The Bay Area’s obsession with IPAs started in the Seventies, when Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing and started producing the bitter, dry-hopped Liberty Ale. But the public’s focus on IPAs has made it easy to overlook their less hoppy brethren — beers like the old-fashioned milk stout, which has enjoyed a local resurgence thanks to the creativity of East Bay brewers.
In Berkeley, there’s Triple Rock Brewery’s Dimmer Switch, a chocolate milk stout; and Fieldwork Brewing’s Hot Chocolate stout, brewed with cinnamon and cayenne to taste like Abuelita hot chocolate. San Leandro’s Cleophus Quealy Beer Company offers Sweet Henrietta, a milk stout brewed with cold-pressed coffee. And in Alameda, Faction Brewing helped spearhead a new style called “golden stouts,” with their Anomaly Milk Stout, which tastes like a stout but pours the same pale yellow as a Miller High Life.
Milk stouts resemble a traditional Irish or Imperial stout, sharing similar flavor profiles and containing many of the same malts. But there’s one big difference: dairy. No, there’s no milk in your milk stout. (“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to drink a beer that tastes like milk,” Fieldwork owner Barry Braden wrote in an email.) Milk stouts instead contain lactose, a milk sugar that’s left over after cheese making. Lactose isn’t fermentable by brewer’s yeast, so after it’s added, it remains in the beer, giving it a sweet taste and a richer, slightly creamier mouthfeel — some describe it as a “chewy” texture.
“People think that there is milk in it, and it’s really just based on the lactose sugar,” explained Erin Dooley, Faction’s self-described “right hand.” “But lactose sugar stout sounds terrible, so we have to call it milk stout.”
Since lactose can’t ferment, it’s not converted into alcohol, and the style is historically less alcoholic than the vast majority of beers. Cleophus Quealy’s version is a mere 3.6 percent alcohol by volume. (That low alcohol content, combined with the fact that barley can help increase a nursing mother’s milk production, led to milk stouts being given to new mothers in English hospitals until the Seventies.)
Cleophus Quealy owner Dan Watson said that his original goal was to make a coffee stout. “As we were playing with different stout styles, we decided to head toward a milk stout, because it would be creamy, it would have a lot of body, and it [wouldn’t] conflict with the coffee,” he explained. “It enabled us to make a very flavorful beer with very low alcohol and a lot of character. It’s a very interesting style and is not super common.”
Brewers like incorporating lactose because it’s a fun ingredient, a way to experiment with sweeter flavors without the cloying sweetness of other sugars, or raising their beer’s ABV. For people who enjoy darker beers, milk stouts are an interesting alternative to the usual bitter stout, more of a dessert than something to swig during a barbeque.
Thanks to Guinness, most people think of stouts as Ireland’s specialty. But milk stouts, also known as cream or sweet stouts, are actually an English invention. Porters became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the late 1800s, brewers were looking for new ways to appeal to consumers. A few entrepreneurial brewers came up with the idea for a beer with the nutritional properties of milk. In 1907, Mackeson’s in the city of Kent patented the recipe for a beer made with lactose and whey, its label proudly proclaiming the alleged health benefits. (Other breweries tried out similar health-oriented marketing tactics, varying from a sweet “Invalid’s Stout” to the iconic “Guinness is Good for You” campaign.) After World War II, the British government started citing milk stouts for misleading labeling (since they didn’t actually include milk), and the beers started dropping “milk” from their names.
Milk stouts started showing up in the United States in the Eighties and Nineties, when the new craft beer scene sent brewers searching for unusual, forgotten styles to experiment with. Samuel Adams made a cream stout in 1991, and other craft breweries soon followed.
“For the longest time, the only commercial example available was the Mackeson Stout. But when you get these beers, they’re old, they’re oxidized. These beers are meant to be drank fresh,” said Jeff Kimpe, Triple Rock’s head brewer. “You get tired of tasting an old interpretation of a style. It would be like someone offering you a baguette, but the only thing you ever tasted was a stale baguette and you want to taste a fresh one.”
In 2008, he started brewing Dimmer Switch, a seasonal Valentine’s Day milk stout. The beer — “creamy, kind of bitter dark chocolate, maybe a very small hint of roast” — has returned every year since.
In the mid-2000s, Faction’s brewers were talking with some industry friends. They started debating: What actually makes a stout a stout? If you made a stout that lacked one of its defining traits — its distinctive dark color — would it still be a stout?
“Everyone just had big eyes and was like ‘Wow, let’s go with that,'” said Dooley.
In 2014, the brewery debuted their Anomaly Milk Stout, with lactose, anise, and cocoa nibs. “Instead of using the roasted malts, you use lighter malts, so you don’t have that dark color, but you get a lot of the flavor,” she said. “People can’t really wrap their head around it. It’s like that experiment in high school where your science teacher gives you frozen mashed potatoes and you think it’s vanilla ice cream: You’re expecting one thing but you get another.”
It’s been a huge success for the brewery, she said. “I don’t think that IPAs and pales are ever going to be not-popular. I don’t see stout as becoming the huge go-to, but with something as fun as a milk stout, especially a blonde milk stout, I could see it catching on.”
But, as Watson, pointed out, there will always be skeptics. “But it’s a different experience and a different type of beer,” he said of the milk stout. “That’s one of the really great things about craft beer, the huge diversity of things that you can get and different takes on beer.”