Brewing these sweeter IPAs has been a huge shift for me. I went from brewing bone-dry, highly bitter, aromatic West Coast IPAs, which is what I grew up dreaming about and drinking at home, to joining this industry shift for sweeter IPAs. It’s not unlike what happened with the IBU wars years ago when everyone wanted to outdo each other on bitterness. Thank goodness we’ve gotten away from that, and now it’s about the flavors and the aromas.
Lactose is milk sugar, and it is full of unfermentable sugars. Lactose offers a little bit of backbone and sweetness that elevates the hoppiness in a beer in a positive way. If you think about a New England–style IPA, there’s a lot of vegetative matter that comes from dry hopping and what goes into the kettle. When you add lactose to your boil, it helps those flavors and, more importantly, I think it puts a little more meat on the bones of the finished beer.
Lactose turns an IPA into an interesting, smooth, and flavorful drink. It definitely adds to mouthfeel and gives the beer a fuller body.
When we use lactose, it’s a balancing act. We want to have the combination of unfermentable malt-derived sugars and lactose in a beer that can carry all that hops content. Because of its sweetness, we think lactose works well with the more modern hops—Citra, Mosaic, and the like—especially since we tend not to overly fruit our beers.
However, lactose really does help when it comes to brewing beers that highlight a lot of different fruits. If you use it with some of the tarter fruits or berries, you’re going to get a super-creamy mouthfeel from the lactose that helps those flavors round out and become more palatable.
How much is enough to use is a question we get a lot. I think the answer is usually more than you think it is. But, it’s personal. You can tell from drinking different beers which one you like more than others. For me, personally, I don’t want it to be over the top, so we start off by asking how much residual sugar we want in the beer and how we can get there with the mouthfeel we want.
I think lactose has become as popular as it is as an ingredient because it offers a rounded sweetness but isn’t super-cloying like some malt-forward beers. Think of some of those American Oktoberfests that are all Munich malt or beers made with 100 percent Marris Otter. You get all that malt sweetness, and it’s just heavy. With lactose, you get sweetness, body, and that creamy mouthfeel.
If you’re brewing with lactose at home, start at 5 percent of your malt bill and go from there. Boil it up so it’s sterile and use it in a recipe that you’ve done in the past, so you have some historical knowledge of where it will finish and where you know the beer can be.
Using lactose isn’t much different from using any other ingredient; it’s about practice. But adding it to your existing recipes, you can taste the difference and learn about it and what it does with other ingredients and how it presents in the final beer.
Lactose gets a lot of attention, and it adds a whole new dimension to IPAs, but it’s still always important to remember that it’s just one ingredient that is part of a much bigger package.