Dessert-Inspired Beers Offer a Taste of Nostalgia

dessert beers

Hot Fudge Saturday and a Double Stack Milkshake at Great Notion. | Photo by Aubrie Legault.

Father-son bonding can take on a different flavor when Dad owns a brewery like Great Notion. James Dugan is a co-founder of the Portland, Oregon, brewery known for hazy IPAs and culinary-inspired sours and stouts, many of the latter doppelgängers for dessert.

The brewery’s opulent imperial stouts include the nutty, raw chocolate–flavored Peanut Brother and Double Fudge Brownie, fermented with gooey, honest-to-goodness brownie batter. They’re ingredients that convince kids like Dugan’s 8-year-old son, Lewis, that they could have a brewing future. “He’s a creative kid, and he’s like, ‘I’m going to name a beer,’ ” Dugan recalls. Lewis thought for a spell, then ambled off and brought back a brainstorm. “He’s like, ‘Hot Fudge Saturday. Why wait until Sunday?’ ” Hot Fudge Saturday! That’s word play worthy of today’s beer world. Guided by his son’s suggestions, Dugan built a rich stout crammed with walnuts, milk sugar, vanilla beans and “every kind of chocolate you can imagine.” The stout was finished, in true sundae fashion, with a dose of strawberry sauce.

The big-kid treat was a big hit, so much so that Great Notion rebrewed Hot Fudge Saturday and canned it. The label illustration features a father and son splitting a sundae in a forest, though perhaps only the kids can see the trees. “Sometimes it’s so obvious that, as adults, we miss it,” Dugan says. “It’s very childish, so of course a child is going to be able to draft a beer and base it on what they’re into.”

Nowadays, the sugary desires of children and adults are overlapping in a Venn diagram of dessert-inspired stouts, spreading across the country like a puddle of sticky chocolate syrup. Commonly called “pastry stouts” (Alex Kidd of satirical website Don’t Drink Beer is credited with coining the phrase), these rich, adjunct-laden beers take inspiration from candy bars, ice cream and treats of every persuasion. They offer a new breed of liquefied comfort food, brimming with chocolate and nostalgia. “You’re appealing to the simplest sense of desire, and everything you remember being extra-decadent when you were a kid,” says Matt Monahan, the co-founder and CEO of Other Half Brewing, based in Brooklyn. That means cocoa, marshmallows and caramel, “stuff that’s super-simple but can also be done as a beverage, especially beer, in really high-end ways.”

To do so, breweries are cherry-picking pantries to make stouts mimic macaroons, raspberry cheesecake and chocolate-dipped churros, or adding real Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to crank up the candy-display experience—and draw curious new drinkers into beer’s embrace. Other brewers are turning stouts into holiday drinks, such as coquito and eggnog, decking fridges with yuletide beer.

Far and wide, pastry stouts are celebrated at specialty festivals and shared, a couple unctuous ounces at a time, with family and friends, creating fresh traditions with each creamy, chocolaty sip.

dessert beers

Predation S’mores Imperial Stout at Wren House Brewing. | Photo by Debby Wolvos.

Over a Barrel

For several decades, imperial stouts have held a coveted cubbyhole in the hearts of modern beer drinkers, crowning ratings lists, crowding trading forums and acting as an unofficial barometer of excellence—especially when aged in barrels. “It can represent the culmination of what a brewery is capable of,” says Keith Gabbett, the brewmaster at Goose Island.

In the early ’90s, the Chicago brewery (now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) released Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS), an imperial stout marinated in ex-bourbon casks, which endures as the style’s North Star. I remember buying my first bottle some 11 years ago, slack-jawed by my first taste of the spirited black gold, not unlike a coffee bean and a chocolate bar backstroking in a lake of bourbon.

Most beers are designed to be themselves. Strong stouts, though, are a riot of coffee and chocolate, two foods regularly dolled up with cinnamon and nuts, caramel and coconut flakes, grocery shelves offering endless pairing options. As the barrel-aging program matured, Goose Island began releasing variants augmented with coffee, berries, vanilla beans and other foodstuffs. “Those elements and characters are already there, but we’re just amplifying them,” Gabbett says, adding that stouts are playgrounds for innovation.

Previously, Goose Island has released BCBS variants that imitate Bananas Foster, a dessert that includes vanilla ice cream and a rum-butter sauce, while this year’s variations include Café de Olla, containing ingredients like coffee beans, orange peel and cassia bark. And Mon Chéri merges Balaton and Montmorency cherries with oats, brown sugar and granola, tasting like “cherries jubilee mixed with fudge and bourbon.”

At first, Phin DeMink never adulterated his imperial stouts. He founded western New York’s Southern Tier Brewing in 2003, the early days of America’s extreme-beer movement, IPAs growing more bitter by the week. In time, he brewed high-test IPAs and channeled an affinity for dark beers into a strapping stout heavy on chocolate malt. DeMink later magnified the malt character with bittersweet Belgian chocolate, creating the darkly hedonistic Choklat. “We got such a positive response from our fans that it made me think, ‘Maybe we should create more of these really decadent, dessert-like stouts,’ ” DeMink recalls.

That became the Blackwater Series, featuring the coffee-and-chocolate Jahva, Crème Brûlée and, later, Girl Scout Cookies–inspired beers, such as Samoa This, swirling with chocolate, coconut and caramel. This year, DeMink decided to “redesign the decadent dessert-stout space” by packaging the beers in nitrogenated cans, starting with Nitro S’mores. The gas gives the campfire treat—evocative of graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate—a softer, creamier texture, balancing and rounding out the richness. “We wish we would’ve done this five years ago,” DeMink says.

Mouthfeel, in particular, has become a selling point for intensified stouts. Loads of wheat and oats can amplify thickness, as can lengthy boil times. Typically, brewers simmer grains for an hour or two to unlock and caramelize their sugars. Longer boils create richer, darker, more concentrated wort—the sugary broth that becomes beer—as the liquid evaporates, not unlike boiling clear maple sap until it becomes brown, sticky maple syrup.

Now, extended boil times are normal at Horus Aged Ales, which boils its Proper Dose imperial stout—packed with hazelnuts and coffee, vanilla beans and cacao nibs—for eight hours. Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing boils the Legion of Doom imperial stout (a collaboration with California’s Bottle Logic) for 18 hours, while WeldWerks Brewing, in Greeley, Colorado, achieves maximum viscosity by cooking Medianoche for around 36 hours.

“We start with a 15-barrel batch and end up with about five barrels of product,” says co-founder and CEO Colin Jones. The imperial stout is then matured in, primarily, bourbon or rye barrels for 18 months, then regularly finished with adjuncts such as toasted coconut or even Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The result is crude oil elegantly reconfigured as dessert, as dense as Hershey’s chocolate syrup. “Mouthfeel is where everybody has been able to stand out a little bit differently,” Jones says.

Wren House Brewing co-founder Drew Pool (left) and his partner and head brewer Preston Thoeny. | Photo by Debby Wolvos.

Worth a Share

Mocking these beers would be mighty easy, yet more examples of American beer’s endless quest for excess. Knee-jerk dismissiveness misses a larger point. “They’re pulling people into beer who maybe didn’t know they were beer drinkers,” Jones says.

Pastry stouts are a counterpoint to beer intensities that remain enduringly divisive. This one’s too bitter, that one’s too tart, the other one contains cucumbers, and cucumbers are terrible! Rich and sugary rewards, served up in ice creams and cookies, after soccer games and during visits to grandma, warmly bunk inside our memory banks. Pastry stouts rekindle that relationship with the kid inside, the one that lived for a Blizzard at Dairy Queen. “I think the whole pastry thing originates from our youth,” says Great Notion’s Dugan. “ ‘Oh, I love Rocky Road ice cream. Now I can have that in a beer? Yes, that’s what I’d like.’ ”

Dugan’s dessert-beer exploits date to his homebrewing days when he’d hit inventive ice cream shops like Salt & Straw, try samples and channel them into “unique flavor experiences,” he says. Among his attempts, he tried converting Sunday morning breakfast into beer—percolating coffee, sizzling pancake batter, microwave-warmed syrup. “I have some fond memories, but I don’t know if my wife considers them fond memories of me continuously experimenting with maple syrup,” Dugan says, laughing.

Double Stack imperial stout is now one of Great Notion’s most beloved beers, drawing fans to the brewery’s two Portland outposts where taps might flow with Blueberry Muffin, a sour ale that’s a dead ringer for the baked good; Orange Creamsicle IPA; or thick, fruited beers inspired by mochi, the rice-based Japanese sweet. Great Notion also offers conventional styles such as a pilsner and a smoked lager, creating interest by association. Dig this cake-inspired stout? Well, the pilsner is pretty excellent, too.

Wren House Brewing, in Phoenix, Arizona, makes well-hazed IPAs, heavily fruited sours and dessert-inspired stouts like Swirl, reminiscent of chocolate-vanilla soft-serve ice cream. “Just because we’re in a desert and it’s hot, it doesn’t mean that people don’t love ice cream sundaes,” says co-founder Drew Pool. The confections help lure customers inside Wren House, especially with taproom specialties released weekly. Patrons may do dessert first, but they’ll often move to the brewery’s other specialty, traditional beers such as a clean-drinking American lager made from corn and a delicate kölsch. A satisfied first-time customer easily becomes a regular, Pool says, and now “we can introduce them to how good a pilsner can be.”

