Challenged with fermented black beans, Barrelhouse Flat bartender Dan Smith initially confused them with natto, Japanese fermented soybeans, a past challenge ingredient. Fermented black beans turned out to be far more familiar to him—at least in the form of black-bean sauce, a staple of many Chinese dishes. In their more basic form, the beans are "extremely salty," he said, which posed a bit of a problem, as "an aggressively salty cocktail just isn't going to be pleasant to get down."
Smith thought he had a solution. "In a strange way, the opposite of salt in cocktails is bitterness," he noted; in fact, there's a study showing that salt masks bitterness more effectively than sugar. He had a hunch it might work the other way around as well, and to test his hypothesis steeped an ounce of the salty fermented black beans in the bitter Italian artichoke liqueur Cynar, which he described as "the acknowledged king of unlikely compatibilities." He let this sit for three days, then repeatedly strained it through cheesecloth to remove the grit. The infused liqueur "worked out beautifully," though it's still "very intense," he said. It was time to experiment.
Smith's fellow barkeep Mark Brinker had had Boilermakers on the brain—not the classic Chicago beer and a shot, but the variant in which a shot is dropped into a glass of beer. This gave Smith the idea of using his infused Cynar as a "seasoning for beer." Specifically, he put some in a draft of Miller High Life, only to find that the doctored amaro worked "like an additive for turning a bad beer into a decent beer," giving it an "unmistakable umami" and a longer, fuller finish. It turned out to taste even better added to a decent pilsner. After a few more experiments Smith settled on Victory Prima Pils as his receptacle.
For the shot he came up with a "miniature cocktail": the infused Cynar, some Smith & Cross Jamaica rum ("for proof" but also because it's "a natural" with the chocolate and dried-fruit flavors of the fermented black beans), a little green chartreuse (for "additional complexity"), and a dash of orange bitters. The key, though, is to "drop it in very gently."
The Old Bean
1 oz black-bean-infused Cynar
1/2 oz Smith & Cross Jamaica rum
1/8 oz green chartreuse
Dash orange bitters
Half a glass of beer
Combine the first four ingredients in a shot glass and carefully drop it into the beer. Drink rapidly.
Smith has challenged Jonah Frank of Trenchermen with pimenton, smoked Spanish paprika, a personal favorite he thinks might prove to be "extremely delicious in a cocktail."