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Pastry Stout: Have your cake and drink it too

dark specialty stout in a stemmed tulip glass
Photo courtesy of Charles A. Parker/Images Plus

Pastry stout is a modern craft beer phenomenon that takes specialty beers to the extreme. Packing massive sweetness and the flavors often found in desserts and pastries into a strong dark stout, the beers are often sought-after commercial creations popular in the modern era of social media. While having a cult following, the relatively young style has few rules and emphasizes brewer creativity in executing the concept. Many breweries make one-off versions and are constantly trying new variations, which makes it difficult to define the beer in the traditional sense. It is best thought of as an ingredient-driven specialty beer with several commonly used attributes.

As a specialty beer, the base style often cannot be defined as a classic style, like imperial stout. Rather, it is dark and usually quite strong, but is also sweet, thick, and heavy. Due to the darkness, it is called a stout, but often the beers lack the strongly roasted character typical of most stouts. The notion of balance is also somewhat hard to pin down since the essence of the style is a beer that is unbalanced in sweetness, possessing well beyond the typical sweetness level of other beers.

Neither the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) nor the Brewers Association (BA) list pastry stout as a named style, preferring to let existing specialty and experimental styles address it. I think this reflects the fact that the beers can vary widely and that they are very ingredient-driven. The most typical place to put pastry stouts in a BJCP competition would be category 30D Specialty Spice Beer, which allows variations of spice, herb, and vegetable (SHV) beers (a base style with a number of SHV ingredients) with sugars, sweeteners, and unfermentable sugars added. The base styles in these beers can be used loosely, such as stating a style family (e.g., “stout”) or giving a general description of the beer. Versions not using spices might be placed in 31B Alternative Sugar Beer, and those versions using fruits along with spices should go in 29C Specialty Fruit Beer (which allows a fruit and spice base beer, along with additional sweeteners).

Pastry Stout History

While beers that are today called pastry stouts have been made for some time, they really didn’t start to be noticed until after 2000. I recall trying beers like Southern Tier’s Choklat and Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast in the mid-2000s, and finding them very sweet for their description. The trend of making experimental beers accelerated after hazy IPAs started to be made into milkshake IPA variations in the mid- to late-2010s, and sweetness caught on as a desirable beer component after years of consumers chasing bitterness in IPA, sourness in wild beers, and barrel-aged beers of all forms. 

The name pastry stout seems to have first been used around 2017 as a somewhat derogatory term to criticize these excessively sweet beers, but the name stuck and was actually embraced by those making it to the point where it routinely appears on the label of commercial beers. Articles about the style started appearing in 2018 and 2019 and more brewers are creating these variations based on customer demand and excessive hyping on social media. Since those times, the number of commercial breweries making the beer continues to grow.

Sensory Profile

Pastry stouts are meant to invoke the mental impression of a sweet dessert (or even a sweet breakfast). Since they are called stouts they should be dark but often don’t have the heavily roasted or burnt flavors of some stouts. As they mention pastries, they should be sweet and have the flavors associated with pastries or desserts. They should be fairly strong, at least 8%, often over 10% ABV, and be very sweet with a high finishing gravity. Really, these are the only things that seem to be generally accepted as guidelines among brewers (I hesitate to call them rules since they seem very flexible).

The dark flavors can have coffee, dark chocolate, and cocoa qualities, and are often combined with very dark crystal malt flavors that have caramel, dried or dark fruit, and burnt sugar flavors. There typically are not strongly roasted, acrid, harsh, tarry, ashy, or burnt flavors. This is similar to how beers like black IPA and schwarzbier use darker malts and grains without bringing in the sharp notes. 

These beers typically have thick or chewy body and mouthfeel, often with silky or dextrinous qualities. The high sugar content can give a heavier mouthfeel as well, and can sometimes approach something cloying, although the alcohol tends to offset this impression. The alcohol level is high, which often makes it similar to an imperial stout in strength but the balance will seem very different since the bitterness levels are usually quite restrained to avoid challenging the sweetness for dominance.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

This is going to be hard, as there are so many choices to make. The grist sounds somewhat similar to an imperial stout in that it chooses from four main groups: Base malts, dark malts and grains, crystals and sugars, and adjuncts. But the proportions are often quite different. The base malts are often pale ale malt or blends of pale malts. Dark malts and grains can include roasted barley, black malt, chocolate malt, and other roasted grains such as chocolate wheat, chocolate rye, and the various dehusked/debittered variants of these dark grains. Lighter color versions of these grains are sometimes used as well as the debittered versions to keep the roastiness down.

