To Charlie Beaton, beer ice cream is an old story, at least as old as his Big Dipper Ice Cream shop itself.
In fact, Beaton first started his business in the back room of the Kettlehouse Brewery, back when the brewery was a "Brew on Premises" business where customers could experiment with their own batches of beer. A devoted experimenter in his own right - his shop has, over the years, produced such surprising ice cream flavors as Maple Bacon, Chipotle Chocolate and Peanut Curry - it only made sense that Beaton would test the combination of beer and ice cream.
"I've found you can make ice cream with anything interesting," said Beaton. "Beer is made with malt" - as are malted milk shakes, of course - "so it was just natural to try that, and it turned out pretty good."
So as he contemplates the sudden flurry of nationwide attention that his Cold Smoke Beer Ice Cream has garnered over the past week, Beaton is understandably bemused.
"It's been pretty crazy," he says. "All of a sudden I've been getting calls from all over the country from people asking me to ship it to them. I don't even know how I would do that.
"I guess I didn't realize that the idea of beer ice cream would be so interesting to so many people."
Although Beaton and his employees made several batches of beer-flavored ice cream over the years, Cold Smoke Ice Cream was actually the brainchild of Kettlehouse assistant brewer Colleen Bitter, who made a test batch of the ice cream at the brewery last year.
"We thought it was really good, so I went over there (to Big Dipper) last year and suggested that those guys try making it," said brewer Paul Royce.
The ice cream is made by combining a standard ice cream mix of milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks and natural stabilizers with a concentrated form of the unfermented "wort" - a liquid extract of barley and hops - that serves as the basis for Cold Smoke, a popular Scotch-style Ale brewed by the Kettlehouse.
Because the pre-fermented wort is used, the ice cream contains no alcohol.
That's the story behind Cold Smoke Ice Cream. As to its sudden fame, that's yet another testament to the mysterious machinations of modern media.
A few months ago, in response to customer requests for updates on the shop's specialty concoctions, Beaton and Big Dipper manager Bryan Hickey began posting their new specials on Big Dipper's Twitter feed.
Local TV news station KECI began following the feed. When Beaton announced a few weeks ago that the shop had mixed up a new batch of Cold Smoke Ice Cream - a flavor it has periodically offered since last autumn - a producer at KECI contacted the shop about doing a news feature.
"We actually weren't making any more at the time, so we told them it wouldn't really work out," said Beaton. "But that batch sold out, so we decided to make some more last week, and I called the station to tell them."
A short segment about the ice cream, featuring an interview with Hickey, ran on the Sept. 11 evening newscast. The station subsequently submitted the segment to the Associated Press, which makes stories of local interest available to other stations around the country.
Within days, stations in locales as far-flung as Washington, Texas and South Carolina picked up the story, as did MSNBC.com.
"I guess with a headline like 'beer ice cream,' it caught people's attention," said Hickey. "It sort of just took on a life of its own."
The buzz came to a head this past Tuesday, when Hickey received a phone call from producers at the "Today" show, NBC's long-running national morning news and entertainment show. The producer asked Hickey if he could send a tub of Cold Smoke Ice Cream to New York, for Kathie Lee Gifford to sample on the air.
So on Thursday morning, Hickey churned out a fresh batch of the ice cream. Come Monday, he'll ship the frozen tub to the "Today" show studios.
"They say she'll taste it sometime in the next week and a half," said Beaton. "I'll believe it when I see it - but it's still cool that they asked."
As to what this means for the Missoula ice cream shop - which, on a busy week, turns out 700 to 800 gallons of ice cream, not even half what a commercial producer will make in a single day - Beaton and Hickey are ambivalent.
"Right now, this has obviously got a life of its own," said Hickey, who has worked at the shop for a decade. "Every time I try to think of a way to spin it into something bigger, things happen to us. It's already capitalizing on itself."
"There's nothing you can really do with it, though," added Beaton. "We could make a bunch of it and put it out there in grocery stores; but the reality is, the cost is so high and the labor is so intensive for this particular flavor, and I probably can't sell it out of state very easily, so the logistics are too complicated to me at this point. So we'll just keep doing what we're doing."
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or firstname.lastname@example.org.