In turn, the pastry stout turns into an extravagance. “It’s kind of like a cheat meal to have a big, decadent imperial stout,” Pool says. Much like cigars or Champagne, these stouts become part and parcel with celebration, beers to crack after earning a promotion, while vacationing, or when gathering with friends on Fridays or the holidays.

Come Christmas, you can gather ’round a roaring fire with an eggnog-inspired stout such as The Martians Kidnap Santa!, from Pennsylvania’s Spring House, or maybe one modeled on coquito—Puerto Rican eggnog agog with coconut and rum. Each winter, Miami’s Wynwood Brewing Company releases Coqui-To, a rum barrel–aged milk stout seasoned with coconut, vanilla and nutmeg. Anything else? “I can’t tell you,” says founder Luis Brignoni, who partly bases the beer on his mother’s coquito recipe. “It’s a family secret.”

Coqui-To typically debuts on Black Friday, and Brignoni—his family is Puerto Rican—notes many people take the beer back to the island as gifts, ones best opened ASAP. “It’s more about sharing with family during that time of year,” he says.

The holidays are grand, but there’s no need to wait until December to pass around pastry stouts. Year-round, the festival circuit is stuffed with sweet celebrations. On the second Saturday of March, Cigar City Brewing hosts Hunahpu’s Day, a revelry wrapped around its imperial stout spiced with chilies, cacao nibs and more. In November, Chicago’s Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers features a riot of pastry stouts, while Brooklyn’s Other Half launched its inaugural Pastrytown party this spring, doling out cookies and ice cream sandwiches to attendees. “It goes back to beer being an experience,” says Other Half’s Matt Monahan. “These beers are community-based in nature. Nobody is expected to sit down and drink an entire one by themselves. They are best when enjoyed with a friend or two.”

Source of Problems

Pastry stouts boast so much baked-in nostalgia, taste memory and guilty-pleasure goodness that, like a filtered Instagram image, they can seem perfect. The warts-and-all reality is that it’s tough to nail a style built on excess but needing balance to stand strong and saccharine. And pastry stouts are costly, too. “They’re above and beyond the most expensive beer to produce, by a multiple of four or five, even compared to a double IPA,” says Monahan. “We’ve bought $40,000 worth of vanilla at a time.”

Where do brewers turn to buy that many vanilla beans? Hops, malt and yeast are sold through established supply chains. Buying, say, hundreds of pounds of cereal marshmallows means wading into unfamiliar commercial waters, leading many brewers to dock at Nuts.com. It offers everything from hazelnuts to dandelion root powder and so many candies that they’re organized by color. “Nuts.com literally now provides stuff for brewers because we ordered so much from them,” Monahan says. “They’re asking us, ‘What else can we sell that brewers would buy?’”

The next challenge is decoding how to best incorporate ingredients and have them front and center in the finished product. “It’s a lot harder than people think,” says Wren House’s Pool. “You can dump 500 pounds of pecans into a beer, and it might not taste like pecans.”

A brewery could bump the nutty essence with “natural flavor,” a nebulous term for compounds derived from animals or plants that are combined to re-create a specific profile. Oftentimes, natural flavors can hit the flavor bull’s-eye better than the real thing. Take marshmallows—they’re largely puffed-up sugar flavored with vanilla. In beer, they’ll mostly dissolve into sugary nothingness. “How you re-create these flavors can be done in more natural ways than just throwing in marshmallows,” says WeldWerks’ Jones. “I get a better marshmallow flavor from a sweet base that’s flavored with vanilla.”

To an impartial observer, these can seem like extreme lengths to mimic existing pleasures. Birthday cake is already pretty good. Does it need to be reborn as, say, Birthday Cake Medianoche, stuffed with sprinkles and icing? Yeast even protest when performing at alcohol levels that spike to 12, 13 or 15 percent. “Bourbon County is a yeast dead end,” says Goose Island’s Gabbett. “It’s such a massive beer that by the time the yeast has finished fermenting, it’s tired and not willing to continue to do its job. We can’t pitch it back into another beer.”

This is a calculated trade-off. Making pastry stouts isn’t about parsimony and penny-pinching. They’re designed to engage our earliest outsize desires, delivering comfort in a world that can feel, at times, a little too crazy. These dark beers spark a lightness that we can collectively gather around, reminiscing about the days when straight A’s earned a trip to Baskin-Robbins. Here, this beer tastes like one of those 31 flavors you loved.

It’s powerful to rekindle those days of taste discovery, when everything was new and sweetness awaited everywhere. “People crave that,” Dugan says. “That’s why they line up at gourmet ice cream shops. Not only do they want a sugar fix, they want to have an experience with flavor.” Pastry stouts can do the same thing. “We can meet curiosity when it comes to a unique drinking experience,” Dugan says. “We can challenge people’s perceptions about beer.”


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