Often, when there’s a gimmicky new food or drink that’s just been released—burgers made with cupcake buns, fried chicken battered in Funyuns—an editor will send me out to try it. Once I get to the restaurant or bar, I sometimes feel like the only other people there must surely be fellow journalists, because who else would try this nonsense. Hey, there’s that guy from Eater. Isn’t that that gal from Thrillist? All of us trying to produce some killer clickbait. “I Drank Sonic’s New Flaming Cheeto Milkshake and Almost Had to Have My Tongue Removed.” Cue the 1 million Facebook shares. But, I didn’t feel that way when I was sent to try the new IHOP beer IHOPS.
Strangely, it is not available at any IHOP locations. Guess you’ll have to keep pairing your Southwest Scramble with a smuggled-in Corona. As of this week, IHOPS is only on tap at four New York City bars—three in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. Specifically, the latter is a Hilton hotel lounge in an uneventful stretch of downtown, right across the street from the Kings County Criminal Court… not exactly a tourist Mecca. I couldn’t even get through to the hotel bar on the phone to confirm they had such a ridiculous beer available.
Thus, taking the 25 minute walk to the hotel from my neighborhood on a rainy Tuesday night, I fully expected to arrive and say, “You got that new IHOPS beer?” only to have one of those bartenders who can only open the register with an ID tag on a lanyard stare at me with utter confusion, quietly order a Bud heavy, then walk home texting my editor that this beer doesn’t truly exist.
I walked into the bland chain hotel to find your typical corporate clientele. In the open bar just off to the lobby, depressed dudes in button-ups that had slowly untucked from a full day of consulting, sat solo pounding vodka sodas on Accenture’s dime, watching the Mets lose, missing their kids growing up. That wasn’t the guy from Buzzfeed. That wasn’t the gal from GQ.
I tried to communicate that I was finally ready for IHOPS without actually saying that sentence.”
I spied tap handles, but they were so far away that I couldn’t make out any more than their darkened silhouettes. I’m skilled at this game—there was the Revolution fist, the Blue Point lighthouse—but I couldn’t be sure the one silhouette of a house I saw was for THE House. The International House of Pancakes. I was trying my damndest not to ask the world’s most embarrassing question one can ask someone at a bar that isn’t related to astrological signs:
“You got that IHOP beer?”
So I asked the guy beside me, dressed like a golf pro, dumping gold-leaf-edged Stella chalices back into his maw, if I could borrow his menu. He slid it over, looking at me knowingly.
“The burger is excellent.”
Alas, no beers were listed on the menu. The bartender came over.
“What do you have on tap?”
“We got an Oktoberfest, a pale ale, IHOPS, a pilsner, an IPA…”
“What’s IHOPS?” (This is called reporting, kiddos.)
“It’s from a new brewery that just teamed up with IHOP. We’re one of only four bars that got it.”
FACT CHECK: Said brewery, Keegan Ales, is hardly new. It's been producing pretty decent beer, especially its stouts, in New York’s Hudson Valley since 2003.
“What is it?”
“It’s a pumpkin pancake stout.”
“Is it good?”
She gave me a look I couldn’t quite read.
“Have you tried it?”
“I have. I’m not really a stout girl. But I like pumpkin. And I like this.”
“Cool. I’ll have the Oktoberfest.”
I didn’t want to look too excited. Didn’t want to blow my cover as a journalist. The Oktoberfest was the beer from Revolution. It was excellent. Why did this weird hotel have such an esoteric beer program? I downed it and the bartender returned.
“Another Oktoberfest, hon?”
I tried to communicate that I was finally ready for IHOPS without actually saying that sentence, because I didn’t want these business travelers to think I’m not corporate material. You never know when this freelance writer gig will go in the shitter and I’ll need some references. My plan didn’t work, though, and I finally just had ask for IHOPS under my breath.
She pulled a pint from a tap handle made from a giant stack of 30 plastic pancakes.”
She pulled a pint from a tap handle made from a giant stack of 30 plastic pancakes, leaning back over her shoulder to inform me, “This is just a prototype. The real one will have syrup dripping down it.” She told me “they” suggest a cinnamon rim on the glass and would I like one? I don’t ask who “they” are. I’m strongly anti-rim adornment when it comes to beer. Save that for frozen margaritas at Chili’s. But if “they” suggest it, I will try it.
“You’re the first to try this!” she exclaimed, as she handed me IHOPS.
“No, the beer with cinnamon on the rim.”
After a few sips, I’m faced with the key problem in trying gimmick foods and drinks from a reporter’s perspective. You absolutely want them to be awful. So painfully spicy or sickly sweet or grossly decadent or over-the-top stupid or just downright disgusting that you can barely survive finishing it. Something so god-awful, something that’s such an inedible example of corporate malfeasance that you can roast it as hard as possible, using all your comedy stylings to tell your online audience how bad this shit was. Or, you want it to be shockingly good. So good no reader would possibly believe you and thus has to click on your story. “No, I swear guys, the new KFC Popcorn Lardballs are actually GOOD.”
What you don’t want… is what I get. Utter competence.
I quite enjoyed it. And maybe that’s the biggest gimmick of them all.”
If this wasn’t a gimmick beer, you wouldn’t know it was a gimmick beer. It pours so brown that it almost glows purple—it looks like a quality stout. It’s served a tad too cold, but the body and mouthfeel is spot on. The cinnamon rim actually adds a nice aroma as you plunge your nose toward the glass, but taste-wise it just gets chalky powder on your lips.
It’s a solid, drinkable stout—7% ABV—with a solid roastiness, and just hint of chocolate. The pumpkin spice barely creeps in; the actual Buttermilk pancake batter, syrup, and other “ingredients from [IHOP’s] fall menu” so claimed to be in this beer don’t even make a cameo on my palate. You could drink this and without thinking about it, not even notice that you are drinking a pumpkin beer. Until a little later in the evening when you start burping nutmeg.
The beer is impressively restrained. In this era of the vaunted pastry stout, where beers taste like candy bars and ice cream sundaes and Starbucks frappa-whatevers, I expected a IHOP pumpkin pancake stout to taste like liquidized Cheesecake Factory. Like glugging one of those trap-door pourers of fruit-flavored corn syrup that IHOP keeps on all their tables that is totally gross but you still drown your Nerf-like flapjacks in it.
But this was a pumpkin stout circa, oh, 2007 or so. It was a beer that, as you hardly hear people say any more, actually tasted like beer. I quite enjoyed it. And maybe that’s the biggest gimmick of them all.
The most humiliating thing happened at the end of my drinking session.
“You want this charged to your room?” the bartender asked because why the hell would anyone not staying at this hotel come to its bar to drink an IHOP beer.
“Uh. No. I’ll just pay here.”
“Great, and here’s the itemized receipt if ya’ need it for your boss!”