Breckendridge's Vanilla Porter is sweet but not overpowering.
WHERE TO GET THE GOODS
Unibroue Ephemere: Treasure Island, 1639 N. Wells; Binny’s, 1720 N. Marcey; Duke’s, 2616 N. Clark; Cork Lounge, 1822 W. Addison; Fountainhead, 1970 W. Montrose
Breckenridge Vanilla Porter: Diversey Prestige Liquors, 946 W. Diversey; Miska’s (multiple locations); R.J. Grunts, 2056 N. Lincoln Park West; Old Town Social, 455 W. North; U.S. Beer Co., 1801 N. Clybourn
Revolution Brewing: 2323 N. Milwaukee
Truffle Truffle: truffletruffle.com
Updated: August 24, 2011 12:38AM
Flavored beers have never done much for me. Even years ago, after I graduated from diluted chuggable swill to craft brews and started to appreciate the subtle aromas and flavors of beer - citrus, lavender, coriander, bread and dozens of others - I had an aversion to any label that promised beer plus something else.
Generally, I want my beer to taste like beer. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation because the great beers of the world offer a massive range of aromas and flavors.
The essential ingredients needed to make beer - barley, yeast, hops (and water) - create flavors and aromas on their own. Adding small amounts of a non-essential ingredient can adds complexity to those flavors. But when a beer stakes its claim on another flavor as part of its identity, it's usually not for me.
Most often, flavored beers lean toward sweet. They are flavored with pumpkin or blueberries or cinnamon or something even worse. You don't see a lot of beers with broccoli or onions on their labels. You don't see "steak ales," "chicken gravy lagers" or "pork chop porters." You see beers with very clear indications of sweetness ahead.
I love sweet in all of its manifestations: chocolate, fruit, caramel, '70s pop music. And I sometimes enjoy beers that offer suggestions of those sweet flavors. But I usually don't want the sweetness to dominate.
I generally avoid offerings that sound gimmicky, and in cases when I have sampled those concoctions, my suspicions have been justified. If I want candy, I'll get some candy. And I hold candy to the same standards where gimmicky is concerned.
I thought the Beer & Pretzel Marshmallows (covered in chocolate) from Chicago's Truffle Truffle sounded like a stretch, but I tried them anyway - a testament to my dedication, obviously.
They were insanely good, and not too beer-like. When I eat candy, I want to taste the sweetness of sugar. When I drink beer, I want to taste the subtle flavors that its essential ingredients naturally impart.
There are exceptions, of course. Ephemere, made by Unibroue of Canada, is a white ale brewed with apple must. It delivers a green apple sock in the nose but the flavor offers less of that and more of other pleasant fruits that are familiar but hard to identify. You get a little bit of apple and a little bit of . . . is it apricot, is it peach, is it watermelon?
Whatever it is, it's fresh and alive and not overpowering, and it doesn't distract from the taste of beer. This is a great warm-weather sipper. Drink it outside with some Cheddar cheese.
Maybe I like Ephemere because it is not too appley. And maybe I like Truffle Truffle's beer and pretzel candy (both the marshmallows and the brittle) because it is first and foremost good candy.
To be clear, Ephemere is indeed a little appley. If you've got something against the forbidden fruit, this brew is not for you. But who doesn't like apples? And who doesn't like candy with marshmallow in it?
Skewing even sweeter than apple ale, the Breckenridge Vanilla Porter was a pleasant surprise for me. Vanilla is low on my list of favorite sweets - way low. It is well below chocolate, caramel and lemon, and somewhere slightly above date, lime and pear.
Yet, I have to admit, the Breckenridge folks got it right with their Vanilla Porter. The beer is lip-licking sweet but not overpowering. It would pair well with chocolate desserts and even roasted meats, the same way a milk shake would go well with a hamburger.
I would not want to drink a six-pack of Vanilla Porter in one day, but a bottle or two could be a nice treat with dessert. And it's only 4.7 percent alcohol, so if it's the last thing you drink all night, it won't give you the bed spins.
A beer doesn't have to be spiked with sweetness to be an appropriate dessert brew. Lots of beers develop hints of chocolate or fruit on their own in the brewing process, without being expressly fruit- or chocolate-flavored.
For a darker and heartier end-of-the-night pint, go to Revolution Brewing in Logan Square and try the Eugene porter. It tastes like cocoa and campfire in a glass.
Brewmaster Jim Cibak says it would be "perfect with a slice of chocolate cake," and I agree. I think it would also be great with s'mores.
Now, if someone comes up with marshmallow beer? That's where I draw the line.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.