Milk stout, also known as sweet stout, has a known origin story: The Mackeson brewery released the first one in 1909, having developed a way to make their stout “more nourishing.” That way, of course, was the addition of milk sugar. North American breweries have dabbled in the style for a few decades, even if the more recent trend of adding lactose to a wide range of styles—see milkshake IPA—has helped to give the ingredient something of a bad name.
However, when properly brewed, there are few things as easily enjoyable as a classic milk stout.
One brewer who has earned the respect of his peers when it comes to this style is Kelly Montgomery, head brewer at Third Eye in Cincinnati. In a run that few if any brewers can match, Montgomery has won four straight gold medals for his milk stouts at the Great American Beer Festival. He first won three in a row for Moozie Milk Stout at Brink Brewing, which he cofounded in 2017. Montgomery left for Third Eye across town in 2020 and promptly won gold for Higher Purpose Milk Stout.
So, those four medals came at two different breweries—and he did it with two very different recipes.
Montgomery brews a lot of styles well, but he has a knack for darker beers. Hold the Reins, a dark mild he developed at Brink, won three straight GABF medals from 2018 to 2020. Third Eye’s Double Astral imperial stout, at 10.8 percent ABV and flavored with cacao nibs and husks, also won gold at the Ohio Craft Brewers Cup. Montgomery’s success with these beers dates back to before he went pro.
“There was a homebrewing contest out in L.A. called Hop Courage, and the winner got to brew their beer at Rogue’s Green Dragon pub,” he recalls. “I ended up winning the whole thing with a nut brown ale. That was when my friends and family realized I might have some talent at this.”
Moozie started out as a homebrew recipe. A member of Montgomery’s homebrew club asked him to write a recipe for a milk stout, and the resulting beer won a gold medal at the Ohio State Fair. Montgomery tweaked the recipe and made it one of his core beers when he opened Brink.
“My grandma used to say people in my family don’t have a sweet tooth, we have sweet teeth,” he says. “Milk stout was something in the stout family I immediately gravitated toward.”
The gentle sweetness of milk stout was a perfect fit for his “sweet teeth,” and his success with Moozie established his expertise with the style. However, Montgomery wasn’t done tinkering. Most brewers who win multiple medals on beer’s biggest stage might leave well enough alone. Instead, he wanted to set himself a new challenge.
“I had some time off between Brink and Third Eye because we opened during COVID,” he says. “I brewed three or four test batches in my garage. Side by side, I wanted Higher Purpose to be completely different from Moozie.”
Where Moozie leans into the roastier side of the style guidelines, Higher Purpose favors the richer side of the style. “Moozie was focused [on] a balance [among] chocolate, coffee, and caramel notes,” he says. “For Higher Purpose, I emphasized chocolate and caramel much more than coffee. Moozie had more bitterness and a more complex hop profile than Higher Purpose, but how we go about building the chocolate and roast flavors is more complex on Higher Purpose. They’re completely reversed.”
Building the Recipe
So how does Montgomery construct his winning milk stouts? The process begins before he selects any ingredients.
“Before I write a recipe, I’ll write out a full description of what I want the finished beer to be like,” he says. From there, he reverse-engineers it to figure out the recipe. Here’s what he does with each ingredient to create the (near-)perfect milk stout.
Montgomery is meticulous in building his grain bill. He says that this is where many brewers make a common mistake when brewing the style.
“If you’re tasting milk stouts that are good but not great, one of the main faults is they’ll use too much black patent malt,” he says. “If you use a tad too much—and it doesn’t have to be a lot—it has an almost ashy flavor. You’re teetering on that edge to get roast without ash. I use Carafa III to not get that harsh astringency. For coffee notes, I usually use a pale chocolate or Carafa II. I think Thomas Fawcett Chocolate is the only one that gives you a true chocolate flavor.”
He also goes slightly against common advice when it comes to his base malts.
“Whenever I read about this style in a book or the style guidelines, they mention the bulk of the base malts are supposed to be British pale or Maris Otter,” he says. “I do a mix of Maris Otter and traditional two-row because otherwise it gets just a little heavier than it should. These are only 5 to 6 percent ABV beers. That said, I think if you look at the style guidelines, the final gravity is a pretty wide range”—the BJCP specifies 1.012–1.024—“and the stouts that have done well for me are at that upper end. With enough roast, it’s not too sweet.”
While the hop bill for Moozie was a bit complex, Montgomery chooses simplicity for Higher Purpose. He uses Challenger, Magnum, or Bravo for bittering, and East Kent Goldings or Fuggles in the last 15 minutes of the boil for a bit of aroma.
“I fall on the lower range of bitterness for the style with this beer,” he says. “I think on the calculators it comes out to 25 IBUs, but I think if we tested it, it would probably be about 20. I think we can get away with lower lactose that way, so you don’t have to overpower with lactose for sweetness.”
“With our local water in this part of Cincinnati, Higher Purpose is one of the recipes where I have to add the least amount of acids and fewest salts,” he says. Montgomery tinkers with the water profile and has found competition success with a 1.25:1.5 chloride-sulfate ratio.
“I usually mash with a higher pH on sweet stouts and most of the more malty beers,” he says. “On malty beers I use lactic acid to bring the pH down to around 5.4–5.5, which is where we keep the milk stout. Our starting water pH is just under 9.0, so we definitely have to get it down.”
He explains that he uses phosphoric acid on paler beers such as his (also award-winning) Kölsch because the acid makes for a crisper, drier beer. He favors lactic acid for stouts and other malt-forward beers, to steer away from that impression.
For fermentation, Montgomery is selecting yeast based more on what it won’t do than what it will—he wants a low-attenuating strain.
“For Moozie we used an English strain, and in Higher Purpose I’ll either use an Irish ale or Whitbread English strain,” he says. More recently, he has been blending the Whitbread with a Chico strain to mellow the ester profile. “I’m looking for no more than 75 percent of the sugars to be fermented. That immediately narrows your choices and usually comes down to those classic English or Irish strains. There are some very subtle fruity esters from those strains, but it’s pretty covered up with dark grains and caramel notes. If I used them in a plain old ale, you’d be able to pick it out in aroma and flavor.”
The distinguishing ingredient of milk stout is lactose, of course, and Montgomery opts for a less-is-more strategy with his additions.
“You can ruin a beer by putting in too much lactose,” he says. “I aim for the lactose to make up 7 to 10 percent of the total grain bill. A lot of milk stouts out there are 10 to 12 percent. For the style, that makes it too sweet.”
After working through so many different iterations of milk stout, Montgomery says that Higher Purpose might be the one he sticks with.
“After GABF gold for this one, I don’t think I’m going to mess around with it much more,” he says, before qualifying the statement with a wry grin. “Of course, they’re always coming out with new ingredients and processes that haven’t been invented yet, so we’ll see.”
After dominating the style for almost a half-decade, the milk stout whisperer could just rest on his laurels. Instead, he prefers to continue climbing that podium.