Craft beer is becoming de rigueur these days. Diners expect to see sumptuous brown ales and tart local IPAs on the menu. It’s more and more difficult for a restaurant’s beer selection to stand out.
Luckily, there are unusual brews from around the country that will pique diners’ curiosity or stir their geeky hearts with pop-culture references. From Star Trek-themed ales to ice cream-flavored stouts, these “gimmicky” offerings can smarten up a menu or enliven events like opening-night specials and trivia nights.
We pulled together a tasting panel of beer—and sci-fi/fantasy—geeks to find out which are worth putting on menus. All the beers at our table either pandered to a fandom or sought to mimic nostalgic flavors. Some of them were brewed in partnership with other companies. We judged on appearance, smell, taste, aftertaste, and drinkability.
Braxton Brewing Company, Kentucky and Graeter’s Ice Cream, Ohio
Milk stouts are by definition sweet, so you may be forgiven for wondering about the drinkability of this ice-cream-flavored confection. But it turns out to be surprisingly dry for a fruity stout. Its smooth sweetness is tempered by the tart raspberry flavor and a hint of bitterness from the chocolate. While the flavor profile isn’t particularly complex, the charm of drinking a savory Tootsie Pop-like brew, mimicking a Cincinnati-favorite flavor, led our panel to offer this beer a thumbs-up, especially as an alternative to dessert.
Ninkasi Brewing Company, Oregon
This red IPA is an eye-catcher. With its light ruby color, it looks like the love child of an amber ale and a wheat beer. The taste, however, gives truth to the name: It’s hoppy like an IPA, albeit smoother and has more caramel notes than most. Named after the 2004 zombie-apocalypse horror film “Dawn of the Dead,” this brew is as flavorful as it is colorful. It’s a good IPA for those who are wary of hops and would play well with just about any food, especially spicy cuisines like Thai or Mexican.
Empire Brewing Company, New York
A pilsner brewed with Concord grapes may sound—and, it turns out, look—like an alcoholic soda. But this intriguing beer named after a storied English rock band means business. It’s light and fruity, yes, but its initial sweetness resolves into a slightly tangy end note, hinting at a sour-style beer. Sour-averse drinkers may gain a new appreciation for acidic fruit beers in this brew. One of our panelists put it best: “It makes my palate wake up.” Tart, dry, and quaffable, it would work well with barbecue, cheese, or anything else fatty and savory.
Wicked Weed Brewing, North Carolina
Brewed in bourbon barrels with golden raisins, cinnamon, and vanilla, this rich brew is far more complex than its name suggests. It’s smooth and creamy, and carries a spice profile that belongs in a dessert shop, but it isn’t actually a sweet beer. It may in fact be a good complement to sweets like chocolates or ice cream; it would pair well with dessert at a moment that would usually call for port. A dark-beer devotee might even find a place for this impressive brew next to a meal, especially one heavy on salty or zesty flavors.
Second Self Beer Company, Georgia
This hazy IPA is brewed with three malts (oats, wheat and barley) and three hops (Mosaic, Amarillo, and Cascade) in a nod to the Triforce, a fictional divine artifact from Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda” video game series. The flavor is mellow and tropically fruity, lacking the hoppy bitterness of more aggressive IPAs. As a result, it should easily pair with food, especially rich offerings like tacos or burgers. One of our panelists dubbed this “a steakhouse beer,” though its light pilsner-like finish would also complement fish and salads.
Brewery Ommegang, New York, and HBO Global
One of a range of eight “Game of Thrones”-themed beers created by the iconic Brewery Ommegang, this well-rounded Tripel pours with a gorgeous head and is just sweet enough to easily settle in to. The flavor is light and accessible, but like all Ommegang beers—and its namesake fantasy series—there’s a lot going on here. As a result, this brew will appeal not only to Belgian beer lovers but also to those who like something a little more straightforward. Pairing this with a burger would make for a perfect meal.