Tamara Stanger, executive chef at Helio Basin Brewing Company, nods down at two plates of ice cream, six scoops the size of golf balls on each. They are Willy Wonka colors: purple, orange, pale yellow, and so on. Beside the ice cream scoops are, laced with froth, 4-ounce glasses of beer.
“Taste the beer,” Stanger says. “Then taste the ice cream. Then taste the beer again.”
Welcome to the beer and ice cream flight at Helio Basin.
The folks at the Arcadia brewery, which opened in July 2016, make a lineup of solid craft beers using a 15-barrel system. Owners Mike Conley and Dustin Hazer (head brewer) have earned accolades despite their brewery’s youth. Helio Basin is a good brewery. There are many good young breweries in Phoenix.
But there is only one Tamara Stanger.
Stanger uses spent brewery grains to make tortillas, pressing up to 1,000 at a time. She makes a Sonoran hot dog topped with beans cooked in duck fat and nopales. She grew up in a Utah mining town, knows jujitsu, and loves ice cream. She churns with purpose, building each flavor with Helio Basin’s beers in mind.
Helio Basin has six core beers always on tap. If you opt for the baddest of the ice cream/beer flights, these six each come paired with a frozen scoop.
The first in the boozy sextet is 602 Brew. This is the pour Stanger told me to sip, eat the ice cream that goes with it, and sip again. So I start.
The beer is light and crisp, not explosive, built rather for mass appeal and drinkability. I try some of the pink ice cream she has paired with the 602. An intense rush of bubblegum flavor wells up and rolls alongside the beer's flavors. Its crispness cuts the scoop’s cream. The flavors don't really meld — they kind of exist separately, each not messing too much with the other.
And you just kind of stupidly smile.
You smile at the flavors, but also because, at this early point, you realize that beer and ice cream might be like wine and cheese, like pastrami and rye, like spaghetti and meatballs.
“This is more of a complementary pairing,” Stanger says. “I usually get crazier.”
Stanger was the pastry chef at Pig & Pickle when the restaurant opened a few years ago. She was a baker at The Henry before coming to Helio Basin before its opening. Now, in addition to helming the brewpub's stoves, she crafts a constantly evolving lineup of ice creams to go with beers. For these ice creams, she does things like simmer beer to syrup and steep Hubba Bubba bubblegum in cream.
“I do not believe that beer has to be paired with a hamburger,” Stanger says. “It’s not meant to wash things down. It’s meant to experience.”
Beer number two pairs a blackberry wheat beer with blueberry-chocolate-chip ice cream.
By itself, the wheat beer is scarcely fruity. “After you taste the ice cream, it completely changes the flavor profile of the beer,” Stanger says. She’s right. Under the ice cream's cold sweet spell, the blackberry spirit of the beer eases out more and evolves toward the ice cream’s blueberry as the beer's presence recedes. The ice cream, all the while, amplifies the lusher notes of the wheat beer.
Third is a pale ale, one with a deceiving huge bright smell and a more modest, low-toned citrus taste. Mexican lime ice cream is the accompaniment. Tasting it after tasting the beer kind of transforms the beer into a shandy. The citrus-on-citrus dovetails, bridging the other flavors.
Fourth: amber ale. A sip. Hoppy with chocolatey, caramel notes. And then a lick of the ice cream. The horchata-and-bourbon ice cream extracts the beer’s nuances like salt extracts meat’s, expanding the caramel hints into a vast zone of burnt-sugar flavor. Though she scoffs when I note butterscotch vibes, Stanger and I agree that the ice cream lifts the beer.
The ice cream is meant, she says, “to make the beer a little bigger.”
These pairings can do one of three things. One, the two elements can play nicely apart (bubble gum and “602 Brew”). Two, one can lift the other, or both can be lifted. Three — and this doesn't happen until I mix bubblegum with one of the darker beers — they bounce off each other, making, in Stanger’s words “the beer super bitter and hard to drink and off-putting.”
These ice cream/beer flights are a cool way to get your mind going with some interweaving flavors. Part of me really wants to analyze the shit out of this, or try to, but a bigger part of me knows this would be nuts. Better to just relax and enjoy the goodness of this unlikely but stupendous marriage.
The penultimate beer is an IPA paired with mesquite-cherry-pecan ice cream. “With the IPA, you want to use something with a lot of spice,” Stanger says. “Not only is it complementary, it makes the beer taste really good.”
I sip-taste-sip before she does; she dives into a verbal character study of mesquite.
The IPA has a ton of structure for the husky ice cream flavors to slot into. Spice and smoke dial down the beer’s bitterness. I am not a huge IPA fan unless the brew is piney, juicy, dank, and far from an IBU sledgehammer, so this mesquite-mellowed one-two punch is nice.
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We close with a porter. To its "ashy, chocolately notes,” Stanger tailors ice cream churned with chunky peanut butter and the same porter cooked down to syrup. We sip; we nod our heads in satisfaction. “It’s good finishing because it’s so rich,” she says, and I agree.
Wine and cheese, move over. Tequila and tacos, step aside.
But only for a brief time in Helio Basin, the time it takes to down one of these flights.
Helio Basin Brewing Company. 3935 East Thomas Road; 602-354-3525
Tuesday to Thursday 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday