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Beer on the Rocks? Interview with Johnny Michaels


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Last February, at the newly expanded Brooklyn Brewery, New York's Mayor Bloomberg admitted to drinking beer on the rocks. The response was not good: Julie Johnson, editor of All About Beer magazine, was quoted in the Huffington Post saying that one should never drink beer with ice, "if you want to respect the efforts the brewers put into the beer." The Gothamist went further: "It looks like Mayor Bloomberg may well have ruined his barely-concealed presidential ambitions with his confession that he takes his beer on the rocks."

At the risk of curtailing my presidential ambitions, let me say, my name is Jason Ross, and I put ice in my beer—and sometimes I even mix it with lemonade or ginger ale. In Britain this beer cocktail is known as a "Shandy"; in Germany, a "Radler"; and in France, a "Panache."

Traditionally none of these drinks are served over ice, but with this summer's daunting heat, ice should be required for all beverages. Oddly, while my wife and I drink iced beer cocktails practically ever day at home during the summer, I rarely order one when I'm out. It's too much trouble and seems to raise eyebrows from my beer purist friends, not to mention the jokes about my gender and suggestions that I add a cute little cocktail umbrella to my drink. I've been told that it will make my beer watery, overly sweet, and generally insipid. I say bosh! It's hot, I'm thirsty, and I want my drink extra cold. Must I continue to drink my beverage of choice in shamed seclusion? I decided I need some support.

So, with high hopes, I called Minnesota's most renowned barman, Johnny Michaels, famed for his cocktails and bar menus that can be found in many of the finer watering holes in the Twin Cities, and most notably, at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Me: Hey Johnny. How's it going these days?

Johnny: Oh, you know. How about you?

Me: Yeah. Pretty good. I've been doing some writing for Minnesota Monthly. (This should impress him.)

Johnny: I've been doing some writing too.

Me: Oh?

Johnny: Yeah, I've got a deadline for my book on cocktails coming up fast.

Me: (Ouch.) Oh, well, uh, you have five for some questions about beer for my next post?

Johnny: Sure. But this guy from Esquire is supposed to call me any minute for an interview. So I might have to go...

Me: (Ouch again.) Oh, ok, well, I'll try to make it fast. How do you feel about people getting upset or judgmental about mixing ingredients that are great all by themselves? Like taking a good beer and making a Shandy? (Johnny makes super creative cocktails using only high quality ingredients. He will definitely support me on this.)

Johnny: Well, I kinda think they have a point.

Me: (Ouch, ouch, ouch.)

Johnny: But, I do that kind of stuff all the time though.

Me: (YES!!)

Johnny: Like using a big red wine if I want to add some tannins or bitterness to a drink, or a fruity wine, if I want bit more punch. And I've been thinking about putting a type of Shandy on a menu coming up this summer. It all depends on what you are trying to do. You know it's kind of like fusion for you. What do you do? You want to have, you know, respect for it, but also want to make something good from something good. It's possible to take something great, and then use it to make something else that is great.

Me: (I'm glad I called you.) Cool. How do you feel about adding ice?

Johnny: Ummm…

Me: (Come on baby…come on...)

Johnny: ….Ok. This might be a good time to use a large chunk of ice instead of small ones. I don't usually use ice. When I make Shandies, I like using a wheat beer.

Me: Me too! Although this summer, I tried it with more "hop-forward" beers, like ale, and it was pretty good. You know, lemon, hops and spice [together]. And I find the ice even softens the flavor.

Johnny: I could see that.

From here our conversation progressed to other matters definitely not worth repeating. So tonight, Mr. Bloomberg, at least while it's still hot, you sir, can count on my vote.

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Minnesota Monthly's Taste Blog answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally brings the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Learn more about the Taste bloggers.

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