Kiss My Bundt Bakery owner Chrysta Wilson always stocks her fridge with Tecate. Not because she craves the light Mexican beer but because she bakes with it. Her Tecate cake is moist, light and crumbly. It’s the carbonation, she says.
Now that beer culture is exploding in popularity in Southern California, beer is even finding its way into desserts, as pastry chefs use it to make dishes that are not only sweet but also have layered textures and flavors that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. What started with quirky beer and ice cream floats has now spread to shakes, cakes, gelato, fritters and even candy.
Jason Bernstein started making beer and ice cream floats more than a decade ago, just for fun, while he was in college. Now, at the Golden State, the beer-forward Fairfax Avenue cafe that Bernstein co-owns with James Starr, he’s forged a symbiotic relationship with Scoops gelato mad scientist Tai Kim. Their signature collaboration is a float that pairs North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout and “brown bread ice cream” -- vanilla ice cream streaked with caramel and loaded with caramelized Grape-Nuts.
“Grape-Nuts are like a wheat berry,” says Bernstein. “It was bringing out very grainy qualities that were present but latent in the Rasputin.”
Wine has long been part of European cooking traditions. Now, local pastry chefs are discovering beer’s even more diverse flavor spectrum, which includes citrusy wheat beers, tangy sours and bitter India Pale Ales, plus stouts and porters with chocolate and coffee notes. Beer is frequently used in batters for savory fried foods, and it can help to lighten cakes as well. Floats, shakes and popsicles are also benefiting from beer’s contrasting flavors.
Initially, the Golden Staters focused on earthy flavors, such as chocolate and coffee, but recently started pairing sour beers with tangy, fruit-forward gelatos, matching New Belgium Brewing Co.'s Fall Wild Ale with black currant-mango. “In some ways it works better,” says Bernstein. “With sour beers, you can play into more fruit-based aromatics.”
The Golden State was just the start of the L.A. beer float revolution.
BottleRock-Downtown LA currently scoops vanilla ice cream into Allagash Curieux, a Belgian-style tripel aged in bourbon barrels, which imparts added vanilla flavor.
In Hollywood, Essex Public House co-owner Greg Link has developed two beer floats: the Espresso Biru with Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout, vanilla ice cream and crumbled Oreos, and the Blueberry Bomber with chocolate ice cream and Sea Dog Wild Blueberry Wheat Ale, which Link insists “tastes like a blueberry pancake.” Essex serves each float with the bottle, so diners can customize the richness.
Other restaurants offer beer shakes, in which beer and ice cream are blended. For example, Simmzy’s gastropub in Manhattan Beach blends vanilla ice cream with Port Brewing’s Old Viscosity, a dark chocolatey ale.
Then there are ice creams flavored with beer. Kim started producing them three years ago at Scoops, in the hip HelMel area of Hollywood. A customer had requested Corona-lemongrass for her boyfriend’s birthday, a nod to her Thai heritage and his Mexican roots.
Kim has since dived into the deep end, crafting flavors such as amber ale with nutmeg and honey, and avocado with Pabst Blue Ribbon, a nod to his CalArts days. “We couldn’t afford good beer, and PBR was so cheap,” he recalls. “Also, whenever we drank PBR, we always ate chips and guacamole.”
In the summer and fall, beer-crazed Hot Knives caterers Alex Brown and Evan George produce beer-spiked popsicles. “We actually started with a hoppy IPA pop made from Moylan’s Hopsickle Triple Ale [‘hopsickles,’ get it?], but even with blueberries or other fruit it was too bitter,” says George. “So we tried it sour.”
They’ve made batches with cherry-flavored Lindemans Kriek and another version with Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse and a lemon-clove simple syrup. The two blend beer with grape juice so the alcoholic beverage freezes.
But frozen treats are already beginning to seem old hat. Kiss My Bundt’s Wilson first baked her Tecate cake in answer to a customer’s special request for Cinco de Mayo. At her 3rd Street bakery, she has since experimented with Newcastle and Guinness, using a plain butter cake as her base, because she says chocolate can overshadow beer. To heighten the flavor, she started making concentrated beer syrups, glazes and buttercream.
Beer has even hooked the haute crowd, including Laurent Quenioux, chef-owner of Bistro LQ on Beverly Boulevard. The maverick chef was inspired to bake with beer after tasting crepes in his native France, where “the yeast of the beer makes the batter lighter.”
Quenioux frequently experiments with beer “for texture, flavor, taste and viscosity,” adding sugar to counterbalance beer’s bitterness. He and pastry chef Jun Tan serve a dense pistachio cake with a scoop of huckleberry mousse and a crispy sheet of Boont Amber Ale brittle. They’re currently experimenting with unfiltered beers for a summer peach terrine.
Nick + Stef executive chef Brian Kiepler devised a boozy bread pudding after toying with a friend’s family recipe. The recent incarnation at the downtown steakhouse incorporates house-baked brioche, Guinness, Valrhona milk chocolate, Jameson caramel sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. He sometimes uses Rogue Shakespeare Stout and white or dark chocolate.
“For chefs, it’s not just cooking with wine, as we’ve always done,” says Kiepler. “It’s a whole different spectrum.”
At the soon-to-close Sona in Los Angeles, pastry chef Ramon Perez has regularly experimented with beer, pairing chocolate beignets with oatmeal stout ice cream and praline cream, and plating roasted figs with blue cheese, habanero-honey ice cream and a beer waffle. “The acid helps lighten the batter,” says Perez. “Club soda does the same thing, but beer has flavor.”
Beer’s bitterness also provides a surprise for the guest and “a unique edge that is unachievable by other ingredients,” he says. Perez especially enjoys using Hitachino beers from Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery in ice creams and granitas. “The White Ale has a sour lemon-orange nose to it, as well as the bitterness of a little orange peel. The red rice [beer] has a little floral scent as well as [a] rich caramel finish with slight fruit.”
Also, he admits, “I love to drink the leftovers.”