Sweet Stout: Tips from Pros

Brewer: Geoff Logan, Head Brewer at Williamsburg AleWerks in Williamsburg, Virginia.

We brew two diferent sweet/milk stouts at AleWerks: Coffeehouse Stout and also Café Royale, which is an imperial coffee milk stout aged in bourbon barrels. This style has a mild sweetness in the finished beer with a touch of body; the lactose in the beer balances out the roasted malt, and for us also the coffee flavors. We use Antigua Guatemala coffee and we like to emphasize those flavors. We age the Café Royale in whiskey barrels for three months.

For the grain bill on our sweet stouts, we use pale malts for the base and then add some (but not too much) black patent, pale chocolate, caramel 80 and Victory® or biscuit malt. For hops we use Fuggles because the style calls for hops that are mild and earthy. We use Whitbread yeast to ferment both of of these stouts. We originally started brewing them with this strain and stuck with it because we like the way it performed and attenuated. We ferment both of these stouts at 68 °F (20 °C).

I think the main mistakes that a new brewer or a brewer who isn’t familiar with the style might make when attempting to brew a sweet stout is getting it out of balance. Too much lactose or too much roast on the malt side is a mistake. You will either make a beer that is too bitter with too much acidity from too much roasted malt, or if you add too much lactose it will be too sweet and you won’t get the attenuation you want from the yeast. If you want to brew this style in your homebrewery, I think the most important thing — as I mentioned — is balance. Also, always make sure your recipe is solid before you brew anything.

Brewer: Matt Gallagher, Head Brewer and Co-Owner at Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago, Illinois

At Half Acre we brew one chocolate milk stout called Chocolate Camero. This is a style we don’t get to do often, so when we do we really go for it. By its nature it’s a departure from our normal brews. We design our milk stout to be rich, full-bodied, and heavy on the bakers chocolate flavor. We build a dry malt bill heavy on caramel and roasted malts, add lactose sugar to raise the body and sweetness, and brew and age on roasted cacao nibs. The malt bill includes our base 2-row, Munich malt to add richness, a mixture of chocolate and dark chocolate malts to add color and chocolate flavor, roasted barley to add color and roast character.

You can use a variety of different hops for this style, but remember that hopping in this style is light. Chocolate Camero is bittered with Warrior hops to add a clean balanced bitterness, and we use a late addition of Fuggles to add an earthy component to balance out the sweetness. If you are thinking about making a sweet stout, my advice would be to not go too big in terms of gravity and alcohol volume. Mash in low and let the lactose build the body and sweetness. Also, keep the hop content and bittering levels low. Since you are homebrewing and working with small batches, you’re not risking too much, so try messing around with the lactose to get it right. Otherwise this style is fairly mistake free.

Brewer: Joe Schiraldi, Vice President of Brewing Operations at Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado.

One of the most enjoyable things about this beer style is accessibility. Because of this beer style I have introduced many, many people over the years to the first dark beer that they liked. Most of the people we talk to enjoy things like iced coffee or iced cappuccino, so when they taste the beer at, say, a festival I tell them to imagine that it’s a hot summer day and you’ve just poured yourself some iced coffee. The response I get is one of the most exciting things about this beer.

We don’t do anything out of the ordinary when brewing. The grains are made up of crystal malts, Munich malts, flaked oats, flaked barley, chocolate malt and roasted barley. We do add lactose, which is becoming less and less out of the ordinary in today’s craft beer market. We bitter with Columbus and use Golding for aroma hops.

If you are trying to brew a sweet stout, one of the most important aspects is paying attention to how much lactose you put in there — there’s a sweet spot. You want to be able to taste it and smell it, but it’s got to work well with whatever else you bring to the table. Also, brewing this style is a question of experimentation to get it where you like it. You have to decide if you like it more chocolate-like or more coffee-like, and then again you need to experiment to get the lactose right to buffer it.

Luckily for brewers there are a lot more sweet stouts than there once were in the marketplace. In the last decade a lot of craft breweries have discovered what a great style of beer it is. If you want to brew your own sweet stout, start by tasting what’s out there. There’s a plethora of them these days — see how different breweries approach it.

Issue: December 2012