Pastry Stouts: Tips from the Pros

So-called “pastry” stouts are loaded with flavors reminiscent of popular desserts and commercial examples have become some of the most sought-after beers. Get tips for brewing these rich beers from three of the best, who each approach them differently.

Ben Romano, Angry Chair Brewing in Tampa, Florida

For me, a “pastry” stout is just a sweet stout with either some lactose or maltodextrin for extra body, and adjuncts to mimic a certain type of dessert. They are fun beers to drink and share with friends. The most important thing when brewing them is a solid base recipe. I like 70% base malt with 30% specialty and either lactose or maltodextrin. For the specialty I like roasted and chocolate malts with a blend of different caramel malts.

We like a starting gravity around 30–31 °Plato (1.129–1.134 specific gravity) and finishing around 13–14 °Plato (1.053–1.057 SG). We use brewers crystals (a mixture of corn syrup and glucose solids) and lactose to boost gravity, but Pilsner malt extract could be used in place of brewers crystals. I think 8 to 11% ABV is perfect. Anything higher than that and I find the alcohol detracts from the adjuncts. I like lower ABV versions but they still need to have a high finishing gravity to carry the flavor of the adjuncts.

Our target mash temperature is 152–154 °F (67–68 °C) and then we boil two to three hours. We start fermentation at 66 °F (19 °C) and raise to 70 °F (21 °C) when fermentation starts to slow down. 

Almost all of our adjuncts are added on the cold side. After we transfer the beer to the bright tank we fill up our treatment tank with adjuncts and recirculate until we get the desired amount of flavor from the ingredients. Sometimes adjunct additions are done in stages depending on how long it takes to extract an ingredient’s flavor. Coconut takes a while and cinnamon can pick up extremely quickly so planning the additions is critical to getting the right flavor profile. We use a good amount of freshly toasted nuts in our stouts and I probably enjoy those beers the most. We get better expression of nut character when they are toasted right before going in the treatment tank.  Lavender stems are another ingredient we have used recently and I really enjoy the baking spice character we get from them. 

We’ve found that a yeast strain that has a little bit of esters and one that doesn’t ferment too dry is ideal for these beers. Some strains will enhance the bitterness from the roasted malt.  We have changed house yeast a few times trying to find the perfect yeast for our IPAs, and have found all of them to work great for stout. My two favorite strains for stout are White Labs WLP066 (London Fog Ale) and Omega OYL-052 (DIPA Ale). Both are strong fermenters and tend to ferment down to our preferred finishing gravity without stalling.

For all of our barrel-aged versions, the beer is transferred to barrels and aged anywhere from a year to two years. We start pulling samples after six months and taste periodically to check on progress. We haven’t had great results with most oak alternatives. If you can’t find a small spirit barrel, Amburana wood is great for getting some vanilla and spice notes. Cypress wood is great for notes of yellow cake and vanilla wafers. We have found it takes quite a bit of both woods to get the character we want and it can be a bit on the expensive side. When I used to homebrew I would sometimes use Bourbon- or rum-soaked oak spirals with decent results so that is always an option.

Before coming up with a recipe I like to make whatever dessert I’m trying to emulate in a beer. Understanding every ingredient and how they interact with each other helps me to come up with the adjunct profile that I need and how to accomplish certain flavors. 

Brian Eckert, Four Quarters Brewing in Winooski, Vermont

When brewing a pastry stout I like to cut out highly roasted malts like black malt, roasted barley, and darker chocolate malts. Go with a lighter (300 °L) chocolate malt, dehusked Carafa® (we like Carafa® Special II), and add some oats or wheat in there to help give a soft body. We typically shoot for a mash temperature around 158 °F (70 °C), pH around 5.4, and a starting gravity about 22–24 °P (1.092–1.101 specific gravity), and finish around 9 °P (1.036 SG). 

We have a full series called Chocolate Drop in which we use lots of chocolate malt as well as cocoa powder. We use that as a base with a wide variety of adjuncts to create a whole series — Strawberry Chocolate Drop, Coconut Chocolate Drop, Peanut Butter Coffee Drop, etc. . . . and even though it’s not called Chocolate Drop, our S’mores stout would fall under this as well. We then evolved that lineup into a Cake Drop series as well. 

Before you go crazy with adjuncts you need a solid base beer. Experiment with grain types and ratios, mash temperatures, and yeast varieties until you get something you really like. Then start adding adjuncts — go with small amounts first, and keep adding until you find the amount you like.

The two basic ways to incorporate special ingredients are on the hot-side or the cold-side post-fermentation. We do a little of both. We usually add things like cocoa powder and maple syrup into the whirlpool. This helps lock in some of the aromas, and also gets some extra sugar in there to boost the starting gravity. The cold-side additions are where a lot of people differ. What works for us is adding a lot of the ingredients in our bright tank and allowing the beer to condition on them until it’s at the right spot to package.

The yeast characteristics should stay out of this beer style. We pretty much exclusively use a neutral American ale yeast. Ferment slow and steady. That ensures you’re not picking up any hot off-flavors. And get a strong, healthy pitch of yeast going.

Michael Lalli, Krebs Brewing Co. & Prairie Artisan Ales

Vanilla, chocolate, marshmallows, various cookies, and cakes have been my favorite additions to pastry stouts. It’s always interesting and sometimes surprising how different adjuncts react with the base beer and each other, not just in flavor/aroma but body/texture as well. Sometimes a combination tricks your brain into thinking there’s something there that isn’t. It’s the incredible range of flavors/textures brewers have been able to incorporate into the liquid that makes these beers so interesting and amazing.

We’ve tried so many different ways of doing everything adjunct-related; I’m not convinced there’s a right/wrong way. I think the best results have come when waiting until fermentation is 100% complete, removing as much yeast as possible, and from there figure out what works for you process-wise. Just keep it simple and repeatable.

I feel like if the ABV isn’t high enough (10–14% ABV) the flavor/aroma transfer from the adjuncts will be less than expected in the finished beer. I build these beers by chasing gravity points on the hot side. Pick a base malt that gives you the most gravity points per weight and build the beer around it. I’m not a fan of base malts that don’t give max gravity points per pound like Maris Otter, boil times exceeding two hours, brewing a smaller batch size than your system is designed for, or the no-sparge method (though incredible beers certainly are made these ways). There are other ways to get similar results: Mash/sparge twice to get the brew kettle volume needed, use a higher percentage of specialty malts, and don’t forget about flaked wheat/rye/oats. Try things other brewers have success with even if it seems crazy — you’ll land on a mix of ingredients/processes that work for your system. If you need to add sugar, by all means do so, just use sugar that adds more than just gravity. Making a pastry imperial stout thin by using sugar is less of a concern than hitting the gravity I’m chasing. In the end, if the ABV isn’t where it needs to be when it’s time to add the adjuncts, the flavor/aroma transfer from the adjuncts will be lessened. 

For fermentation you’ll be good to keep it simple with the Chico strain.

Issue: October 2021