Cooking with beer has been a growing trend nationwide for some time, but now beer isn’t just for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s also dessert. Beer enthusiasts have been putting scoops of ice cream in dark, malty beers to make "beer floats" for a while now. But places like Sweet Action Ice Cream in Denver are going one step further by using both beer and spirits to actually make unique, one-of-a-kind flavors of ice cream.
Chia Basinger and partner Sam Kopicko opened Sweet Action in March of 2009 with the idea that they would have fun running a small shop in a neighborhood they loved. Basinger recalls they had beer ice cream available from the very first day. "It was just a natural thing for us because we loved craft beer and we loved making ice cream. We wanted to use local ingredients and Colorado is known for good beer so it seemed like a natural fit. We had a porter ice cream available from day one," he says.
Dark and malty beers, such as Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout, were the first brews Sweet Action incorporated into ice cream because their notes of chocolate and coffee paired so well. But this was only the beginning. "We recently made a Cream Cheese and Apricot flavor using Apricot Blonde from Dry Dock and that turned out really well," Basinger says. "And we’re starting to experiment with pale ales and hoppy beers, too. We’re looking at doing a holiday flavor using cinnamon and gingerbread with a barleywine."
During Denver Beer Fest (which runs Oct. 5 to 13 to coincide with the Great American Beer Festival), Sweet Action is running the "Colorado Beer Ice Cream Fest," and will present some of its best and most creative flavors. The lineup includes ice creams like Silverback Honey Spice (made with Wynkoop Silverback Pale Ale); Strong Coffee Oreo (Renegade Sunday Morning); Black Forest Porter (Denver Beer Graham Cracker Porter); and Belgian Yeti Strawberry Swirl (Great Divide Belgian-Style Yeti).
Not content only playing with beer, Sweet Action also offers ice cream made with local Stranahan’s Whiskey as well as full cocktail flavors such as Mojito and Margarita. Far from a novelty, there are usually anywhere from three to four cocktail and beer flavors available at one time and they make up about 10 percent of total sales. The reason? They actually taste good.
The Mojito flavor has mind-blowing complexity with flavors of mint, lime, sweet cream, and rum all easily discernible. This authentic taste comes from using real, whole ingredients instead of flavored oils or syrups. And the "chefs" always use actual beer instead of unfermented beer wort syrup like some. Basinger says, "That’s the way we’ve always done it... We feel that if we call a flavor something then that is what should actually be in it... For the mojito we actually use really good rum."
This commitment to innovation and quality ingredients has given Sweet Action a cult following in the South Broadway neighborhood and all of Denver, as well as national recognition by Food & Wine and US News & World Report as one of the best ice cream spots in the nation. Even with the accolades, Basinger continues to innovate, recently making a batch of fudge with Great Divide Yeti Stout and adding it to peanut butter ice cream. Beer brownies might be next.
Basinger says it’s "mind-blowing we’ve gotten any attention outside of the neighborhood" and believes beer and cocktail ice cream are trends that will continue to grow. But he also believes being a part of the local neighborhood is important. He says, "Artisan ice cream is growing and so is craft beer in every city... people are proud of their local beers and are seeking more unique things you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a source of local pride and we’re proud to use so many local Colorado products."
— Dan Imiedeke, The Drink Nation
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