Every homebrew club has their cadre of old hands who have been brewing all-grain batches almost forever. They’re used to running triple decoctions in their sleep, and they’ve worked their way through every category in the BJCP Style Guide—both the 2008 and 2015 editions (don’t get me started on 2004).
Well, this series is not for them.
Instead, we’re looking at beers that might seem daunting to a new or intermediate brewer, and we’ll break them down into something more approachable. We’ll focus on extract or partial-mash recipes, with some discussion of how to simplify the process.
We’ll kick things off with a suitable challenge of a beer defined by its intensity.
Pastry Stout 101
The name “pastry stout” started as a derogatory dismissal from people who would argue whether these should even qualify as beers. Where normal styles look for balance, pastry stouts embrace the motto, “Too much is never enough.” Where a normal imperial stout might be somewhat aggressive with alcohol and rich malt character, these start as heavyweight, over-sweetened giants, layering in adjuncts and flavoring to create a decidedly not-so-beery drinking experience. Drawing on sweets for inspiration, they aim to create the experience of something such as tiramisu, pecan pie, or peach cobbler, as if it were wrung into a bottle.
Even those who hate the thought of brewing one have to admit that it’s a tough beer to make from start to finish. The first challenge is the base beer. A good imperial stout requires a hefty malt bill to supply depth of roast and dark malt character. Because of their high gravity, fermentation takes some careful attention, too.
The pastry side of the equation is even harder. After you select a great target dessert you think would fit well with the stout, you have to break down the flavor components and figure out how to introduce those into the beer. You can’t forget that those flavors have to survive fermentation and aging. This is a lesson I’ve learned a lot from mead making: Fruits and other additions change character when their sugar has fermented into alcohol. Even if you’re building on a sweet foundation, hitting the right flavors isn’t easy. Another issue: While pastry stouts are unbalanced relative to ordinary beers, it’s vital to work out the right combination of elements to evoke your target.
It may not be a piece of cake, but if you want to have your cake and drink it, too, you can brew this.
Plotting Our Course
To plan this out, we have three problems to solve: the base beer, the pastry side of the equation, and bringing those two together.
Laying the Foundation
Our first step is to work out an imperial stout recipe that will have a starting gravity on the order of 1.100–1.110. Typically, that would mean something all-grain, with at least 20 pounds (9.1 kg) of base malt, roasted malt, and other dark malts for a five-gallon (19-liter) batch. If you’re used to brewing normal-strength beer, that amount of grain might be overwhelming for your equipment. It would be much easier to try a partial-mash recipe. But let’s make this a lot more manageable and use a full-extract recipe with steeping grains. This might not be the best choice if we were doing a straight Russian imperial stout, but a pastry stout will be more forgiving.
Normally, I recommend using lighter-colored malt extract, but in this case, we’ll start with amber malt extract, in hopes of getting some more dextrins—the unfermentable sugars that will add richness via sweetness and body. The real color and flavor will come from the steeping grains. We’ll use a selection of malts to get some reasonable complexity along with big stout character: roasted barley, chocolate malt, melanoidin malt, dark crystal, and some Carafa Special II (dehusked).
The roasted barley, chocolate, and Carafa malts will give a solid stout base, while the crystal and melanoidin malt will add some complexity and contribute some dried-fruit character. In addition, we’ll add some lactose to make up for the malt extract, which might have yielded a drier beer than the hotter mash schedule we’d use for all-grain. We’d want the lactose—a.k.a. milk sugar, which is unfermentable—to get that rich dessert-like quality anyway.
Pick Your Pastry
This is the fun and creative part. While there’s nothing preventing you from going totally crazy (lemon meringue stout, anyone?), start by thinking about flavors, such as chocolate or cherry, that would mesh well with the dark malts. From there, you can brainstorm your favorite sweet treats, such as Sacher torte, raspberry Oreo cheesecake, s’mores, or maybe something more exotic, such as maple bacon-infused chocolate chip cookies.
Whatever you choose, the next step is to dig into the flavor components that build your impression of that wonderful dessert. We’ll use a technique that engages both your intuitive right brain and your analytical left brain. The bonus is that you get to enjoy your sweets in the name of research. Start by picking up (or baking) the dessert you want to evoke. Before you even take a bite, give it a sniff and write down your sensory impressions. Then take a bite or two and write some more notes. Next, do some research: Search the Internet for recipes to make that dessert (even if you already have one). Looking at several of these recipes, make a list of the ingredients that could contribute to the flavor.
Compare your tasting notes and the list of ingredients. You’ll likely see ingredients that you didn’t initially notice in your tasting notes. Take another bite and see which ones you notice now. This exercise gives you a palette to work with to transform that basic imperial stout.
Suppose you want a German chocolate- cake stout. The first thing you might notice is the toasted coconut and light nuttiness, followed by a creamy sweet chocolate. A selection of recipes suggests the following: toasted coconut, pecans (sometimes toasted), sweet chocolate, cocoa powder, baking chocolate, vanilla, brown sugar, evaporated milk. In most of the recipes, the icing is a mix of coconut and pecan, often with sweet chocolate, while the cake tends to have cocoa powder or baking chocolate.
In that light, it’s easier to pick up that nuance between the darker chocolate of the cake and that of the icing, which has more vanilla character. That will be a nice detail to round out the more intense center of coconut and pecan.
A Marriage of Beer and Pastry
Before we flesh out the recipe, we need to work out how to bring in the special flavors. Given the fat content of pecans, I think pecan extract is a better approach than adding toasted pecans. Coconut is also fairly oily, but coconut extracts are too much like suntan lotion for my taste. So, a mix of coconut in the boil along with some in the secondary is probably the way to go.
The chocolate is also a little complicated. I think we’ll rely on the stout malts for the darker-toned chocolate-cake part, and then use cacao nibs along with a touch of vanilla in the secondary for that milk chocolate icing taste.
We’ve worked out the pieces, now let’s put them together. Stay tuned this week for the recipe: German Chocolate Cake Stout.
Photos: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com