At the Village Idiot Brewing Company in Mount Holly, New Jersey, Vince Masciandaro has a system to his tap handles. The majority of the beers are solid, traditional, by-the-book BJCP styles such as blond ale, pale ale, and bitter. Then there are the three taps at the end that he calls “the dessert corner,” where you’ll find beers such as his Monkey’s Breath Banana Bread ale, which has a permanent nitro tap.
“I haven’t been able to get away from it because people expect it to be on tap,” he says. The brewery serves Monkey’s Breath in a cinnamon sugar–rimmed glass. There was a time when beer tasted like, well, beer. Then brewers took off the restraints and started adding all sorts of ingredients into ales and lagers; soon enough they were trying to make beers that mimicked foods. That’s where we are today, especially in the dessert category. While self-proclaimed purists might decry this trend, brewers know that having on offer a beer that satisfies a sweet tooth is a sure-fire moneymaker and a way to draw new customers into the larger fold.
“There’s definitely a trend toward beers inspired by other things that aren’t drinks,” says Mark Theisen, the head brewer at Coronado Brewing Company. “It’s Darwinism, where you have to evolve and make interesting things and become known for original beers and have something unique that allows you to be at the forefront of people’s minds.”
That could explain why the San Diego–area brewery went in a decidedly non-hops-forward direction for its twenty first anniversary beer. Instead, they released a German chocolate cake version of their Stupid Stout, a riff on the celebratory dessert baked for such important occasions. Already having a solid stout base helped, and then the team worked backward, teasing out the flavors that make the cake famous and finding ways to incorporate them into the beer.
The anniversary beer was so well received that the brewers took it a step further to create a bourbon barrel–aged version, and here Theisen found that the key was layering flavors just as a baker would. The forthcoming beer is a blend of old and young, with special ingredients added over time. They started with their imperial stout, made with a higher starting gravity—“we used a higher mash temperature on it,” he says—and then finished on unfermentable sugars in the barrels along with some cherries, and aged. Closer to blending time, they brewed a younger, regular version of the stout and added 50 pounds of toasted coconut along with cacao nibs. They blended the two stouts until they had a boozy cake-like brew, and they were left with a “dessert-like experience. That’s what we were going for. A 9 percent ABV beer—it’s that end of your meal kind of thing.”
There’s a Beer in There
Theisen and other brewers talk of processes and of pitfalls of using certain ingredients and wonder at times whether this trend isn’t akin to a dog chasing its tail. However, all of them come back to the central point that no matter the flavoring, the dessert homage, or the sugar content, the final product must still resemble beer.
“I’m a brewer and I respect that there’s a beer in there,” says Steve Altimari, the brewmaster and president at California’s High Water Brewing, of his Campfire Stout, a s’mores-inspired beer. “This is not a sipping dessert beer; I wanted to make something people want a pint of.” It’s won gold—twice—at the Great American Beer Festival in the specialty beer category, and Altimari says that it quickly became the brewery’s flagship, comparing its reception to “lightning in a bottle.”
Altimari tried several different ingredients and methods before settling on the recipe known and loved today. A factory in Indiana ships 4,600 pounds of graham cracker meal to his brewery before every brew day. For the chocolate flavor, he uses Carafa malt with a bit of added vanilla. The marshmallow is a flavor that Altimari is quick to call “all natural.” With some molasses for a bit of extra depth and mouthfeel, the result isn’t too far off from the summer camping treat, albeit in liquid form.
Suggestion of a Flavor
When embarking on a new recipe for one of these dessert-inspired beers, brewers say that the big thing to remember is to research ingredients that are unfamiliar. Like many before them, the brewers at Coronado had a dickens of a time with coconut.
“You can end up with something that tastes like sunscreen, and that’s not an enjoyable flavor,” says Theisen. “Also, you can get so much oil from the coconut that you can get an oily beer, meaning zero head retention, and no one wants that.” In the end, brewers say to err on the conservative side with the reminder that you can always scale up. The best results are usually where there’s a suggestion of flavor, where the drinker has his/her own experience finding the special flavor rather than being hit over the head with it.
Theisen is getting to work on his next project: a beer inspired by a glazed lemon croissant like the ones served at his favorite local bakery. He’s planning to use lactose to simulate the creaminess of the sugary icing, dosing the beer with both lemon zest and berry puree and complementing the whole thing with hops that have citrus and red-fruit notes.
It’ll get a turn on the brewery’s 10-barrel pub system first. “If it’s not where we want it to be, we can dump it and try again, or we can put it on tap and get feedback to help us get it to a point where it’s ready to scale up.”