Meet the Beer Float | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Meet the Beer Float 

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It's difficult to tell people that a beer float is the best dessert they've never tried without them trying to intervene. For example:

Me: Omigod, I had the best beer float last night.

People: You need help.

In fact, it's difficult to tell people about beer floats at all. Put the word beer too close to ice cream and people will shiver. A beer float sounds like something you'd have to drink at a fraternity hazing, and as someone who's had Miller High Life and ice cream together, I can tell you that it would fit. But with nonbodega bottles--gems like Belgian fruit lambics and massive American stouts--the beer float puts its straight-edge sister, the root beer float, to shame. The chemistry's similar: the foam in a float comes from the combination of carbonation and a protein in the ice cream that stabilizes the bubbles. But beer has protein too, producing a more stable, sumptuous foam. And the beer float has other advantages over the root beer float:

(1) It has a taste besides sarsaparilla.

(2) It unites the sins of gluttony and drunkenness in a single serving.

(3) You get to eat more ice cream. When making something as ridiculous as a beer float, it's important to be rigorous. Here, using the measuring scale of an ice cream scoop, are the appropriate proportions of beer and ice cream (you may want to write this down): one part beer to one part ice cream. Tests have indicated this is twice as much ice cream as in a typical root beer float.

No, I didn't invent the beer float while hungover. The Handlebar serves a Guinness float, which owner Josh Deth credits to a former bartender. And Goose Island's brewpub will put a scoop in any glass you want, though general manager Tim Lane prefers to use the house-brewed sodas--"Our thinking is more purist about how the beer's going to taste," he says. But he notes that a few regulars have started putting ice cream in the Bourbon County Stout, a special brew Goose Island released in December. Bourbon County's a thick, powerful, black hole of a beer. "It's like a bourbon float," Lane says.

Picking a beer for your dessert can be treacherous: if the brew's too light the float's gross, too bitter and the ice cream wants out of there. That's true not only for hopped-up India pale ales but also for beers like Young's Double Chocolate Stout and Rogue's Chocolate Stout. Their names scream for ice cream, but their taste is bitter and too thin. Sweeter beers don't always work either: a sodalike Belgian cherry lambic from Saint Louis turned into a Robitussin float. So what about, well, a hard root beer? From colonial days into the 19th century, root beer was mildly alcoholic, and recently Samuel Adams released 1790 Root Beer Brew, an imitation colonial beer with an adult-friendly alcohol content. Sadly, though the aroma's sassafras, the taste is a knife-blade wintergreen the teeth-scraping intensity of which isn't meant for dessert.

But a Lindemans framboise float is worthy of a pastry chef--think vanilla ice cream, fresh raspberries, and seltzer water blended together. The taste is replicable with any Belgian fruit beer that's not sickly sweet. And although American stouts don't always work--like the Rogue, they tend to be overhopped for our purposes--Bell's Expedition Stout is a marvel. Its spice-cabinet complexity--coffee, cocoa, caramel, an orchard of dried berries--fills the float, just harsh enough to be refreshing. The chocolate stouts cold-shouldered the ice cream, but the Expedition is affectionate and argumentative--the beer and ice cream clash then meld like lovers in a spat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Godfrey Carmona.

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