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Considering the White Stout

White Stout is a style that confuses some, enrages others, and gets a lot of brewers very excited. You can call it a lot of things, but the white stout is not only a style but also a playground for making interesting, flavorful beers.

Josh Weikert 5 months ago

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If you want to provoke a significant proportion of the beer community, there’s a simple way, as I recently discovered: ask the question, “So, any thoughts on White Stouts?”

Chaos ensues. Many assert that it’s oxymoronic (I don’t buy that, as you’ll read). Others call it a gimmick. Some are genuinely enthusiastic. One faction claims it’s real, but misnamed. Perhaps my favorite response was, “What’s wrong with these people? No. Just…no.”

It was an interesting exercise, made all the more so by the fact that posting the question to just a few social media pages yielded more than forty comments in the first five minutes alone. It was kind of what I imagine shark feeding frenzies are like.

I received another set of responses entirely from the professional brewing community. Most were enthusiastic about the beers, in general. Several brewed them regularly. Where there was some consternation on their side of the bar was in how to sell the style to the public since the name alone creates contradictory impressions in the modern beer drinker’s consciousness.

As John Stemler of Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, put it, “Pale stout is tasty, but requires explanation to sell.” When we hear “stout,” we think “dark”—working against that impression invites a challenge. It’s a challenge some breweries accept, though.

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Brad Kominek, head brewer at Noble Ale Works (Anaheim, California), tells me that their (incredibly well-received) Naughty Sauce White Stout is one of their best sellers, week after week, competing with their IPA.

Nevertheless, a reasonable case can be made that White Stout is a real style. The question of whether we should do something just because we can is a separate one, but I still come down on the side of encouraging it. Brewing it for yourself takes some real care, but it’s worth your time. Don’t buy into the conception of this beer as a gimmick—it can be far more, and if brewing is about anything, it’s about pushing our ingredients and processes in new directions.

The “Style”

We’re flying somewhat blind here when talking about White Stout as a “style.” As it isn’t yet properly recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program or Brewers Association guidelines, we’re left with the “common law” guidance of the beers that go under that moniker in the marketplace. The consensus seems to be that White (or Pale, though some use that to describe a beer that’s more amber than pale) Stout is predominately a blonde or golden ale of moderate-to-somewhat high alcohol strength that also exhibits traditional “stout” flavors such as coffee and chocolate. Many examples also seek to mimic and include secondary characteristics of stout, such as a creamy, thick mouthfeel and/or the presence of vanillin or other barrel-induced flavors that aren’t uncommon in strong stouts.

It is overly simplistic to argue that this is simply “a stout, but pale.” Within the style family of stouts, we find a lot of variation, despite the common thread of “roasty flavors.” Most examples of White Stout seem to target the Sweet/Milk Stout parameters, whether or not they actually include lactose. That target is easier to hit, given that one can’t simply hammer away with the chocolate malts in the grist! Brewing a White Russian Imperial Stout would be a much tougher challenge.

Some of the White Stout naysayers consider the very name oxymoronic at best (heretical at worst), but I’d push back against that objection. First, we’ve all more or less accepted names such as Black or Red IPA, which are frankly and flagrantly oxymoronic. Second, “stout” as a term referring to beer was typically referring to its strength, and the word itself has no particular connection to a predicted color. I can recognize that when we see “stout” in the modern beer age, we’re assuming it’s dark, but counterintuitive and oxymoronic are not synonyms.

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What is oxymoronic is that so many of the commercial examples of stout (pale, dark, or otherwise) aren’t especially “stout.” Many (but by no means all) of the White Stout recipes I perused in researching this article run in the 5–6 percent ABV range, which struck me as odd. There’s no reason that this beer would necessarily benefit from a modest ABV, unless it’s to help reserve a few fractions of a shade on the SRM scale, buying room for other ingredients and their color contributions. Nevertheless, stronger versions do exist, so that shouldn’t put you off if you want a “warmer” finished beer! With these style parameters in mind, we can start building out our White Stout recipes.

Recipe Considerations

Pale beers are easy to “write,” in recipe terms—go low in ABV and/or lean heavily on simple sugars and pale base malts. Likewise, dark beers are no challenge: you can make any beer dark with the proper application of Midnight Wheat or Carafa Special malts, depending on how much roast/dark flavor you’re willing to tolerate. Making a pale beer with roasted flavors, though, requires some creative ingredient selection!

Bottom line up-front: we’re leaning on traditionally roasted products here, just not those that are actually (or as intensely) roasted. Where roasted ingredients are used, there’s not much of them incorporated into the recipe. To get our “stouty” flavors, the most common additions are green (or blonde) coffee and cacao nibs. They add obvious coffee and chocolate flavors, but also some astringent and acidic notes that work just fine in the recipe.

Continuing in the “stout-like” vein, consider using ingredients that have patently “thickening” mouthfeel effects. Lactose is commonly cited, and so long as it isn’t overdone (making a ropy, sickly sweet beer), it seems like a reasonable addition. Flaked barley is another go-to; for that matter, so are flaked wheat and flaked oats. Many recipes also add vanilla extract or (preferably) vanilla bean to impart a common “stout” flavor and act as a sensory trigger to try to fool the palate into thinking “stout.”

