Butterfly Pea Blossom Astounds in Bear’s Lair Tavern Cocktail

Watch this vodka-soda concoction turn colors before your eyes.


Photo by Lori Eanes

A blue flower with mysterious chemical properties is currently the buzziest new ingredient among avant-garde mixologists. What makes the butterfly pea blossom unique is not merely its ability to turn any food or drink blue, but that this blueness will magically change colors again depending on the chemistry of the other ingredients.

At Berkeley’s Bear’s Lair Tavern, bar manager Cris Amell created the aptly named Butterfly Soda cocktail, which changes colors right before your eyes.

Amell learned about butterfly pea blossoms from his good friend Ryan Wehrenberg, bar manager at the Lafayette Park Hotel.

“It’s a very trendy ingredient right now. We order the blossoms direct from Thailand, then steep them in vodka for up to six hours, producing an incredible deep blue spirit,” Amell said.

Comedian George Carlin once famously wondered, “Why is there no blue food?” The answer is that human beings seem inherently revolted by the idea of consuming anything blue, that rarest of food colors, which for reasons unknown, our psyche regards as unnatural to eat or drink. Studies have shown that blue lighting in a room causes people to lose their appetites. Alfred Hitchcock loved making others feel uncomfortable, onscreen and in real life: His most sadistic sociological experiment was to stage a dinner party whose delicious gourmet food was all dyed blue.

Cultures evolve, however, and subsequent generations of kids raised on Boo Berry and artificially colored jelly beans have dampened our innate revulsion enough that now many regard blue food as intriguing and exciting, rather than suspicious.

Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese diners have never shared the West’s aversion to blue food, however, specifically because Southeast Asia is home to a local plant we call the butterfly pea (botanical name Clitoria ternatea, as it resembles part of the female anatomy), whose flowers contain a powerful, harmless, natural blue pigment that for centuries has been used to impart a vivid blue color to regional rice dishes and tea drinks.

Three years ago, American mixologists “discovered” this age-old ingredient, when Sam Anderson of New York’s Mission Chinese Food first used butterfly pea blossoms in his Mood Ring cocktail, which took advantage of the pigment’s chameleon-like ability to change colors when mixed with citrus.

You might think that the mildly yellow color of lemon or lime juice would turn the blue to green — but in fact, the color-change goes the other way, toward purple. That’s because the transition is not simply the blending of colors, but a biochemical reaction to the acid in the lemon juice, which changes the pH level of the flower extract. The natural pigment in the blossoms, called anthocyanin, possesses the almost miraculous quality of changing color at the molecular level when its pH level goes up or down — which happens to be the exact same principle behind the classic litmus test.

Amell’s Butterfly Soda is a performance-based cocktail; watching it being made is part of the experience.

“Yes, it’s a simple vodka drink. But it’s the most fun vodka soda you’ve ever had,” Arnell enthused. “We start with the deep blue blossom-infused vodka — that color alone is fantastic to begin with — but when we add the soda, syrup, and lemon juice, the pH level changes in your glass, and the blue transforms into a glorious swirling vivid purple. As soon as the first person orders a Butterfly Soda, everyone else in the bar simply has to have one. It’s that eye-catching.”

A chemistry experiment has never been so fun to drink.

Bear’s Lair Tavern, 2465 Bancroft Way, Ste. 104, Berkeley, 510-664-4191, BearsLairTavern.com.

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