Crystal malts can be any range of color. Starchy adjuncts such as flaked wheat, barley, rye, and oats can be used to build body. Sugars can include fermentable types (often brown sugars or various syrups that add flavors) or unfermentables such as lactose and maltodextrin. Malt extract can be used to raise the starting gravity as well, depending on the system used. The amount of base malt can seem somewhat low, in the 50–70% range of the grist, while the specialty malts and starchy adjuncts can be in the 30–40% range. Sugars and sweeteners are on top of these grist percentages and might be added until a desired starting gravity is hit.

Don’t feel constrained to think of the base as being like an imperial stout. It could also be considered to be a sweet stout or oatmeal stout brewed to a stronger strength, or something like a double brown ale or imperial porter as a base. Since the underlying style isn’t really considered as long as it is something dark, I wouldn’t worry too much about this part of the calculation.

Due to the darkness, it is called a stout, but often the beers lack the strongly roasted character typical of most stouts.

Not all sugars have the same level of sweetness. Lactose is fairly sweet, but maltodextrin (technically not a sugar) is much less sweet but often has a marshmallow kind of aroma and adds body. Simpler sugars can ferment out (but leave residual flavors), but the unfermentable sugars will remain sweet. 

Mashing is usually done as a single infusion. I almost want to say that the mash temperature doesn’t matter since the body and sweetness are often coming more from the adjuncts than a high mash temperature, and that any deficit in body and sweetness can be adjusted after brewing by adding more of the unfermentable sweeteners or body builders used in the recipe. You want to reach a higher alcohol level but that can often be controlled by adding fermentable sugars or malt extracts to the boil. So, I would say that you should mash at your normal or favorite mash temperature for stouts, something around 151 °F (66 °C) is fine, for example.

Hops almost don’t matter since the bitterness is frequently low and the late hop character is non-existent. I would choose a high-alpha bittering hop with a relatively clean profile (something like Magnum or Warrior). Similarly, the yeast is typically an ale yeast that can handle high alcohol fermentations without leaving much additional character. The Chico-type ale yeast strains work well, as do some that are used in stronger IPAs. I would not use Belgian-type strains that might work in higher alcohol beers but that would leave phenols and esters that may clash with your specialty ingredients. You want the hops and yeast to get out of the way of the signature flavors.

When I was visiting my friend Michael Tonsmeire and his brewing partner Scott Janish at their Sapwood Cellars Brewery  in Columbia, Maryland, last year, they described a categorization system of specialty ingredients that I really liked. They said that most pastry stouts seemed to have at least two or three out of about 13 common ingredients. They said beers often had at least one but up to three of the Tier 1 ingredients of coconut, maple syrup, vanilla, and cacao. Tier 2 ingredients are common “modifiers” to the Tier 1 ingredients and include peanut, hazelnut, cinnamon, coffee, and marshmallow. Finally Tier 3 ingredients are less common but can be used for special goals: Graham cracker, banana, almond, and Oreos. Of this list, maple syrup and marshmallow are sugars, banana is a fruit, and the rest are categorized as SHV-type ingredients in BJCP competitions, which goes back to why I see this style as mostly a specialty SHV beer.

Natural flavors and ingredients often give cleaner, more pure, flavors than extracts and essences. Some commercial brewers will add actual pastries or dessert products to their beers, which I think is a little goofy, but not that much more than the beer already is. I did want to stress that pastry stouts do not necessarily have to include actual pastries, but that they aren’t disallowed either. When using pastries, the finished beer is usually conditioned on them. The other ingredients are added either at the end of the boil, in the whirlpool, or on the cold side when the beer is finished fermenting. Some ingredients benefit from some heat, while others taste better without it. Some experimentation is necessary to see where they work best – I tend to look towards their use in cooking to help decide what to try first.

