The beers that first drew me into the world of craft brewing were stouts and porters. Larry Bell’s Porter, Kalamazoo Stout, and Expedition Stout blew my 21-year-old mind, convincing me that there was deep magic in dark beer. These beers were complex, loaded with specialty malts, and full of rich, roasty chocolate and coffee character—a bittersweet taste explosion.
They were the polar opposites of every other beer I’d experienced up to that time, inspiring me to seek out and learn about the Irish and British brewing origins of stout. That lead me to the classics: Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, Young’s Oatmeal Stout, Mackeson Triple XXX Stout, and, of course, Guinness Draught and Foreign Extra Stout.
I remember being mesmerized by nitrogenated pours of Guinness Draught and fascinated by the incredible drinkability of something so dark and roasty—a beer you can drink all night. I tried my hand at homebrewing stout, and I gravitated toward session-strength oatmeal stouts. These soon became my favorite malt-forward beers to brew and drink.
At my first brewing job, I had the honor of brewing Goose Island Oatmeal Stout—a classic recipe first created at the original Clybourn pub brewery. Greg Hall and the early Goose Island brewers were proficient at reproducing true-to-style interpretations of English ales, and Oatmeal Stout was no exception. That was also where I had my first cask-conditioned stout, and I appreciated the beauty of lower carbonation and the textural elements so important to the style. A very influential experience from that time was attending the first Chicago Real Ale Festival and drinking Marston’s Oyster Stout from the cask along with cask-finished Rogue Shakespeare Stout.
After I left Goose and landed in California, one of the first beers I helped to formulate for SLO Brew in San Luis Obispo was an oatmeal stout that ended up winning medals at the 2000 and 2001 Great American Beer Festivals. That became an outline for a number of stouts that would later join the Firestone Walker lineup, including Velvet Merlin, Velvet Merkin, and Nitro Merlin Milk Stout.
Our Stout Road
Velvet Merlin was a straight-ahead 15°P (1.061) OG, 5.5 percent ABV oatmeal stout: 10 percent oats, 10 percent roasted barley (we always use Briess Roasted Barley), 10 percent crystal, and a small amount of Carafa to hit color. A clean yet fruity fermentation is important, with an eye on controlling acetaldehyde and diacetyl.
After brewing that for a few years, we started aging it in bourbon barrels. The roast barley–forward, dark-chocolate brew transforms into the 8.5 percent ABV Velvet Merkin, with notes of vanilla and milk chocolate. It always amazes me how something so simple and lean can carry so much flavor, while keeping its balance and high drinkability.
A few years later, we altered this same base recipe, omitting the oats but adding lactose to create a milk stout. Although I liked the balance of the original Velvet Merlin oatmeal stout, the new higher finishing gravity brought added texture and roundness without detracting from the drinkability—like adding cream to a cup of dark-roast coffee. We settled at an addition of 7 percent lactose by weight.
The element that connects all the dots—and the most important finishing piece—was nitrogenation. Hence the official name of this beer: Nitro Merlin Milk Stout.
This brings the cask-like carbonation, mouthfeel, and foam to the finished beer. It mutes the prickly carbonation that can work against the roast, while amplifying the smooth and creamy texture. We drop the CO2 to 1.2 volumes (2.4 grams per liter), and we can it at 35 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen. Although we don’t employ a widget, we are able to get a perfect 60-plus-seconds surge, as about an inch of dense foam slowly develops in the glass. The beer drinks softly and richly, with a clean finish.
This year, we’re taking everything we’ve learned from Nitro Merlin Milk Stout and ratcheting things up with a new fall-winter seasonal called Cinnamon Dolce Nitro Stout. It features a new base recipe brewed with fine cinnamon spice and premium Madagascar vanilla beans. It’s a chance to bring some sympatico ingredients together and push the flavor experience into something new and magical.
I’m definitely in the pro-nitro camp when it comes to stout, and—taking that further—I don’t think milk stout should be poured any other way. Presentation is everything, and a milk stout with a proper surge pour, amazing foam, and soft, roasty character is the ultimate session-stout drinking experience for me. I like to think about it as a next-level, elevated draft-stout experience.
It’s been a journey getting to this point, inspired by so many great beers along the way, and I couldn’t be happier with where we’ve landed.
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