Thanks to entrepreneurial bakers, beer cupcakes are popping up at festivals, in storefronts and in wholesale bakeries around the country. Boozy cupcakes are not just delicious but also inventive, like the “Pretzels & Beer” baked with pale ale and Nutella, which has become a best-seller at the Prohibition Bakery in Manhattan.
“It’s the easiest way to share a bite of beer,” says Misty Birchall of San Diego’s PubCakes. “It even has a wrapper so you can hand it out without a napkin or a plate.” That’s just one of the beautiful things about a beer cupcake.
Birchall bakes craft beer cupcakes for festivals and fundraisers, but especially for friends. “I love the expression on people’s faces when I tell them that a cupcake is baked with beer—they look both surprised and happy!”
Birchall approaches baking with a zest for beer. “When I drink a beer for the first time, I write down all the flavors that I taste and then try to match those with ingredients I can put in a cupcake.”
That’s the secret to baking with beer. What looks like a typical cupcake is anything but, once tasted. Combinations such as the Portzilla, baked with Stone Brewing Co.’s Smoked Porter, coffee ganache and caramelized coconut, and Beer for Breakfast, baked with Alesmith Brewing Co.’s Wee Heavy topped with maple cream cheese frosting and crispy bacon sprinkles, set a new standard for sweet tooths.
Even Betty Crocker has more than a dozen beer-infused cupcakes featured on the website, mostly the creations of contributing food and beer bloggers.
But it’s not always easy selling bite-sized pastry infused with beer. To cover food costs, prices range from $2.50 per standard cupcake in budget-conscious Milwaukee, where Angela Figueroa operates Brew Cakes, up to $5 in major markets such as Manhattan.
Figueroa’s custom-baked beer cupcakes are popular at festivals, such as the Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival in Glendale, WI, the annual gathering of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild.
In Atlanta, Happy Hour Confections’ founder, Holly Pezzano, has branched out beyond cupcakes into wedding cakes and groom’s cupcakes. A Valentine’s favorite is the Salted Triple Porter, a vanilla porter cupcake filled with porter caramel and topped with chocolate porter frosting and sea salt, baked with the Breckenridge Vanilla Porter. “It’s all malt flavors, not bitter, so the beer taste really comes through,” Pezzano says. The challenge for Pezzano has been to “take away the frilly image of cupcakes,” a task made easier by her collaborations with retailer Ale Yeah! at its Roswell and Decatur locations.
Yet margins are tight when selling a perishable food product. Manhattan’s Butch Bakery attempted to develop a chain for its dude cupcakes, but found costs of production too high to sustain. And Beer Cakes Philly, the brainchild of baker and beer lover Lexi Malmros, shut its doors in August 2013.
Some beer bakers, such as Birchall, have switched from retail storefronts to focus on special events and venues such as beer fests and farmers markets, where hand-selling can be profitable. Birchall is also creating a line of packaged beer cake mixes, where all you have to do is add the beer. The cake mixes were the focus of a successful Kickstarter campaign launched by Birchall in 2013. Birchall has also created a Speedway Stout Chocolate Sauce, which she hopes to package and bring to market in 2014.
Beer works as a gentle leavener and liquid in a recipe, but it’s not a one-to-one replacement. Blogger Jackie Dodd, aka The Beeroness, cautions, “If you are replacing a liquid that has fat, like milk or cream, with beer, you need to compensate for that lost fat. For instance if you replace 1 cup of whole milk with 1 cup of stout in a cake, put 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a 1-cup measuring cup and then fill the cup with stout to make up for the milk fat you’ll lose.”
Another tip for tender baked goods prepared with beer is to brush the cakes with a simple syrup, blended half and half with beer, to get both fresh aromas and a tender, moist crumb. A basic recipe is to boil equal parts water and sugar, add a few drops of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract, and thin with porter or brown ale to a light syrup consistency. Place in a mister or squeeze bottle to gently moisten the baked cakes as soon as they emerge from the oven.
“The spray bottle is my best friend in the bakery,” laughs Pezzano. “It makes it so easy to add a spritz of beer flavor and aromas.”
Chocolate Porter Cupcakes-on-Tap
Adapted from The Butch Bakery Cookbook; for a step by step pictorial featuring Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, see baker Bridget Edwards’ blog.
12 tablespoons (1 & 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 cup porter or stout beer, decanted, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
frosting & topping:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
7-8 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 cup porter or stout, decanted, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or extract)
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped chocolate-covered pretzels
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 24 muffin cups with cupcake paper liners.
Melt butter in a quart saucepan set over low heat. Remove from heat and whisk in the cocoa until smooth. Whisk in beer and set aside to cool until lukewarm.
With an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sour cream in a large bowl until blended and not lumpy. Add in the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on low speed.
Add the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt and beat on medium-low speed until combined. Use a spatula to scrape down the bottom and sides of bowl to mix evenly.
Divide the batter into the cups, filling each about two-thirds full. Bake 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center cupcake comes out clean. Do not overbake.
Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove and place on cooling racks to cool completely.
Prepare the frosting while cupcakes bake. Use the paddle attachment of a mixer and beat butter and shortening on medium until combined and fluffy. Add powdered sugar, beer, vanilla and salt; mix on low until incorporated, then beat on medium-high for 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Use a cookie or ice cream scoop to dollop the frosting onto each cupcake. Top with chopped pretzels.
Lucy Saunders studied baking and pastry in Chicago before turning to the culinary use of beer. Saunders is the author of several cookbooks on beer, most recently Dinner in the Beer Garden.