Homebrew Example

Since I mentioned Sapwood Cellars, I’ll give you one of their recipes that they generously agreed to share. This is their Flaked (2021) beer, which is described as an imperial oatmeal stout with coconut and vanilla, and weighs in at 10.5% ABV. I tried this on New Years Eve 2021 with Mike and Scott and it was a great way to close out the year. My thanks go to them for their generosity. If you are in the Columbia, Maryland, area, check them out; they are worth a visit for not only their stouts, but their cutting edge IPAs and flavorful wild ales.

One of the things I liked about the beer is that it retained its beer-like qualities and wasn’t a parody of itself. Yes, it had a strong character of specialty ingredients, but it still seemed to have not forgotten the stout part of the style. You can see that in the ingredients where they are still using a little roasted barley and black malt to give some balance to the sweetness. They don’t actually call it a pastry stout, but they wanted it to have some of those features without sending me into a diabetic coma.

The recipe uses a blend of toasted and untoasted coconut (a 50/50 mix is fine) and split vanilla beans. These flavorings are added into the secondary after fermentation is complete. Oats are providing the silky body and also help support the description as an imperial oatmeal stout. Their base malt is a blend of Maris Otter and Briess 2-row and they use Simpsons crystal malts. I’ve adjusted their recipe to the homebrew scale, and to fit the BYO recipe standards.

This is a great winter beer, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Pastry Stouts By The Numbers

OG: 1.100–1.150
FG: 1.040–1.080
SRM: 40+
IBU: 0–50
ABV: 8–12%+

Sapwood Cellars’ Flaked clone 

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.126  FG = 1.050
IBU = 36  SRM = 71  ABV = 10.5%

Ingredients
14.5 lbs. (6.6 kg) pale ale malt
2.75 lbs. (1.2 kg) U.K. medium crystal malt (60 °L)
2.75 lbs. (1.2 kg) flaked oats
2 lbs. (907 g) Carafa® Special II malt
1 lb. (454 g) U.K. roasted barley
0.5 lb. (227 g) U.K. black malt
2.25 lbs. (1 kg) maltodextrin 
19 AAU U.K. Warrior hops (60 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 15% alpha acids)
3.35 lbs. (1.5 kg) shredded coconut (blend of toasted and untoasted)
0.5 oz. (14 g) vanilla beans, split and chopped
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), or SafAle US-05 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp. of calcium chloride to the mash.

This recipe uses an infusion mash. Use enough water to have a moderately thick mash (1.5 qts./lb. or 3.1 L/kg). Mash in the pale malt and oats at 151 °F (66 °C) and hold for 60 minutes. Add the crystal malt and the three dark grains, stir, begin recirculating, raise the mash temperature to 169 °F (76 °C), and recirculate for 15 minutes. Sparge slowly and collect 7 gallons (26.5 L) of wort. 

Boil the wort for 120 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. Add the maltodextrin when 15 minutes remain in the boil.

Chill the wort to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete, allowing the temperature to rise as high as 70 °F (21 °C) during fermentation. Cold crash the beer, transfer onto coconut and vanilla beans, and allow to condition for one week.

Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate.

Sapwood Cellars’ Flaked clone 

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.126  FG = 1.050
IBU = 36  SRM = 71  ABV = 10.5%

Ingredients
11.5 lbs. (5.2 kg) light liquid malt extract
2.75 lbs. (1.2 kg) U.K. medium crystal malt (60 °L)
2 lbs. (907 g) Carafa® Special II malt
1 lb. (454 g) U.K. roasted barley
0.5 lb. (227 g) U.K. black malt
2.25 lbs. (1 kg) maltodextrin 
19 AAU U.K. Warrior hops (60 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 15% alpha acids)
3.35 lbs. (1.5 kg) shredded coconut (blend of toasted and untoasted)
0.5 oz. (14 g) vanilla beans, split and chopped
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), or SafAle US-05 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Use 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C). 

Turn off the heat. Add the crystal malt and three dark grains in a mesh bag and steep for 30 minutes. Remove and rinse grains gently.

Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Turn the heat back on and bring to a boil. 

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated. Add the maltodextrin when 15 minutes remain in the boil.

Chill the wort to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete, allowing the temperature to rise as high as 70 °F (21 °C) during fermentation. Cold crash the beer, transfer onto coconut and vanilla beans, and allow to condition for one week.

Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate.

Issue: December 2022