When it comes to malts, you have a wide range of approaches, as you do for many styles. Some emphasize pale over everything, while others are more “color-tolerant” and use lower-Lovibond versions of traditional stout–recipe grains, even if it means a darker beer. For the “pale” folks, a base of Maris Otter and/or Vienna is the norm, supplemented by some light and medium crystal malts. Those on the darker end of the spectrum use the same base malts, but rather than the crystal additions, they include pale chocolate, Briess roasted barley (which is kilned to only 300L), or even small amounts of black patent malt to get a big burnt-husk punch out of just a small addition, to help minimize color addition.

One argument that leaves me ambivalent is to use standard 2-row pale malt, in the interest of giving the coffee and cacao more room to shine—the thinking is that richer or spicier base malts could mask the faux-roast flavors. That’s not necessarily wrong, but I’d err on the side of “more overall flavor.”

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Yeast shouldn’t be left out of the equation here, though they’re less directly important than our grist and extracts/adjuncts/specialty ingredients. Here, conveniently, we find some broad agreement, both on yeast and hops. There is near-universal concurrence that a nice crisp English ale yeast is the way to go for a White Stout. It seems likely that this is an artifact of the original stout recipes. Most would have used an English ale yeast anyway, so in the absence of a significant motive to shift gears, I suspect most brewers just leave well enough alone. However, if you’re shooting for a “fuller” beer and don’t plan to add lactose or tinker with gases (see below), I could definitely see focusing on a yeast with generally lower attenuation.

As for hops, most simply bitter with a standard high-alpha acid hop variety, occasionally adding a late English or German hop. IBUs are all over the board, however. My inclination would be to err on the bitter side to increase the impression of “bite” that might otherwise come from the roasted grains (say, a 0.9:1 BU to GU ratio), though I found no consistent ratio in the recipes I reviewed.

Broadly speaking, recipes lean heavily on base malts and flaked grains (85–95 percent) with small additions of crystal or chocolate malts and, if desired for a sweeter variation, lactose and/or vanilla. In terms of the cacao and coffee, 2–4 ounces (57–113 g) of each is a good starting point. Soaking the cacao in a vodka tincture will produce usable extract, and while you can go with a cold-steep for the coffee, the more adventurous among you might follow Brad at Noble Ale Works’ lead and just add it directly to the fermentor! Those weights should be sufficient to add the desired flavors to a 5-gallon (19 l) batch, but there’s no one right answer here. You can always adjust to match your desired flavor contributions in subsequent batches!

Process Considerations

In terms of process, we’re mainly focusing on how to enhance the proper “feel” of the beer. It’s here that I think White Stout properly departs from the “just a blonde ale with coffee” reputation. We’ve already added some fullness to the beer via our recipe, especially if you’re going the “lactose route.” I’m always a reluctant lactose user, but even if we forgo it, we’ll still have the flaked grains doing some of the heavy lifting in mouthfeel, and dextrin malt is always an option, too. That’s hardly the only way to help it along, however.

First, we can mash especially warm to decrease fermentability. A mash temperature of 156°F (69°C) will bring you out of the max-attenuation sweet spot, leaving behind lots of long-chain sugars that will add bulk to the finished product while adding relatively little sweetness. For that matter, feel free to take a somewhat relaxed view on attenuation in the fermentor; no need to whip it for every point of gravity depletion! Second, it doesn’t seem as though there is a consensus among brewers on fermentation temperature. This isn’t especially surprising given the fairly tame ester production of the English ale yeasts selected, but if you’re concerned about competition with your “stout” flavors, ferment cooler rather than warmer. Again, attenuation isn’t a key goal here.

Last, this is a terrific beer to consider serving on nitro. The smooth and creamy mouthfeel will create a familiar sensation on the palate, and in the absence of a carbonic “bite” from traditional beer gas, you should taste more of the acidic, natural flavors of your coffee and cacao.

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The Sales Job

Given the sometimes aggressive and negative reaction to White Stout, it’s easy to come away with the impression that this must be a beer that tastes horrible—like asking people how they feel about cheese on fish. Underneath the invective, though, there doesn’t seem to be much objection to the White Stout on its merits. At least half of the pushback is against the nomenclature employed—the aforementioned “it’s really just a blonde ale with coffee” troupe, or the “if it’s white, it’s not a stout” brigade.

Still, if that’s the case, then it seems like the question isn’t whether we should brew it, but rather just what we should call it: Cocoa Coffee Cream Ale, perhaps? But that’s such a mouthful—White Stout just seems easier. And after all, it’s still a pretty fun play on your sensory perceptions. Going back to Brad at Noble Ale Works: “You want this to be an enigmatic beer. You want the look to give an opposite impression from the aroma and flavor.”

And after all, this beer by any name would be just as sweet. Produce a good beer and call it whatever you want to get folks to drink it. In my experience the name doesn’t even matter: the beer’s the thing. Flavor first. Whether it’s to test your brewing skill, field test a new style, wade into the experimental beer pool, or just screw with the perceptions of your beer-drinking friends who can’t process a beer that looks like Helles and tastes like Hershey’s, this is a fun one to put on tap, in any color.

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