Article

Sweet Stout

I have always defended style guidelines as providing a sort of “shorthand” when discussing beers. You tell someone you are brewing pale ale, and they know it is light in color and fermented with ale yeast. If you say, “I’m brewing an American pale ale” then they know it has some American brewing characteristics. Saves a lot of time and words when us beer geeks get together, right?

But the problem is, not all of the style names are as descriptive as they should be. For example, “cream ale” has always bothered me. If you do not know beer styles, the term cream ale can be misleading. It may be an ale, but it certainly is not creamy. I find it even more annoying when brewers ask what they should be putting in their recipe to make a cream ale taste creamier! Vanilla? Argh, the humanity! But I digress.

Contrast that with “sweet stout.” Now that is a good style name. Most people with a passion for beer and little understanding of style guidelines would have at least some idea of what a sweet stout might be: A stout, but sweeter than a regular stout. Okay, it is a simplified description of the style, but pretty darn accurate. Even if you were to call it by the more traditional name milk stout or cream stout, I think people would still have a pretty good shot at guessing what kind of beer they would get if they ordered one. Hooray for decent style names!

Sweet stout is traditionally an English style and historically known as milk or cream stout. The name comes from the practice of adding lactose (milk sugar) to sweeten the beer. Sweet stout is dark, sweet, rich and full of roasted flavors and aromas. It is full-bodied and has substantial coffee and chocolate notes. The appearance is very dark brown to black in color. Think of sweet stout as similar to dry stout in roastiness, but much fuller and sweeter. While some commercial examples are drier than others, you will have more success in competitions focusing on the sweet side of the style. Sweetness in this style comes from reducing the bitterness of the beer and adding crystal malt and lactose powder. Lactose is only mildly sweet, but it is unfermentable by brewing yeasts, which also helps add to the mouthfeel.

To brew a great example of this style, start with high quality British pale ale malt as the base. It provides that background rich malt character that is a key component in fine British beers. British pale ale malt is kilned a bit darker (2.5 to 3.5 °L) than the average North American two-row or pale malt (1.5 to 2.5 °L) and this higher level of kilning brings out the malt’s biscuit-toasty flavors. Some brewers use North American pale ale malt or North American two-row with the addition of some specialty malts, but this will not produce the same beer as using British pale ale malt. Spend the money, make the effort, and use the proper base malt if you want to make an excellent example of the style.

Similarly, extract brewers should make the effort to source an extract made from British pale ale malt. If you end up using North American two-row malt extract, you can try to compensate by partial mashing some additional specialty malts such as Munich, biscuit or Victory®.

All-grain brewers should use a single infusion mash. A temperature in the range of 150 to 155 °F (66 to 68 °C) works well. Use a lower temperature when using lower attenuating yeasts or higher starting gravities. Use a higher mash temperature when using the higher attenuating yeasts or lower starting gravity beers. If you are unsure, a great starting point is 152 °F (67 °C).

While using the proper base malt is important, sweet stout also requires a fair amount of specialty malt. To develop some sweetness and a caramel flavor component, consider using 5% to 10% of 40 to 120 °L crystal malt. I prefer to use crystal malts in the 80 °L range, since it provides a dark caramel flavor. To create the dark color and an espresso-like richness, British black malt, chocolate malt, and even roasted barley are good choices. The proper amounts are going to vary based on color and flavor. Generally, 10% of the grist is highly kilned malt in a stout. Be aware that malts of the same name from different suppliers can vary substantially in color and flavor. You might find both chocolate malt and black malt ranging from 300 °L to 500 °L, so the name that the maltsters give a product is not always a reliable indicator. Let flavor be your guide.

If you are looking for more complexity or increased head retention, you can add other malts as well. Wheat malt, Victory®, biscuit and others are common additions in many recipes, but keep in mind that using too many specialty malts often ends up as a muddled malt character, not a more complex one. Emphasize one or two particular malt characters in your recipe by using two or three grains. Select high quality British specialty malts such as Muntons, Simpsons or Thomas Fawcett. These malts have a rich malt character, which is complex on its own. One specialty grain that I like a lot in this style is pale chocolate malt (~200 °L). It has a dark toast character that is not quite chocolate and it fills a void in the range of malt flavors in this beer. You might experiment with other adjuncts as well, such as treacle, but keep in mind that simple sugars will ferment out completely and will contribute toward a thinner body, which is the opposite of what you want in a sweet stout.

