Brewing with Lactose: Tips from the Pros

Lactose contributes creaminess and boosts the body of beer, as well as adding a perceptible sweetness in higher amounts that is desirable in some recipes. Learn how three pros put this unfermentable sugar to use in their brews.

Chris Davison is the Head Brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus, Ohio

We typically only add lactose to some stouts with regularity, however, we have added it for various reasons to several other styles that are brewed less often. We’ve done one or two milkshake IPAs, and years back I used to add lactose to our imperial red ale in an effort to mimic the character of Three Floyds’ Apocalypse Cow. We’ve also added lactose to an imperial cream ale we do called All the Breakfast. Lactose can be used in a range of styles, but I hate beer that is cloying and lacking in balance, and any style can be thrown out of whack with an over-usage of lactose.

How lactose is used can differ depending on the base style and what you’re after. For milk stout it’s as much about keeping the beer on-style and true-to-form as it is for the flavor impact. Depending on the usage rate, lactose can add a slight creaminess and smoothness to the mouthfeel, while increased quantities can also lend perceptible sweetness. We are usually aiming to hit the creamy mouthfeel without making the sweetness of our beers overbearing. Also, if you use too much it’s possible for the beer to take on an unwanted tartness as well. We will use 50–100 lbs. (23–45 kg) in a 15-bbl batch. Much more and you begin to see significant sweetness, increasing as the usage rate goes up.

I don’t think usage and efficiencies are linear, but using our ratios, homebrewers could use 0.5–1 lb. for a 5-gallon (0.23–0.45 kg/19L) batch for a beer that exhibits a nice mouthfeel and mild increase in body without being significantly sweeter. I imagine you could use 1.5–2 lbs. (0.7–0.9 kg) before entering the “too sweet” realm.

We add most sugars, including lactose, to our beer near the end of the boil or in the whirlpool. As with anything in brewing, the more heat or time boiling a product, the more you’re going to affect the flavor or chemical composition of that product. If I want some caramelization to happen with candi sugar I may boil it much longer, but for lactose I just want to add it hot so it’s sanitary/pasteurized, but avoid the risk of caramelization. 

We don’t make any dramatic changes to recipes based solely on the addition of lactose. On the malt side, you just need to account for the anticipated sweetness or body impact from the lactose. You may wish to alter the amount of crystal malt or mash temperature to compensate things to achieve the flavor and balance you desire. The unfermentable sugars of the lactose add body and will increase your original gravity, and subsequently the final gravity, above where you’d see the same beer without lactose. Make sure you’re accounting for this in your recipes or it can be easy to anticipate a higher alcohol content or lighter body than you’ll actually wind up with.

There are options to get similar effects of lactose without actually using lactose. If the main reason for using it is to impart body, mouthfeel, and sweetness in your beer, this can be achieved to varying degrees with the addition of things like flaked oats, using higher mash temperatures, and working with dextrin malt or maltodextrin. The only beer I think you can’t substitute out the lactose without altering what you call it would be milk stout. But sub in maltodextrin and call it a “sweet stout” and you’re golden.

Paul Schneider is Head Brewer and Partner of Cinderlands Beer Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We have used lactose in a range of styles and found that we really like it in two places in our range of beers; we especially find that it plays a nice counterpoint to the acid of a gently kettle-soured beer and it lifts the roast and chocolate character of a really big imperial stout. Lactose gives a really luscious, creamy mouthfeel without adding a ton of sweetness. To my taste, it definitely does not add a “sweetness” in the way that some claim, but it’s really a unique character that sticks out like a sore thumb if not used judiciously. 

We’ve found that for many styles there is a better option for adding depth, body, texture, or creaminess than lactose. We really didn’t care for what lactose did in hazy IPAs or barrel-aged imperial stouts. I know some people like a subtle lactose addition in hazy IPA, but we’ve found that oats, wheat, yeast strain, water profile, and mash regimen are all we need to get the mouthfeel to the level that we want. In barrel-aged stout, we found that getting all of the extract from malt provided a more viscous mouthfeel and intense flavor than using lactose.

As an ingredient, lactose needs to be built into the recipe with consideration for every other ingredient. Every beer we make is delicate, though in these cases intense, so we are always thinking about the arrangement and balance of components. Lactose has to find balance with other components too. We have gone to the extreme of 10 lbs. per barrel (about 5 oz./gallon or 37 g/L) on the high end for lactose additions. The effect at this high of an addition rate is VERY pronounced up there, as is the calorie count! This is a more common addition rate for our imperial stouts and our Tartshake fruited sours. On the low end we’ve tried as little as 3 lbs. per barrel (about 1.5 oz./gallon or 11 g/L), but we don’t find a lot of benefit at that rate for the two styles we like lactose in. We always add lactose in the last five minutes of the boil, though you could add it earlier. 

My advice for homebrewers experimenting with lactose and new styles, methods, and ingredients is to try a lot of different things! Play around with usage rates and building texture, body, and flavor around it. Make sure you understand the differences between the end results and difference between a dextrin-promoting mash, flaked oats, malted oats, wheat, spelt, low-attenuating yeast, and lactose. Figure out which of those pieces should be part of your directed effort to fluff up your body and mouthfeel.

Garrett Hickey is the Managing Brewer and Owner of Streetside Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio

We brew a lot of milkshake IPAs at Streetside Brewery. We are mostly using lactose to add sweetness to this style; it is frequently used to add body, but that’s not our goal here. I’ve found that we get better results by mashing hotter and using different grains if adding body is the only goal when brewing this style. We’ve also added lactose to milk stouts (obviously), as well as brown ales and blondes to give a little sweetness and add body as well. 

All of our lactose additions are done in the boil. The addition rate depends on the style, but it is generally 6–12 lbs. per barrel (3–6 oz. per gallon or 22–45 g/L). For milkshake IPAs we aim for the higher end of that scale. The lactose addition doesn’t play a role in yeast or base ingredient selection for us, but we do consider the impact of it on our fruit selection for fruited milkshake IPAs. We definitely try to use fruit that plays well with the sweetness — orange or tangerine with lactose makes for creamsicle flavors, and strawberry pairs great too. We always think in terms of desserts for this style — it’s easier to work within a pre-existing idea. For instance, a milkshake IPA hopped with Belma® and Citra® and fruited with strawberry is a recipe for success.

If you want to try to replicate lactose additions but keep your beer lactose-free, my best advice would be to mash hotter and/or use maltodextrin, which may get you in the ballpark. 

Issue: December 2022