red beer is most commonly associated with hangovers and early morning drinking, although some, like me, may choose to drink it at any time.

            Once I was back in Reno, I discovered that “red beer”, while definitely a thing, was not easily understood in every bar. Washoe County, while not as urban as Los Angeles or Las Vegas, is not rural like my hometown; it also seems to be prime Michelada territory. While it is hard to pin down the origin of red beer, many attribute it to a cross-cultural trade between the States and Mexico. However, the beginning of the Michelada as a specific drink is a little easier to track. Some say the name is a portmanteau of mi chela helada, which means “my cold beer.” Others have a more specific belief that, in the 1970s, the drink was named after its creator, Michel Esper Jorge, after the bartender asked him what kind of cervezas preperada he had concocted for his hangover. It is worth noting that the drink in the story did not contain a tomato component and, in many parts of Mexico, a Michelada is made from beer, a squeeze of lime, and dashes of miscellaneous sauces to give it that red color. What makes the Michelada and red beer special, though, is their versatility and adaptability. They’re drinks that can be customized to a particular person’s tastes, especially when made at home.

            These traits are shared with other beer cocktails. Traditional mixed drinks like the Bloody Mary or our regional Picon Punch have traceable histories back to New York bars or Basque immigrants. Cocktails using beer, however, were the precursor to those using liquor; some may have histories but their origins can be as murky as a Blacker and Tanner. Early drinks like Purl, made with bitter herbs, and Flip, made with sugar, rum, and eggs and served hot, set the groundwork for later additions and refinements. Concoctions made with beer are an important part of American mixology and its history even if some purists would prefer otherwise. Its value as an affordable asset in food business can’t be undersold either. Modern restaurants without liquor licenses often include a beer cocktail or two on their menu to showcase the many different ways America’s favorite drink can be used. Red beer and Micheladas are just some of possibilities.

            Many of the Mexican restaurants in Reno have some form of the Michelada. Most often they’re served in chilled mugs with salted rims and a slice of lime. In some places where the Michelada has achieved popularity, like Los Angeles or New York, you’ll see the sorts of toppings and variations one might on outlandish Bloody Marys. While Reno hasn’t quite achieved that level, a few restaurants do go beyond the basic Michelada in their presentation. Los Potrillos Taqueria balances a bottle of Victoria in a large glass with vegetables and grilled shrimp along the rim. At Estella, their Michelada is also topped with a shrimp cocktail and—in an interesting move—their mix is made with beef broth rather than a seafood base. While Mexican restaurants are almost guaranteed to have some version of the drink, or to at least know of it, other cuisines hold no such promise. I completely struck out at a Grimaldi’s Pizza where I was hoping to see what their house Bloody mix would taste like with beer because no one knew what I was attempting to order. These kinds of troubles, unsurprisingly, can also carry over to bars.

            Unknowingly, I was a served a more traditional Michelada at The Loving Cup in Reno. Rather than the common proportions of tomato to beer ratio, the beer was stronger. However, this was balanced by some spicy Tajin, which dusted the rim of the glass and was mixed in as well. On the moderately hot September day, the cool drink was perfect and the added spice was an unexpected but welcome addition that showed me the variations’ possibilities. Unlike the awkward dance of trying to order a Bloody Mary during the afternoon, it wasn’t hard to acquire the drink once I figured out how to communicate what I wanted.

            Of course, with as many names as it has, confusion happens. At Ceol Irish Pub, the bartender thought I was attempting to order red ale, badly, for a long minute. Once we understood each other, though, it became my drink for the night. On other trips to the pub, I stuck to ciders or my expensive cocktails and felt a little lost in the sea of other orders and drinkers. That night I was the only red beer in the bar and the bartender and I both knew it. In anticipation of a refill, he gave me the can of tomato juice so I could rebalance the drink as needed. This is one of the greater, supposedly low-class powers of red beer—it’s a honkytonk drink, a tailgate libation. It brings people together.

            At the college dive, The Union, I tried to teach the young bartender how to make a red beer. My friends are I were sharing pizzas and garlic fries, the weather outside was unseasonably warm, and it was that part of the semester where alcohol was desperately needed. Some other students were watching the loud television while I explained what seemed, to me, a basic recipe of beer + Bloody Mary mix = red beer. I forgot to mention the ratio; I am also an anxious pushover. This was how I learned that when there’s too much beer and not enough tomato juice, red beer can be less than appetizing, even for me.

            That’s the difficulty, of course. While the Bloody Mary has achieved mainstream fame, brunch table success, and has basically become a meal at this point, its sister is sometimes left to languish in obscurity. The culture has fully accepted the combination of vodka and tomato juice, but in this new wave of beer purity and being hopped on hops the idea of diluting just rubs some people the wrong way. This actually isn’t new. In the Shamokin News-Dispatch in 1946, EV Durling wrote that he “shuddered” at the sight of another bar patron drinking beer mixed with tomato juice but also said, “Of course, I may be prejudiced. Don’t even like tomato juice straight…” This is fair enough; if someone doesn’t like tomatoes then a red beer just isn’t for them. But knocking what might be perceived a low class beverage before trying it? I didn’t like beer and I tried it.