All English-style beer is best brewed with English hops, such as East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Target, Northdown or Challenger. Hop flavor and aroma should be absent or at the most minimal, also similar to dry stout. The bittering level for sweet stout has a wide range of 20 to 40 IBU, but you should be shooting for a balance that is slightly to moderately sweet. A bitterness to starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) in the range of 0.4 and 0.6 is good. Skip the late hop additions in this style. There should be no hop flavor or aroma. At most, any hop character detected in the finished beer would be from the bittering hop addition.

Fermentation creates most of the flavor and aroma in many British beers. “English” yeast strains provide a variety of interesting esters and leave some residual sweetness to balance the hop bittering. Many English yeasts attenuate on the lower side  (< 70%), but there are some that attenuate quite well (up to 80%). For many British-style beers you have to think about the final balance of the beer. Most British beer styles are near even or on the bitter side. If the beer has a high starting gravity, or you are using a lot of specialty grains that add residual sweetness (such as crystal malts), you need to select a more attenuative strain. If you are brewing a beer with a lower starting gravity and/or limited specialty grains, then you want to go with a less attenuative yeast. This is one of the most important things to know about crafting your own British-style recipes. My favorite yeast strains for brewing sweet stout are White Labs WLP006 (Bedford British) and Wyeast 1099 (Whitbread Ale). They both provide a wonderful ester profile without being excessively fruity, and they attenuate less than many English yeasts. Lower attenuation in this case helps preserve that rich malt sweetness and fuller mouthfeel.

At lower temperatures (<65 °F/18 °C), these yeasts produce a relatively low level of esters and at high temperatures (>70 °F/21 °C) they produce abundant fruity esters and fusel alcohol notes. I start my fermentation in the middle of this range (67 °F/19 °C), letting the temperature rise a few degrees over a couple days. This creates the expected level of esters, helps the yeast attenuate fully, and keeps the amount of diacetyl in the finished beer down to a minimum.

Serving British-style beers at cellar temperature, around 52 to 55 °F (11 to 13 °C), allows the character of the beer to come out and can improve drinkability. Colder temperatures prevent the drinker from picking up the interesting fermentation and malt flavors and aromas, so try serving your sweet stout above 50 °F (10 °C). Target a carbonation level around 1.5 to 2 volumes of CO2.

Sweet Stout

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.060 (14.8 °P) FG = 1.023 (5.7 °P) IBU = 22  SRM = 41  ABV = 4.9%

Ingredients

8.8 lb. (4 kg) Crisp British pale ale malt (or similar)
14.8 oz. (420 g) lactose (0 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Baird’s black patent malt (525 °L)
10.6 oz. (300 g) Baird’s crystal malt (80 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Thomas Fawcett & Sons pale chocolate malt (200 °L)
6 AAU Kent Goldings hop pellets (1.2 oz./35 g at 5% alpha acids) (60 min.)
White Labs WLP006 (Bedford British) or Wyeast 1099 (Whitbread Ale) yeast

Step by Step

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 151 °F (66 °C). Hold the mash at 151 °F (66 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. Infuse the mash with near-boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.051 (12.6 °P).

The total wort boil time is 60 minutes. I prefer to mix in the lactose with the first runnings, which gives me lots of time to make sure it gets dissolved before firing up the kettle. Add the first hop addition as soon as the wort reaches a full boil and then start your timer. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil.

Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is 2 packages of liquid yeast or 1 package of liquid yeast in a 2-liter starter. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). When finished, carbonate the beer to approximately 1.5 to 2 volumes.

Sweet Stout

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.060 (14.8 °P) FG = 1.023 (5.7 °P) IBU = 22  SRM = 41  ABV = 4.9%

Ingredients

6.6 lb. (3.0 kg) English pale ale liquid malt extract
14.8 oz. (420 g) lactose (0 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Baird’s black patent malt (525 °L)
10.6 oz. (300 g) Baird’s crystal malt (80 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Thomas Fawcett & Sons pale chocolate malt (200 °L)
6 AAU Kent Goldings hop pellets (1.2 oz./35 g at 5% alpha acids) (60 min.)
White Labs WLP006 (Bedford British) or Wyeast 1099 (Whitbread Ale) yeast

Step by Step

If you cannot get fresh liquid malt extract, it is better to use an appropriate amount of dried malt extract (DME) instead.

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Avoid packing the grains too tightly in the bag, using more bags if needed. Steep the bag in about 1 gallon (~4 liters) of water at roughly 170 °F (77 °C) for about 30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bags to drip into the kettle for a few minutes while you add the malt extract and lactose powder. Do not squeeze the bags. Add the malt extract, lactose, and enough water to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.051 (12.6 °P). Stir thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

The total wort boil time is 60 minutes. Add the first hop addition as soon as the wort reaches a full boil and then start your timer. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and aerate thoroughly. Follow the fermentation and packaging instructions for the all-grain version.

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