It could only happen on the Internet. Pastry stouts are beer memes, as valued for their concepts as for their actual taste, and the best ones do both well. But whenever we’re talking about a feeding frenzy, it’s not a bad idea to look for sharks jumping on the horizon. And yes, there are beers made from MoonPies and just about every kind of candy bar you’ve ever stuffed into your teenage mouth—fun to a point, but reflective of the inexhaustible nostalgia driving much of the marketplace today.
The old guard wrings their hands and decries the end of civilization, but I think pastry stouts are fun and can be startlingly good when they work. But as an artistic direction, they form a sort of a cul-de-sac, and it’s not clear where we’ll go from here.
The thing that’s coolest about them is how they trigger childhood memories, often quite strikingly, and the emotion those loaded memories can bring. It takes carefully layered flavors to send just the right message to trigger that memory into consciousness. To brew them well takes a thoughtful comprehensive approach to building a flavor and a deft touch on execution.
So what does a pastry taste like? First, there’s a rich roasty aroma, maybe with chocolate, coffee, or caramel overtones. Vanilla is almost always there, too, but it is so well integrated into desserty flavors that we have to remind ourselves to call it out.
As the forkful enters the mouth, the sweetness hits first. Then the butterfat melts and coats our mouths, sending texture and taste sensations to our brain. Some roasty bitterness provides a counterpoint to the sugar. As we eat another bite, the aromatics vaporize in our mouths and hit us again: nuts, fruit, spices on top of the chocolate and vanilla. Roastiness is the final chord.
A single dish contains thousands of aromas, but our brain packages it all and sparks a memory that helps us identify both the whole experience and some of its components. Cupcake or beer, the tasting process is the same. Brewers have the task of trying to re-create this experience through their own liquid medium. Let’s break it down and see how it’s done. For brewers, these are the things to strive for. For drinkers, these layers of flavor are what to look for.
In almost any kind of pastry, there’s flour. Easy. This role can pretty readily be filled by the pale malts that form the base of any beer, even a really dark one. Pastry is sweeter than you’d want any beer to be, but some sweetness is needed to tick off that box in the drinker’s brain. Many of these beers use lactose.
It has a dull sugariness, but is adequate to the task. Any big beer will have a certain amount of sweetness from unfermentable sugars, and brewers can push this further by using caramel malts, which are heavy in unfermentable sugars, or by mashing hot, which leaves more unfermentable sugars and also requires more malt for any given alcohol content, further adding weight. And while sweetness, strictly speaking, is a taste sensation, most of us have come to have strong associations for certain ingredients normally associated with sweet dishes. Vanilla is the most powerful example.
Pastry has a lot of fat. This adds a mouth-coating richness on the palate. Unmalted grains such as wheat, rye, or flaked barley add certain carbs (glucans, pentosans) that can add a lot of creaminess in the mouth, although they can be a challenge to brew with.
Pastry is typically baked, adding browned and caramelized flavors. These flavors are ridiculously easy to find in malts, ranging from cracker to cookie to caramel, toffee and burnt sugar to toasty to full-on roast. While we’re talking about black beers, remember that the best recipes have layers of these cooked-malt flavors underneath the roast, so they’re important both for complexity as well as for re-creating the experience of a particular dessert.
There is often either chocolate or coffee driving the concept for these beers—sometimes both. Both are delicate and expensive ingredients for beer. Malt, however, is cheap, so let the dark malts do as much of the heavy lifting as possible.
Again, because coffee and chocolate share a lot of process and chemistry with dark malts, we have plenty of choices. But it can be a little tricky. For any malt color, each maltster’s product will taste quite different. Some will be like fine dark chocolate; others may be more like milk chocolate or Hershey’s syrup.
Others will be definitely more coffee-like, ranging from cappuccino to espresso to stale diner coffee. Adding confusion, the lighter-roast type generally named “chocolate” malt is actually named for its color, not its flavor, which tends toward harsh and coffee-like.
At one of my breweries, we just sat down and tasted twenty malt “teas” so we would have shared vocabulary that is much more detailed than the vague tasting notes suppliers provide. The lesson is that these dark malts are a crucial tool but need to be considered carefully. We’re building magic here, but we have to do it piece by piece.
So, now that the base is laid, we can drop a little chocolate on top, knowing the roasted malts got us halfway there. Chocolate is challenging because so much of the flavor is fat-soluble, but it’s alcohol soluble as well, so dropping cocoa nibs into a fermentor can do a decent job, especially if the beer is strong. Coffee is very soluble, but it is sensitive to heat, so avoid any kind of hot-side addition.
Chocolate brings a fair amount of bitterness, and brewers have a tool to bring that as well: hops. I’ve always found that Northern Brewer has a bit of chocolaty bitterness that works great in beer. But you could also use newer varieties of hops to emphasize fruits if those are a focus.
Vanilla is ubiquitous in desserts, so it’s an essential ingredient in this beer style. This can be done with actual vanilla (beans, paste, or extract) post-fermentation, or by aging beer in oak bourbon or other spirits casks, which contain a lot of vanillin, thanks to a degradation of some of the wood components over time.
The Needed Flourish
Now come the specialty ingredients, most typically fruit, sometimes with nuts and/or certain spices that might be found in the dessert recipe. Most fruits are available in an aseptic purée that works well for brewing, providing real fruit character more easily and effectively than whole fruit.
Getting the quantity right is crucial. The normal procedure is to add the fruit toward the end of fermentation, so the fruit sugars can be fermented before packaging. Some flavors are more definite than others (think raspberries compared to blackberries), and some are unstable in beer. So for various reasons, natural flavor extracts are sometimes used to augment the defining “top notes” of the fruit. Nuts are difficult for the same reasons as chocolate and respond to the same type of usage. If you need spices, they’re best added at the end of the boil or in the whirlpool.
Finally, check for acidity. With fruit, chocolate, and dark malt, there usually will be plenty, but getting the acid level right is a crucial last step for building a convincing flavor profile, especially when there’s fruit involved. Fruit without enough acidity tastes weak and dull. Chocolate, too, is acidic, so the final product needs to reflect that appropriately.
As a pastry-stout drinker, you have several things to determine. First, is it a quality beer? Is it free from harshness, off-flavors, or oxidation? If it’s a strong one, is it free from hot alcohols? No matter the style, these things are always important. Is there enough of the special ingredient(s) to justify the name on the bottle?
I always look for a beer to create one coherent impression but to reveal its layers sip by sip. Finally, does it conjure that emotional memory, taking you back to that joyful place where you spent allowance money on some forbidden treat on your way home from school?
Honestly, what more could you want in a beer?