            In my quest to taste what Reno had to offer of red beer, I received a lot of “funny” looks. Most establishments didn’t have the drink on their menu but I figured if they served Bloody Marys then they could make it. However, communicating what a red beer is often resorted to a basic recipe, me butchering the Spanish language the first few times, or going through the entire list of names and hoping one of them stuck. Beer is a global drink, but we’ve made a few classist divides. So was I stirring some things I shouldn’t have in trying to order a red beer at a nice restaurant? Maybe, but they served Coors. Other patrons would take a glance at my red-tinted glass and clearly try to figure out what I was drinking. Those of my friends who were unfamiliar with my new favorite would ask; some were grossed out, and others were amused by my enthusiasm. A few had tried it for hangovers, but no one wanted to have one of their own. I spent months preaching the beauty of red beer, but no one was really listening.

            Luckily, red beer is a drink that can be made at home quite easily, without judgement. I didn’t have a chance to create every variation on the basic recipe, but tried different ratios, different mixes, and different levels of spice. The 50-50 ratio of beer to tomato is fairly valid, because if there’s too much tomato you can’t taste the beer and if there’s too much beer then the tomato upsets the texture of the drink. Most recipes call for a light domestic—like my Coors—but it’s up to individual tastes and the Michelada calls for Mexican beer, such as a Corona or Dos Equis. An IPA is generally not recommended because the flavor of the hops does not blend well with the tomato. V8 is always an available basic mix, and it’s nice that it comes in low sodium or spicy and smaller cans too. Bloody Mary mixes come in all shapes and tastes so that’s also more a personal decision, but as far as flavor depth goes this is always a great choice to complement the beer and create essentially the poor man’s version of the drink. Other versions use Clamato or premade mixes such as Arriba Chelada. The additional ingredients in the drink vary with the recipe: lime juice, olive juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, onions, egg. As for spice, the discerning mixologist who knows their palate well can choose how much hot sauce or Tajin or Maggi seasoning they want. As far as toppings or what to put along the rim goes, flavors that complement the drink work best but experimenting can be fun. If people can put an entire hamburger on a Bloody Mary then why not a red beer? With all of these different possibilities, the red beer and its variations may be one of the most versatile mixed drinks yet.

            When I wasn’t able to order my preference, I fell back on the Michelada because of its easier availability even if the mix was a little different than what I wanted. At The Depot, I found a refreshing drink with just the right amount of spice that tickled my nose and complemented the grilled cheese sandwich as well as any tomato soup would. At Two Chicks, actually on their menu right next to the Bloody Marys, I had a gigantic, frosted mug that took the entire meal and then some to consume. While it was also cold outside and most say the Michelada is a summer drink, I thought it was one of the better drinks I’d had and the choice of Modelo Especial with clam juice and their house Bloody mix made me warm.

            The Michelada is even readily available at the grocery store. Next to the six packs, 24oz “tall boy” cans of Budweiser & Clamato Picante Chelada and Bud Light & Clamato Chelada are available. I was hesitant to try these because they were pre-mixed and I’m not a huge fan of Clamato. The size was also daunting. What I found was that these were fairly basic, beginner Micheladas. It wasn’t necessarily bland or bad, but nothing really stood out as especially flavorful either. The drink was the most basic components of beer and a tomato flavor, balanced together pretty well, and satisfied the red beer urge enough. I imagine for those who don’t have the time or energy to mix their own or a readily available bar this is a good option to have. Other brands, like Tecate and Modelo, have their own takes which tend to score higher among reviewers. As Micheladas become more popular and mainstream perhaps the acceptability of its watered down red beer version will also gain some attention.

            In some way, with this new-old drink I’ve come to love, that’s all I’ve wanted—acceptance. At 1864 Tavern, like someone who’d had their hopes crushed a few too many times, I approached the bartender and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to know how to make a red beer, would you?”

            He was surprised, clearly, but joked back as if he was offended. “Do I know how? You want a classic red beer or a dressed-up Michelada?”

            No one had ever asked me which I preferred, or shown that they knew the difference. I ordered it basic and shared some of the struggles I’d had. He mixed the beer with a bit of Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix, spiced up, and dashed salt on the foam. When I sipped from the glass I tasted the perfect no-muss, no-fuss drink, just like I’d first had back in Oregon.

            I never imagined I would willingly drink beer. Every time I tried this or that it wasn’t right, didn’t taste good. I always said I was a liquor girl, vodka and whiskey my closest companions, but I guess all I needed was to take one of my favorite foods and put it with one of my least favorite drinks to make it decent. Jack and Coke usually tastes the same no matter where you get it. Red beer is different. Red beer tells you a story about the person making it, the place you’re drinking, and the people you’re with. It tastes better on a hot day but does just fine in the winter. When you find your find yourself in a bar with the urge to try something new, ask for the drink by any of its names, and see what it answers to.