While that answer may be obvious, what actually remains a mystery is exactly who first came up with the idea of adding milk to beer. This was actually a common practice — adding whole milk to beer and stouts in particular — that began in the United Kingdom during the 1800s, back when stouts were actually called “stout porters.” Milk beers were served at lunchtime to laborers for added strength to get through the day. As strange as it seems, it actually makes perfect sense as many cultures, such as the Maasai in Kenya, rely on milk as a staple food. The beer in this case was an added bonus.
In time, brewers began experimenting by adding milk directly to the fermentation stage and began touting these “milk stouts” as restorative beverages. Many claimed that every glass contained “the energizing carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk,” according to British historical records. By the turn of the 20th century, doctors even went so far to prescribe milk stouts as the cure for various ailments including to nursing mothers to increase their milk production.
However, the British government banned use of the term milk stout in 1946 to stem such unproven claims and to prevent any chance of the sweet beer finding its way into children’s hands. By that time there was not actually any milk in milk stouts as brewers had discovered how to produce and use lactose — or milk sugar — in the beer. One of the few survivors of that era is Mackeson’s XXX Stout, which has been produced since 1907. Mackeson’s XXX Stout was originally called Mackeson’s Milk Stout before regulations were enacted. A milk churn still adorns the label.
A simple definition
The characteristics of milk stouts, also called cream stouts, are only subtly different from a more traditional dry stout, such as Guinness. There are the rich, chocolate roasted essences with hints of coffee and caramel present in both styles, but the milk sugar also balances the hoppy, and sometimes, roasted bitterness inherent in stouts. Since lactose is unfermentable by brewers yeast, it is used primarily to create a fuller-bodied product with heightened mouthfeel as well as add sweetness. The result is a silky smooth, creamy and slightly sweet — depending on the lactose content — brew that is very palatable, even for non-stout drinkers.
“It is an easier drinking beer than a dry stout,” says Lancaster (Pa.) Brewing Company Brewmaster Christian Heim of his brewery’s award-wining Milk Stout. “Use Guinness as an example. A lot of people are afraid of Guinness because it is dry, a little bit astringent. We’ve had a lot of success with women drinking the beer. We ask: ‘Do you drink coffee? Then think of this as a new coffee flavor sensation.’ I mean, if you like coffee, you’d like stout, and if you put milk or sugar in your coffee you’re going to really like milk stout. The flavors are similar and are going to appeal to similar people.”
Scott Christoffel, brewmaster at Lefthand Brewery in Longmont Colorado agrees, noting their milk stout began as a seasonal experiment, but has become one of the brewery’s best selling products.
“A lot of people get scared when they see a beer that dark,” he says, “but milk stout is an exceptionally smooth version of stout. It has to do with that lactose thing that adds body to the beer. It also takes the bitter edge off because with roasted barley a lot of people who don’t like a real big stout will definitely like this beer because it is rounder and not too bitter.”
Milk stouts are not too common in the United States, or the world really, with only a couple handfuls being produced. It takes a sharp eye to spot them among the hundreds of beers being marketed these days. Some examples of this traditional English-style sweet stout available in the United States include Watney’s Cream Stout, Samuel Adams Cream Stout, Tennent’s Milk Stout, Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout, Castle Milk Stout, Saranac Mocha Stout, Hitachino Nest Beer Sweet Milk Stout and, of course, those stouts mentioned above.
Make it yourself
But don’t worry about finding it on store shelves. Creating milk stouts at home is “about as easy as it gets,” says Christoffel. He recommends beginning with a sweet stout recipe, though a dry stout could also be used. The lactose will add body, but with an even more pronounced palate and fullness.
“(Milk stouts) are typically not very bitter, so you need to put in a portion of roasted barley, but make sure the portion of chocolate malt is twice as big,” he explains. “The roast will be subtle and you’ll get plenty of color. If you go heavy on the barley, it will actually be bittersweet. It is better to have more chocolate malt and just a nuance of roasted barley. I also think it works out really well when there is a decent amount of caramel in the beer which is probably going to lead you to this
As for the lactose — which is a fine, granulated sugar — Christoffel is hesitant to say exactly how much Lefthand adds to their brew, but recommends a range between 5% and 13%. “I find it is best to stay within 5–13% lactose. Thirteen percent is extreme and 5% is a nuance,” he says. “But I don’t want to stop anyone from experimenting … you could still use 2% and it would create an interesting nuance. It really is an interesting ingredient that could be an interesting additive, but I’d shoot for somewhere more to center.”
