Linnea Covington

At 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Sophia Montaño has already gone through two growlers of beer. But not just any beer -- Montaño wants it flat and warm, the perfect consistency to pour into a batch freezer along with fresh cream, melted almond butter, and sugar. She’s not drinking the brew -- she’s turning it into a frosty treat for Sweet Action Ice Cream in Denver, Colorado.
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"One of the goals was to make flavors that pushed boundaries,” explains Chia Basinger, co-owner of the ice cream shop that has made boozy dairy confections for the last eight years. “Plus, I like Colorado beer -- it's one of the reasons to live here." He also speaks to the many common, natural beer flavors that he initially recognized would work so well with ice cream. "Darker beers have a lot of malty notes, chocolate-ness and sweet cocoa flavors, which is why we started with porters and stouts," he says.

These days, the ice cream guru is branching out from those dark beers to make sweets with less obviously compatible beer styles. Hence his longstanding partnership with Baere Brewing Co., which provided the beer for the ice cream Montaño is making to celebrate the brewery's third anniversary. The flavors include Almond Butter Pale Ale (made with Baere’s GLeeMONEX, a session IPA with a hop profile balanced by a moderate malt backbone), and the Vegan Pineapple Sour (created with Pineapple Table Sour, a German-style Berliner Weisse with bright pineapple notes).
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"We love the camaraderie among independent craft businesses in Denver," says Baere’s Kevin Greer. "We love working with Sweet Action and are excited for every new creation they come up with."

In fact, Sweet Action has created dozens of beer-infused ice cream flavors from quite a few breweries over the years -- many of which have appeared at the annual Beer Ice Cream Festival the brand first launched in 2009. Corresponding with Denver's Great American Beer Festival, the event features at least eight unique products, like Butter Pecan Maple Porter made with Renegade Brewing's Pancakes Maple Porter; Honey Nutmeg Sour Red with Black Project's Voodoo Sour Red; and Vegan Colorado Peach Ale with Copper Kettle Brewing's Peach Golden Ale. Generally, tart sours make their way into sorbets, rich stouts go into chocolate flavors, and bright IPAs land in the fruity stuff.

But Sweet Action isn't the only shop churning beer ice cream. In Columbus, Ohio, Jeni Britton Bauer has been working with brews since she started Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream in 1996. Her first was an ice cream made with a Russian imperial stout from the then nearby Barley's Brewing Co. The beer reminded her of eating black cherry Tootsie Roll Pops in kindergarten, so, she wanted to churn up an ice cream that tasted accordingly.

"I made a soft coffee ice cream with cocoa nibs and put a dark cherry swirl in it," the ice cream maker says. "I never would have [otherwise] put coffee and fruit together, but we did, and it was wonderful."

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Bauer currently serves a blackcurrant sorbet made with a cassis lambic beer, and an ice cream made with a beer named Sue: a smoked cherrywood porter from Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Co. The latter of the two has rich malty notes and a smokiness imparted by the beer, which melds beautifully with the grassy qualities of the locally-sourced milk she uses in it. It also has a handful of "bar nuts,” which consists of rosemary-, brown sugar-, and cayenne-dusted almonds, cashews, peanuts, and pecans. The ice cream was inspired, at least in part, by the barbecue culture of the south, and Bauer's penchant for spice rubs. Though the dessert might not taste like a full rack of ribs, given its smoky and savory aspects, it's definitely a happy hour favorite.

"Beer flavors the cream in a great way and it spreads out over your tastebuds, allowing you to pick up nuances of the beer," says Bauer over the phone. "Beer also adds a dryness to the ice cream. It's big, and sweet, and creamy, and the beer cuts through all that."

Aside from mixing beer into ice cream, Bauer also uses the beverage to enliven other creations. For example, her collaboration with Stone Brewing in California: after tasting their bold brews, she picks apart the flavors of each to make corresponding ice creams that complement the beverage. The first bottle she deconstructed was Stone's Xocoveza, which turned into a succulent and addictive dark chocolate ice cream with savory paprika and hot chili powder. The second, Stone's Mocha IPA, inspired an ice cream called Mocha Black Cherry. To create it, Bauer sipped the beer and allowed the bitter cocoa-coffee and slightly fruity flavors to lead the way.

Making dessert out of beer is fun, she says, and not as hard as one might think. "I have learned if you want to have the pure beer flavor, you don't want to to cook it," she says, advising people who want to make their own beer ice cream to use 10-percent or less of the brew in the mixture. "You want to use a big, bold flavored beer, because you use just enough to flavor it, but not too much because of the water ratio."

Back at Sweet Action in Denver, Basinger uses one growler of beer per four-and-a-half gallons of ice cream. But before the brew goes in, the carbonation gets whisked away so that it can't alter the dairy proteins and impart a funky texture to the dessert. Once the beer is flat, it's poured into the batch freezer along with the cream and other liquid ingredients. After about six to eight minutes, the "soft serve" ice cream gets pumped out and then hardened in the regular freezer. From there, it's ready to be dished up and enjoyed.

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Want to try your hand at creating your own beer ice cream? You should! Check out the two very awesome recipes for Kona Stout Ice Cream and Sour Beer Sorbet that we’ve got from Jeni Britton Bauer’s book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home!

Kona Brewing Company is owned by Craft Brew Alliance, a public company partially owned by Anheuser-Busch.