Just In Time For Summer, Meet the Beer Slushie

May 16, 2019

By Joshua Bernstein, May 16, 2019

Prepping to open a brewery and taproom requires a checklist long enough to fill both forearms. Brewery owners must take care of tanks and tap lines, the brew kettle and bathroom, glassware and growlers. That’s not to mention ingredients, which are stacked as high as hopes for a fledgling business.

On top of all that, Eric Luman needed to figure out the protocol for filling his slushy machine with beer. “I was Googling ‘beer slushies’ as fast I could and coming up with zero,” says Luman, who founded Reve Brewing, in Atlantic Beach, Florida, with his wife, Vanessa. “We’re in Florida. We need beach drinks.”

Last September, Reve opened with a lineup of hazy IPAs, fruited sours, and pastry stouts, as well as a slushy machine steadily churning. It hasn’t stopped since. Each business day bring a fresh beer slushy, from an Oreo–flavored milk stout to Berliner weisses packed with cherries and blackberries.

“Our machine does 35 [beer slushies] a day, and we empty it pretty much every day,” says Luman, Reve’s head brewer. “People are kind of going nuts. On Saturdays, we run out of slushies two or three hours after we open.”

The slushy machine has long lived at gas stations and convenience stores, doling out frosty concoctions that deliver both sugar rushes and brain freeze. Bars, too, slushify margaritas, daiquiris, rosé and more—the frozen drinks delivering good times on patios, backyards, and beaches alike.

Now, breweries are jumping into the slush. From Sweden’s Omnipollo to North Carolina’s Barrel Culture to Colorado’s Wiley Roots, breweries are creating colorful slushies that draw customers to taprooms, rounding out offerings for folks that might not be crazy for that hazy double IPA. “Our motto is, for you, for all,” says Hamlet Fort, the marketing and events manager for Denver’s Station 26 Brewing. “We want to make beers and create experiences for everyone.”

We get more pictures on Instagram and social media about the slushies than anything else.”

Last summer, Station 26 bought a three-bay slushy machine (each bay can hold three gallons) and started filling it with beers such as Tangerine Cream, a cream ale amped up with fresh tangerine zest and vanilla bean. “It tastes just like a Creamsicle,” Fort says. “If someone is tagging along with their family and they just want a fruity, frozen drink, then we’ll give it to them.”

At Station 26, part of the slushies’ success can be attributed to the brewery’s setting in a former firehouse ringed with abundant outdoor seating. “People enjoy sitting under the sun and having a little frozen beer drink,” Fort says. Moreover, the slushies hit that sweet spot of flavor, refreshment and Baskin-Robbins nostalgia, especially when it comes to the brewery’s series inspired by sherbet.

Fort likens them to a cross between a kettle sour and a milkshake IPA, something tart, something smooth, something flavored with fruit. “We did a key lime and strawberry-lemonade sherbet that did really well,” he says. The freezing process also creates “really cool colors.”

Therein lies another chunk of the beer slushy’s appeal: It’s visual catnip. “We have this culture of pretty Instagram pictures now, and they’re really pretty,” says Luman. Reve Brewing’s slushies only account for 2 to 3 percent of overall sales, but “we get more pictures on Instagram and social media about the slushies than anything else.”

Serving a beer slushy isn’t as simple as emptying a sixtel into a machine and waiting for cold, hard cash to flow from a spigot. Entry-level machines start at around $1,500, meaning “you can’t just bring it in and play with it every once in a while,” Luman says.

There’s also a learning curve to calibrating taste. “Whatever you put in there, for lack of a better word, the slushification intensifies flavors,” Luman says. “If it’s sour, it becomes more sour. If it’s a stout, it becomes more roasty and more alcoholic.” While IPAs generally don’t work well in slush machines because the bitterness is unpleasantly amplified, Luman balances sourness by using fruit purées, or adds chocolate or complementary flavors to mitigate an imperial stout’s intensity. “We’ve got to cut them back with other flavors to make them more palatable,” he says.

Moreover, creating a slushy’s texture and consistency requires the right amount of sugar. “Not enough sugar, you run the risk of freezing it into a block of ice,” he says. Strong, sugar-rich beers such as imperial stouts already possess the ideal sweetness, while soured beers require a saccharine boost— fruit purées pull double duty as a sugar source. “Then you get that bonus flavor of whatever you’re adding,” Luman says.

I think of these as almost like a beer sorbet, something that you can cleanse your palate with between beers.”

At breweries beer slushies can be treated as daily specials, bait to hook customers in a sea swimming with more than 7,000 breweries. The slushies tap into the same vein that draws drinkers to breweries to buy the latest limited-edition this or that. The difference here, though, is the slushies never leave the taproom. “It’s a draw,” says Stephen Roginson, the founder of Detroit’s Batch Brewing. “It’s not the type of thing that can be distributed.”

Batch first rented a slushy machine for a Kentucky Derby party a couple years ago, dispensing a mint julep–inspired beer while guests watched the races. Customers dug it, so the brewery mixed up another slushy the next day, fast attracting the device distributor’s attention. ‘[The company] heard how well it was going and suggested we hang onto it for another week for free so they could come check it out,” Roginson says. “The next week, it was the thing that was driving everybody into the taproom.”

Batch decided to buy a machine, investing around $5,000 instead of sourcing additional brewery equipment. It was a risk. Beer is scalable. Beer slushies aren’t. But the machine gives Batch’s taproom staff a chance to flex their creativity. “It’s a canvas to experiment with flavors,” he says of the weekly slushy recipe. It also provides customers new pathways to tiptoe through a taproom session.

“I think of these as almost like a beer sorbet, something that you can cleanse your palate with between beers,” Roginson says. “It’s supposed to be refreshing.”

With slushy demand running high at Reve, Luman recently ordered a double unit to handle summer’s anticipated sales spike. Killjoys may pooh-pooh the purity of breweries serving beer through a Slurpee machine, but sometimes you just need to embrace the ridiculousness. Like a tiki drink, “they’re just fun,” Luman says. “They’re definitely gimmicky, but I like that.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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