Heim also recommends going easy on the lactose, at least at the beginning. While there is not a specific amount of lactose that would “ruin” a brew, too much sweetness can make any beer a little difficult to drink.
“I would caution about using too much lactose, which is easy to do,” he says, noting that at Lancaster he adds approximately 5.5% lactose to his batches. “Lactose is one-sixth the sweetness of sucrose, which is table sugar, so it’s not real sweet, but it definitely can overpower if you put in too much. The lactose is subtle, but it might become a little over the top in sweetness.”
There are two schools of thought for adding the lactose, adding to the boil or during the primary fermentation. While both brewers agree that adding at either stage should provide the needed results, both add their lactose in the later stages of the boil. However, as with any homebrew, experimentation is in order. Some homebrew recipes add the lactose for the entire boil or just before the end of the boil. A few even add the lactose right before bottling.
Low in alcohol
The common misconception is that if a beer is a stout, it must be high in alcohol. Yet most, with the exception of imperial stouts, are actually in the 4–6% alcohol by volume (ABV) range. (Lancaster Milk Stout is 5.2%; Lefthand Milk Stout lands at 5.3% while Samuel Adams Cream Stout falls to 4.7%.) Higher gravity beers might not work well with the lactose, Christoffel says. Adding lactose will not change the alcohol content, only the beer’s character and “I wouldn’t recommend using it in an imperial stout recipe,” he says. “There will be a conflict of flavors. The imperial stout has a rich body to begin with. The Plato is high already so there will be some residual extract. It would make the beer a little too sweetish because of the starting gravity. I’d say your really good results are going to be with a stout that has a gravity between 14–16 °Plato (SG 1.056–1.064). I wouldn’t go much higher.”
As mentioned, the lactose — though a sugar — is unfermentable by brewer’s yeast, but can be consumed by certain strains of bacteria. Good hygiene and cleanliness of fermenters and equipment is essential to prevent contamination. The bacteria will certainly consume the lactose, drive up the alcohol content and eliminate most of the benefits to be gained by adding the lactose in the first place — plus it just might ruin the beer anyway.
Of course, the original question doesn’t need to be answered, and we are no closer with the second, but one thing is clear — the combination of the milk and stout makes for a fine beer that is rich and creamy, easy on the palate and low enough in alcohol content to enjoy more than one.
And it just might be the cure for what ails you.
Cactus Milk Stout
5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains; OG = 1.065; FG = 1.022; IBU = 30; SRM = 53; ABV = 5.5%
- 5.6 lbs. (2.5 kg) amber liquid malt extract
- 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) dark liquid malt extract
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) wheat malt
- 0.50 lb. (0.22 kg) flaked barley
- 0.50 lb. (0.22 kg) flaked oats
- 0.75 lb (0.34 kg) Paul’s stout malt
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) American crystal malt (90 °L)
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Carapils malt
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Belgian Special B
- 0.50 lb. (0.11 kg) chocolate malt
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) roasted barley
- 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) black patent malt
- 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) lactose
- 10 AAU Phoenix hops (1 oz./28 g of 10% alpha acids)
- 5 AAU Willamette hops (1 oz./28 g of 5% alpha acids)
- 1 tsp. gypsum
- 1 tsp. Irish moss
- White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) yeast
- 0.75 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Put crushed grains in grain bag. Heat 2 gallons of water with gypsum to 165 °F (74 °C). Turn off heat and add grain bag. (Do not add grains to water above 165 °F (74 °C). Let temperature rest down to 155 °F (68 °C) stirring grain bag gently from time to time. Leave pot uncovered during this time and rest for 25 minutes. Slowly heat back up to 165–170 °F (74–77 °C) degrees and hold 5 minutes.
Turn off heat. Remove grain bag and let drain. Do not squeeze grain bag! Rinse grains by slowly pouring 1 quart of hot tap water over top of grain bag. Add 1.5 gallons (5.7 L) of water, or 3.5 gallons (13 L0 if you are doing a 5-gallon (19-L) boil. Add malt extracts, including lactose and bring to boil. Add 0.5 oz. (14 g) Phoenix hops. After 30 minutes add second 0.5 oz. (14 g) of Phoenix hops and Irish Moss.
