For most beer styles, there are a lot of paths to the top of the mountain. That’s the good news. The bad news is that with all of those paths, it’s easy to get turned around, waste time, and frustrate yourself! Beers such as tropical stout require you to produce a wide array of flavors, any one of which can make the beer a bit unpleasant if overdone. There are undoubtedly better versions of this beer out there, but this one carries very little risk of getting an overly-sweet, overly-off-flavored version and tastes great as well! In this case, I’ll take reliable over exceptional (and done well, it can still be the latter, too). The key is to control what’s easy to control—and don’t mess with your process.
The tropical stout is one variation of the foreign extra stout, a bulked-up version of the standard stouts (this one is about double the ABV of my dry stout), that features a noticeable sweetness, prominent fruity flavors, and (of course) the dry, coffee-like flavors of roasted barley. Although originally a beer that was brewed by the likes of Guinness as a higher-ABV version export beer (ostensibly to help it survive long journeys), local breweries in the Caribbean and elsewhere now make incredible versions of it for themselves. Beers such as Dragon Stout, brewed in Jamaica, have become not only local favorites but beers that travel the world, and one of the best things about this style is how well it will pair with all kinds of dishes, from appetizers right through dessert—and in hot or cold weather (ironically).
The trick, though, is making a beer that is sweet (but not cloying), fruity (but without the kinds of by-products that ramped-up esters tend to create), alcoholic (but not hot), and roasty (but not dry). This one takes some creativity, if you want to minimize your risk and maximize your flavor!
To recap: we want sweet and sugary, roasty, and fruity. Think outside the box here. Too many brewers will try to accomplish this in process: high mash temperatures, high fermentation temperatures, atypical yeast strains, and the like. Others will turn to higher-risk ingredients such as big doses of sugars. Neither gives you want you want, reliably. This recipe is rock-solid stable because we’re not messing with your process or introducing any atypical ingredients.
So, starting with the grist, you’ll want about 12 pounds (5.4 kg) of Maris Otter to get a nice bready base. Then, of course, you’ll want some roast: Add a half a pound (227 g) each of roasted barley, chocolate malt (450L), and chocolate rye. The rye adds some spice: think rum cake. “But isn’t that too much roast? I thought this was supposed to be sweet?” Yes, it is—but we want to guard against a cloying beer, and as you’re about to see, we’re going pretty heavy on the caramel malts! Add half a pound (227 g) each of the following (for the following reasons):
- Crystal 10 (light caramel sweetness)
- Crystal 80 (darker caramel and dark fruit)
- Crystal 120 (toffee, prune, raisin)
- Special B (plum, dark cherry)
This should bring you to a calculated FG of about 1.080, with a target ABV of about 8 percent.
Now, for hops. You want to balance the sweetness (and there’s going to be plenty, between the crystal malts and the alcohol!) but still let it come through, so about 45 IBUs will do the trick. Get hold of some Citra and any other tropical fruit hops that you prefer (I’m an Equinox guy, but some don’t care for it—Motueka, Galaxy, even Amarillo are good alternatives). Blend them together (alpha acids should be about 12 percent) and add half an ounce (14 g) at 60 minutes, an ounce (28 g) at 10 minutes, and an ounce (28 g) at flame-out or in the whirlpool. Bang: instant tropical fruit flavor.
For yeast, some will tell you to use a warm-fermented lager yeast to emulate the great tropical stout breweries of Jamaica. Traditionalists might tell you to use a nice English yeast, like the original export stout brewers. I say go with what you know. Use Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) and treat it as you always would, for the same reason: good attenuation, low fruity esters, and very few off-flavors.
Much is made about process in tropical stouts. And if we were facing the same environmental conditions, emulating those processes would make sense, but we’re not (though to our Caribbean readers, I suppose you might be). We’ve already covered our bases on sweetness, fruit, spice, caramel/sugars, and more in our recipe, so the process can proceed exactly as it always does. Mash at your usual temperature (the big dose of crystal malts will add plenty of body), boil as usual, chill as usual, and oxygenate as usual. Same process, different beer.
Fermentation will sound familiar, too. Start at about 65°F (18°C) (I go lower, to 62°F/17°C, but I know that freaks some of you out), hold there for the first 72 hours, and then start ramping up the temperature by a degree a day Fahrenheit (half a degree Celsius) until you hit something in the 70–71°F (21°C) range. That will limit fusel production, reduce diacetyl, and promote a reasonable level of esterification. If you’re reading this in the summer months (what took you so long?), maybe cap fermentation at about 73°F (23°C) at the end, but for those making this in the autumn for the winter months, you probably won’t get that high, even letting the beer free-rise. Give it plenty of time to wrap up (terminal gravity should be around 1.018, but don’t panic if it stops in the low-1.020s), and then cold-crash, package, and carbonate to about two volumes of CO2.
This week’s beer illustrates my baseline philosophy about brewing: process is golden. If a flavor can be produced using ingredients, that’s my route. If it can be done with just a few simple ingredients, even better. But if necessary (as it is here) don’t be shy about throwing a wide array of malts and hops (and even yeasts!) at the problem. But don’t mess with your process—if it makes one great beer, it’ll make them all. Now go make this one, fire up the steel drum music, and add some Jamaican sunshine to your soon-to-arrive, dreary winter. Here’s the recipe for my Marathon Tropical Stout.
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