Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to email@example.com.
The roasty coffee and dusty baker’s chocolate flavors inherent in imperial stouts have for years tempted brewers to put a dessert spin on them, adding ingredients such as vanilla, cocoa nibs, and spices to their beers. None of that is news in 2018. What is new is the recent rise of a subcategory of beers called “pastry stouts,” which have become as debated and misunderstood as hazy IPAs first were.
So, let’s seek clarity.
The creation of the term “pastry stout” is usually attributed to sardonic beer blogger Don’t Drink Beer, who uses it as a catch-all for sweet beers flavored like candy bars, doughnuts, cake, etc., which brewers have been churning out to drinkers’ great delight or disdain, depending on your taste.
We might once have called stouts with chocolate or vanilla “dessert stouts,” but pastry stouts—with names like Barrel-Aged Imperial German Chocolate Cupcake Stout, Maple Truffle Ice Cream Waffle, and (deep inhale) Maple Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Mexican Biscotti Toasted Coconut Cake Break—are a league apart. Rather than just accenting the beer with subtle notes reminiscent of dessert, they strive for an over-the-top, liquid version of cake or pastry.
“This type of beer became so popular and ridiculous that it did need its own term,” Josh Noel tells The Takeout. He’s the Chicago Tribune beer columnist who wrote an article last year bemoaning the rise of “gooey, sugar-smacked messes.” He says that once the phrase “pastry stout” was coined, it only encouraged breweries to further pursue boozy versions of cupcakes, cookies, candy bars, and marshmallows: “The language empowered the style.”
Whereas pastry stout might have begun as a slightly derogatory term for an overly sweet, bakery-inspired novelty beer, breweries are finding these stouts have an enthusiastic following. You’ll now find brewers themselves describing their beers this way, embracing “pastry stout” right on the label.
But what’s the difference between a pastry stout and any other stout brewed with say, vanilla and cocoa nibs?
“Foremost, it has to be sweet, 100 percent,” says Jared Lewinski, head brewer at Cincinnati, Ohio’s Listermann Brewing. He spoke to me as the brewery was gearing up to release a pastry stout called Cookie Wizard. “If you talked to me years ago, I’d consider those beers imbalanced as hell. But it’s a style that I don’t think cares about balance. Or balance is the enemy of this style, even.”
Lewinski makes this analogy: Pastry stouts are the ice wines of beer—without an ice wine’s elegance. But, he says, that over-the-top sweetness and candy-like flavor is what people want.
Lewinski knows how to brew balanced, elegant stouts; his creations have medaled multiple times—including a 2016 Best Of Show—at Chicago’s annual Festival Of Wood And Barrel-Aged Beers. But that’s not what pastry stout fans want. When Lewinski brewed a s’mores stout a little while back, he went for subtlety, balancing the marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker flavors with the beer’s malt base. People weren’t super into it.
“If you’re going to call a beer a ‘German Coconut Cupcake,’ the coconut has to be strong; the chocolate has to be strong; everything has to be ‘pick-out-able,’ otherwise people are like ‘Oh I can’t taste the chocolate or the coconut,’” he explains. “If you’re not nailing those end flavors, people are going to not enjoy it.”
To make a stout that isn’t just reminiscent of a s’more but tastes like a straight-up melted s’more in a bottle, some brewers are turnings to extracts or flavorings or syrups added to the beer after it’s fermented. Lewinski says this initially made him cringe—his whole brewing education taught him to abhor such “cheats.” But, he says, these extracts actually achieve the precise flavors of a Thin Mint cookie or Neapolitan ice cream better than using those actual ingredients would. And thankfully, these extracts and flavorings have improved in recent years, tasting less chemically and artificial than they once did.
“You find the company that puts out these flavors, and you can find something that tastes exactly like what it says it is. Is that lazy? Maybe. But I do know that’s what the market wants,” he explains.
Process-wise, that’s the opposite of how many brewers create their beers.
For a non-pastry perspective, I talked to Jared Rouben, brewmaster at Chicago’s Moody Tongue brewery. He was previously a chef, and creates what he refers to as “culinary beer.” But he admits: Pastry stouts totally bewilder him.
“For us, it’s like ‘Let’s create a great base beer first and build off that.’ Not that I set out to brew a snickerdoodle beer; that would be quite difficult. I don’t think that way,” he says. “When we begin any beer recipe, everything has to do with balance.”
He and I go back and forth, discussing how to explain what separates Moody Tongue’s nuanced Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Gingerbread Stout or Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter from pastry stouts.
“There’s a question of wanting to drink two ounces of something versus six ounces,” Rouben suggests. “For some of these pastry stouts, people are waiting in line for two ounce [pours], but the idea of drinking a whole bottle is too much. It’s too much sugar, too much alcohol. Maybe the answer has to do with volume.”
This is crucial—as crucial as flavors—to defining a pastry stout: it’s thick and luscious, bordering on cloying in terms of its viscosity. That texture is the second component of what separates these stouts from Moody Tongue’s or any other drier stout.
That full, oily texture comes from what brewers put into their brewing tanks. Many pastry stouts are packed with unfermentable sugars such as dextrose and lactose; those are referred to as unfermentable because the yeast doesn’t eat them up and convert to alcohol. So unlike the fermentable sugars from malts that yeast can turn into alcohol, these sugars just hang out in the final beer, tasting like straight sugar on your tongue.
“People want this huge mouthfeel, a super oily liquid that hangs on forever. It’s confectionary,” Lewinski explains. “I’m backloading a shit-ton of sugars in much larger quantities than I’d ever even conceived of. I’m throwing multiple bags of lactose [into the beer] whereas a few years ago, I would have been like ‘One bag of lactose is fine.’”
Why this preference for chewy, sweet, sticky stouts in the first place?
Maybe it’s because they’re full of nostalgic candy and dessert flavors: Oreos, birthday cake, chocolate doughnuts. Or maybe it’s because they’re a sharp contrast to the esoteric, complex beers—like Orval, say—that keep beer geeks in such rapture.
“I think especially for young drinkers, this new cohort, it’s like ‘Why do I have to sit here and be challenged? I want something that tastes good to me right now,’” Lewinski says. “They don’t need to know the history and the ingredients. They just need to know it tastes like a cupcake.”
By now, we’ve established that Lewinski is conflicted about pastry stouts and the practices he uses to brew them. There’s a beer platitude that says brewers only brew beer they want to drink, but he admits he doesn’t really drink his pastry stouts. He’d rather go home to a solidly constructed pilsner.
But if it’s what consumers want, he figures, then who is he to get high and mighty about it? Drinkers’ tastes and preferences will probably change in a few years anyway, as they move on to the next novel style. He says that at the end of the day, beer requires a deference to the consumer, and a sense of humor. So when he announced that Listermann would soon be releasing Cookie Wizard—a pastry stout brewed with chocolate, cookie dough, and edible glitter—Lewinski captioned the photo of the bottle on his personal Facebook page thusly: “When you jump a shark, make sure you jump a fucking glitter shark.”