After 50 minutes add Willamette hops. Boil for a final 10 minutes. Cool wort to 80 °F (27 °C) or cooler and pitch yeast. Ferment 10–14 days at 68–72 °F (20–22 °C). You can also go from primary to secondary after four days and leave in secondary 10 days.
Watney’s Cream Stout clone
5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains; OG = 1.063; FG = 1.020; IBU = 37; SRM = 39; ABV = 5.5%
- 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) unhopped dark extract syrup
- 3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) Light dried malt extract
- 0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) Belgian Special B malt
- 0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) Belgian CaraMunich malt
- 0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) Belgian roasted barley
- 0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) Belgian roasted malt
- 0.5 lb. lactose (at bottling)
- 0.25 tsp. Burton water salts
- 9 AAU Cascade hops (2.25 oz./64 g of 4% alpha acids)
- 4.6 AAU BC Goldings hops (1.15 oz./33 g of 4% alpha acids)
- Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) yeast
- 0.5 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Crush the grains, place in a grain bag and steep them in 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) of 168 °F (76 °C) water for 20 minutes. Remove grain bag and bring grain tea to a boil. Stir in malt extract and resume boil, add Cascades hops once boil resumes. After 45 minutes, add the Goldings hops. (60 minute total boil.) Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C)
Mackeson’s XXX Stout clone
5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains; OG = 1.068; FG = 1.022; IBU = 36; SRM = 65; ABV = 5.9%
- 7.0 lbs. (3.2 kg) Coopers light syrup
- 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) chocolate malt
- 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) black patent malt (uncracked)
- 12 oz. (0.34 kg) crystal malt
- 12 oz. (0.34 kg) lactose
- 10 AAU Kent Goldings hops (leaf) (2 oz./57 g at 5% alpha acids)
- 1 tsp. salt (15 mins)
- 1 tsp. citric acid (15 mins)
- 2.5 tsp. yeast nutrient (15 mins)
- English Ale yeast
- 0.75 cup dried malt extract (for priming)
Step by Step
Place crushed crystal and chocolate malt — and uncrushed black patent malt — in a grain bag. Steep grains at 150 °F (66 °C) for 30 minutes. Add water and malt extract to the grain tea to make 3 gallons (11 L) and bring to a boil. Add bittering hops and boil for 60 minutes. Add lactose at knockout. Chill wort and pitch yeast. When fermented, prime with 3/4 cup of dried malt extract and bottle.
Simply Sweet Stout
5 gallons/19 L, all-grain; OG = 1.041; FG = 1.015; IBU = 27; SRM = 29; ABV = 3.4%
- 6.5 lbs. (2.9 kg) pale malt
- 8 oz. (0.22 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
- 6 oz. (0.17 kg) roasted black unmalted barley
- 7 AAU Kent Goldings hops (1.4 oz./40 g of 5% alpha acids)
- 12 oz. lactose (boiled for 10 minutes, added at kegging)
- Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) yeast
Step by Step
Mash in with 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) of 170 °F (77 °C) water, aiming for 152 °F (67 °C) strike temperature. Hold 2 hours for conversion.Raise to 168 °F (76 °C) for mashout. Hold 10 minutes. Sparge with about 5 gallons (19 L) of water. Boil 1.5 hours. Add hops at 45 minutes. Ferment at 65 °F (18 °C), rack to secondary then age for several weeks. Keg with lactose.
Doug Rhoades’ Milk Stout
5 gallons/19 L, all-grain; OG = 1.072; FG = 1.023; IBU = 47; SRM = 30; ABV = 6.3%
- 7.9 lbs. (3.6 kg) 2-row pale malt
- 1.1 lbs. (0.5 kg) wheat malt
- 1.5 lbs. (0.91 kg) crystal malt (90 ° L)
- 1.0 lbs. (0.45 kg) Carapils malt
- 5 oz. (0.14 kg) black patent malt
- 0.75 lbs. (0.34 kg) roasted barley
- 1.0 lbs. (0.45 kg) flaked oats
- 0.5 lb. (0.22 kg) flaked rye
- 1 lbs. (0.45 kg) lactose (30 min.)
- 1 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
- 11 AAU Galena hops (90 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 11% alpha acids)
- 2 AAU Willamette hops (10 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g of 4% alpha acids)
- Irish Ale yeast
- 0.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Mash at 122 °F (50 °C) for 20 minutes, 152 °F (67 °C) 60 minutes and 167 °F (75 °C) for 10 minutes. Boil for 90 minutes. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). Bottle with corn sugar.