Once a year, the crew at Smartmouth Brewing Company in Norfolk, Virginia, get together to brainstorm and plot their next big releases. Along with the usual IPAs and stouts, the head brewer had a somewhat unorthodox suggestion this time: What about a beer that tastes like children’s cereal?
“He has this story that when he was in college, he took a box of Lucky Charms, separated out all the marshmallows and sent it to his now-wife,” says Porter Hardy, the brewery’s president. “Everyone remembers the carefree days of running downstairs in footie pajamas and watching cartoons and eating cereal. I think a lot of us miss that now that we’re paying our mortgages and whatnot.”
No one at the brewery was fully prepared for forces of millennial nostalgia coupled with the fickle favor of the internet. Before anyone had so much as tasted the Saturday Morning IPA, clickbait headlines had already proclaimed it “magically delicious.” On the day of the launch, all 100 cases vanished within hours.
“We opened at noon and there was a line four blocks long. We sold out of the cases as fast as we could run the cash register and the draft sold out in about two and a half hours,” Hardy says, still sounding slightly stunned. “Honestly, it kind of helped shape my view of the news. It’s interesting to see how things go viral while trying to manage the story and the expectations. I would have brewed three times the amount of beer if I’d known it was going to be like this.”
The commercial allure of what 15 minutes of viral fame can do has proven hard to resist and has fundamentally changed the nature of the industry. While there’s no way to guarantee that a gimmicky beer will lead to overnight fame, that hasn’t stopped breweries from trying to outdo one another. Back in 2002, when Randy Mosher published Radical Brewing, the idea of mushrooms or pumpkin in beer seemed downright extreme. Nowadays, we’ve seen beers channeling the flavors of Girl Scout cookies, pastrami, ice cream, spaghetti and meatballs, and margherita pizza.
We opened at noon and there was a line four blocks long. We sold out of the cases as fast as we could run the cash register and the draft sold out in about two and a half hours.”
Are these beers genius? Stupid? Whether you love them or hate them, the sheer glut of gimmick beers begs the question of how in the hell a brewery goes from a harebrained idea to a food-flavored brew. Unsurprisingly, the answers—and degree of success—vary depending on the brewery.
The most straightforward method involves simply dumping the desired ingredients into the boil and seeing what happens. You can do this with literally anything—including Krispy Kreme doughnuts, whole frozen pizzas, and filthy money. For a sediment-free version, the makers of the questionable Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer steep a whole margherita pizza wrapped in cheesecloth in the mash, which is then rinsed with hot water and added to the boil.
While there’s no guarantee that the flavor will remain post-fermentation, it’s hard to deny the ease of this approach. Since Smartmouth Brewing Company couldn’t legally use Lucky Charms—and had zero desire to sift through a zillion cereal boxes—it went the wholesale route for supplies.
“It was tricky. We wanted to get the vanilla notes from the marshmallows, but the sugars mostly get fermented out,” Hardy says. “In the end, we took these bulk cereal marshmallows along with a bunch of regular marshmallows that we toasted in-house and put them in the boil. Then we used Calypso and Galaxy hops, which have a very tropical fruit-forward flavor profile.”
A less literal approach involves attempting to loosely replicate the flavor profile of the original food without using it in the brewing process. Rather than waste Girl Scout cookies in its Samoa This imperial stout, Southern Tier Brewing Company turns to caramel, coconut, and chocolate. The result isn’t that different than your average pastry stout, even if it echoes the classic.
Similarly, Shmaltz Brewing Company doesn’t include any meat in its Pastrami Pilsner, since that wouldn’t make it parve. Instead, it uses a combination of mustard, horseradish, kosher salt, caraway, and other seasonings. Some might argue it’s a cop-out, but it’s arguably tastier than a nitrate-heavy pils. After all, most of the so-called “bacon” beers are merely smoked in the German Rauchbier style to mimic the taste of pork.
Another approach involves using multiple strategies to cram as much flavor into a beer as possible. Both WeldWorks’ Spaghetti Gose and Collective Brewing Company’s Cup O’ Beer, a ramen-inspired gose, turned to beloved noodle dishes for inspiration. The former incorporates tomato sauce and fire-roasted tomatoes into a kettle-soured wheat ale, then dry-herbs what comes out of the boil with basil and oregano, while the latter goes straight for the Maruchan that saved many a college student from starvation.
It was originally meant to be a fun, one-off novelty beer, but we got such a response from it that it’s like, ‘Well, I guess we brew noodle beer now.’”
“Originally, I thought it’d be funny if we substituted noodles for the wheat in a gose,” recalls Ryan Deyo, head brewer at Collective Brewing Company. He stumbled across the idea while passing ramen joints on a boozy IPA-heavy brewery crawl of San Diego. What started out as a drunken joke quickly evolved as he began thinking through the other elements of the flavor profile. “I added a Japanese seaweed sea salt that tastes a bit like the ocean. It’s turned out to be a weirdly avant-garde gose.”
By the time he returned from his trip, Deyo had already come up with the basis for a gose with 55 pounds of ramen per batch. Since instant noodles are produced and packaged on the same assembly line, they aren’t available in bulk, meaning the brewers have to individually unwrap 288 packages per 200 gallons.
“We call it ‘shucking.’ It’s like our watercooler time in the morning—we sit around, drink coffee, and open noodle packages,” Deyo says. “We get some pretty weird looks picking up that much ramen at Walmart..”
Swapping in noodles for all of the wheat would throw off the sugar balance, so instead Deyo opted for a partial substitution. He adds the noodles to the mash, where the high temperature effectively cooks them and the malt breaks down the carbohydrates into simple, easily fermentable sugars through a process known as diastatic conversion. After filtering them out with the other grains, Deyo inoculates what’s left with lactobacillus, which then goes through a two-stage boil. In the final 75-minute secondary boil, he adds in hops, along with aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, and that briny sea salt.
“I don’t think you register it as ramen noodles. You do notice a slight change in the mouthfeel of the beer,” says Ben Wood, brewer and cellarman. “What makes a ramen noodle a ramen noodle is the alkaline salts, which came into play with the water chemistry as well. It’s kind of the same umami mouthfeel that you get from a bowl of broth in ramen, without it being savory.”
Cup O’ Beer might pair well with a tonkotsu, but it doesn’t really taste much like one—and that might be why it’s so popular. A gimmick beer may get people in the door, but if it tastes like a hot mess, the fad will inevitably fade.
“At the end, you have this wonderfully tart, bright, slightly salty beer with those lime and ginger flavors in it and it works really well with a bowl of soup,” Wood says. “It was originally meant to be a fun, one-off novelty beer, but we got such a response from it that it’s like, ‘Well, I guess we brew noodle beer now.’”