I will admit to having little patience for flavored beer. I’ve ingested far too many bad flavored beers that I’m sure were well intentioned but ultimately failed to impress. The crimes seem to be particularly egregious against American wheat beer, which, for whatever reason, brewers feel compelled to adorn with any number of fruits, herbs, spices, and other accouterments.
But I am coming around in some cases. And more often than not, those cases involve stout. If it can be done, a brewer has probably done it to stout. And when it’s done well, the results can be shockingly good. Here are some tips for adding flavorings to your homebrewed stouts.
Oatmeal stout is a classic. Even those who don’t normally gravitate toward stout are drawn in by its silky texture and hint of sweetness. And the name alone makes it seem so _wholesome. _But it doesn’t stop with oats. Rye, like oats, offers up a silky (some even say slick) texture, but while oats are relatively neutral in flavor, rye introduces spicy, even smoky notes.
These additions are easy enough to use. Simply replace a portion of your barley malt (up to 20 percent) with the grain or grains of your choice. Some homebrew stores stock malted oats and rye, but unmalted flakes such as rolled oats are easy to find in supermarkets and health food stores. One sticking point (literally): Oats and rye can gum up a mash. Lauter slowly and consider including some rice hulls as insurance.
Coffee is about as good a match for stout as you’ll find anywhere, and few brewers have managed to resist the temptation to caffeinate at least one stout in their portfolio. The roasted barley and black malts in stout grists echo fresh-roasted coffee even when no actual coffee is present.
There are as many ways to add coffee to stout as there are stouts themselves. The most important thing to remember is that boiled coffee equals bad coffee, so resist the temptation to add coffee during the boil itself. If you must add coffee to the kettle, do so at knockout, and contain the grounds within muslin or nylon hops bags. Leave the coffee bags in hot (but not boiling) wort for up to 5 minutes and then promptly remove them: Too long a soak can extract unpleasant astringency.
Many brewers prefer to add coffee to secondary or at bottling because the vigorous release of carbon dioxide during fermentation can scrub coffee’s delicate aroma compounds right out of your beer. Your best bet is to prepare a separate coffee infusion—espresso, French press, filter cone, or cold-brewed toddy—and add the cooled coffee to the carboy or bottling bucket.
Four 8-ounce (237-ml) cups of prepared coffee (1.5 ounces/42 grams of ground coffee) per 5 gallons (19 liters) of beer is a good starting point. You can always add more later.
Like coffee, chocolate is a natural accompaniment to stout. And just as stout is available in more varieties than one can count, chocolate comes in numerous forms and flavors, from cacao nibs to cocoa powder to actual chocolate bars. Dark chocolate is the classic addition, its bitterness both complementing and cutting through stout’s dark malts. But milk chocolate also finds its way into stouts today to deliver pints reminiscent of a chocolate milk shake.
Cacao nibs and cocoa powder are arguably the easiest forms to use for brewing. Cacao nibs are cocoa beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, and hulled: the first steps on the way to becoming chocolate. Coarsely crush cacao nibs as you would specialty grains before use. Natural cocoa powder consists of the solids that remain after cocoa butter has been removed from ground cacao nibs. Dutch process cocoa powder is further treated and is less acidic and darker than natural powder. (Some brewers successfully use baker’s chocolate or chocolate bars, but the fat content in these products can reduce head retention.)
Both crushed cacao nibs and cocoa powder may be added to the mash, the boil kettle (again, knockout is best), or to the secondary fermentor for a couple of weeks. Start with 4 ounces (113 grams) per 5 gallons (19 liters) of homebrew.
An important distinction to keep in mind is that chocolate malt doesn’t actually contain any chocolate. It’s referred to as such because the flavor and aroma of this specialty malt evoke notes of chocolate. Thus, you may find chocolate stouts (especially well-established brands) that contain no chocolate whatsoever.
Fruit and Chiles
Despite my usual aversion to fruited beer, fruit additions to stout can work exceedingly well. Dark fruits, such as plums and raisins, amplify dark fruit notes already present in many foreign extra and imperial stouts, while tart cherries supply contrast and evoke images of Black Forest cake.
Chiles can be outstanding, and not just because of the heat. Yes, capsaicin plays a role, but chiles (remember, they’re fruits) also bring myriad flavors and aromas to the party. Habaneros, for example, are floral and tropical. Roasted New Mexican green chiles lend a fresh, earthy profile, and chipotles, with their signature smokiness, supply just the thing to balance what might otherwise be a too-rich imperial stout.
The most straightforward way to add fruit and chiles is in the secondary fermentor. Fruits with significant amounts of sugar will likely induce a true second fermentation. Avoid boiling pectin-rich fruits such as berries and cherries, as this can cause the pectin to set and turn your beer cloudy (which might not be an issue for your stout) or create gummy residue (which might). Fruit amounts vary wildly, so experimentation is key. And clearly, it’s best to start small when it comes to chiles!
Thanks to our complex network of silly alcohol laws, commercial brewers can’t legally add distilled spirits directly to beer. This is one reason why barrel-aging has become so popular. Putting your imperial stout down for a nice long nap in a barrel that previously nurtured bourbon, rum, or port is an excellent way to introduce the essence of the liquor you crave without prompting a visit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
But wood supplies its own share of flavors and aromas to the finished beer. Remember that distilled spirits are crystal clear, not amber, before they go into the barrel. All of the color in a single malt Scotch or a rye whiskey is extracted from the interior of the barrel in which it has been stored, as is a great deal of flavor. Wood contributes notes of vanilla, plus tannins, those not-quite-sour-but-still-pucker-inducing flavor compounds also found in red wine and black tea. And depending on the process, wood can also allow Brettanomyces or souring bacteria to induce a host of higher-order flavor complexities.
Although some high-volume homebrewers splurge on a used barrel, most of us stick to the many available wood products that can be added to secondary and left there for varying amounts of time. The optimal contact time depends on the surface area of the wood. Wood chips impart simple, subtle flavors in a week or so, while oak cubes, spirals, and staves give up complex layers of flavor over a period of weeks or months. Wood products are available in varying degrees of toast, and many of us like to soak our oak in some kind of distilled spirit before adding it to the beer (think bourbon-barrel stout). Unlike commercial brewers, homebrewers can legally add distilled spirits to beer. So don’t be afraid to dump in the soaking liquid, too!
Two ounces (57 grams) of oak cubes or chips, or one spiral or stave, per 5 gallons (19 liters) should do the trick.
In addition to the flavors discussed here, you’ll also find flavor extracts from vanilla, almonds, and coconuts, and spices too numerous to mention. It’s safe to say that if it’s ever gone into a pie, it’s probably made it into a stout. And remember, any time you add flavoring to a beer, start small and increase the amount in subsequent batches as desired. Better to enjoy a pleasant batch of subtly flavored stout than to dump 5 gallons (19 liters) of carbonated coffee water.
I’m not unilaterally sold on flavored beer, but stout is a safe vehicle with which to experiment. Whether you’re brewing your own or checking out the latest offerings down at the local craft-beer bar, look to stout to feed your addition addiction.