What Is a Pastry Stout & Which Ones Do You Recommend I Try First?

Some things don’t sound like they belong together. We’ll admit that at first consideration, “pastry” and “stout” seem pretty far apart in terms of being complementary to one another. Thankfully, skilled (and highly adventurous) craft brewers disagreed.

Through their experiments with additional adjuncts (and we’re talking practically every adjunct under the sun), they’ve developed a beer that, while it doesn’t yet have an official style, definitely has the street cred to get plenty of attention.

Pastry stouts are new, unique, and contain cavity-inducing amounts of sugar, much like your favorite desserts. Together, we’ll explore what they are, who created them, and what to expect when you try them. We’ll also throw in a few recommendations to get you started on your pastry stout journey.

Defining a Stout

Ales, lagers, sours — if you’re new around here, it can be confusing to define what a stout is, much less a highly specified, not-even-really-definable subcategory like pastry stouts. Let’s take a look at what makes a stout a stout.

Stouts Are Ales

All beers are either ales, lagers, or sours. The difference between the beers has a lot to do with how they are fermented and the type of yeast used during fermentation.

Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae, or S. cerevisiae. This is also commonly referred to as ale yeast. Ale yeast is added to the boiling wort (the sugar-water mixture that eventually becomes beer) when it is still very hot, usually between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because the wort is hot, the yeast begins to activate on the top of the wort, creating a thick foam and giving it its name as a top fermenting yeast.

Other beers, like lagers, use different yeast, and the yeast is added when the wort is cooled. Sours are fermented with wild yeast and bacteria. These different styles create completely different tastes and flavors.

Particular Traits of Stouts

Stouts are heavy, dark beers. Think Guinness, arguably the most famous stout of all. These rich beers are dark, almost black in color, have a cream to caramel head, and have a thick, rich mouthfeel that can be described as creamy or grainy.

Stouts have strong, characteristic flavors, too. Licorice, for instance, is a popular flavor that a brewer can produce through the use of different malts in a stout.

Stouts are big beers, but imperial stouts are larger than regular stouts. The ABV of most stouts falls in the 4%-5.5% range, with imperial stouts reaching 10% and higher.

Defining the Pastry Stout

The pastry stout is new and in that awkward phase where the brewers who make the beer and the drinkers who drink the beer get to define how it should be made and what it should taste like. In other words, the Brewers Association, the organization that supports craft brewing and helps give definition and structure to beer, hasn’t given it a designation… yet.

The closest category defined by the Brewers Association that could potentially play home base for a pastry stout is cream or sweet stout. These stouts are brewed with lactose and have a sweet flavor and thick, milkshake-like texture. Normally, however, you’ll only find malty chocolate and caramel flavors in these stouts.

Pastry stouts take the party after hours by adding numerous adjuncts and all the sweetness you’d expect from a giant, decadent slice of cake.

What Is an Adjunct?

Pastry stouts are adjunct-heavy. Sometimes you’ll hear them referred to as containing everything but the kitchen sink in terms of adjuncts. So what exactly is an adjunct?

Adjuncts are fermentable sugar sources added to the beer to produce a flavor. Adjuncts follow two rules:

  1. They must be a source of fermentable sugar.
  2. They can’t be malt.

That means the fermentable sugar source is in addition to the malt already added at the beginning of the beer-making process. These adjuncts could be vegetative in source, like pumpkin, or they could be from an unmalted grain or sugary syrup.

Regardless, they just need to be fermentable, sugary, and sweet to make the grade. Which adjuncts a brewer uses is completely up to them, but as we’ll learn, there’s a right and wrong way to brew a pastry stout.

Why Some Beer Lovers Don’t Love Pastry Stouts

Every genre of beer has its share of naysayers, especially when a beer is green and not yet recognized by the Brewers Association. As such, it’s no surprise that pastry stouts have an “un-fan” base almost as impressive as their cult following.

There are possibly two reasons why some people just don’t like pastry stouts.

  1. They’re fans of more “traditional” beer. You know the people. They’re always ordering lagers and red ales and lecturing you on the quality of the beer. These beer drinkers hold fast to the Reinheitsgebot, a German edict that regulates how quality beer should be made.

    The Reinheitsgebot states that all malt should be barley malt, and adding anything else or any other type of fermentable sugar to the beer could lessen the quality of the beer. However, it’s important to note that even though these ancient laws are still in effect in Germany, things have changed. They were set in place when sourcing quality beer ingredients was difficult and cheap shortcuts were frequently used, resulting in diluted, hardly drinkable beer.

  2. Even in Germany, the Reinheitsgebot can be circumvented with proper requests and procedures.

  3. They just don’t like sweet beer. Plain and simple, some people don’t like beer that is incredibly malt-forward or overly sweet. If there’s a reason to douse the beer with so many adjuncts, the beer itself must be low quality.

To be sure, pastry stouts came in loud and proud and flipped the stout world on its head. However, to assume that the adjuncts added into a pastry stout are only there to protect low-quality beer is absurd.

What’s in a Pastry Stout?

Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. Think of the most decadent desserts you love: creme brulee, cherry cheesecake, and rich chocolate cake — these are the inspirations that craft brewers use to flavor their pastry stout creations.

The desserts serve not only as an inspiration for flavor but also for texture and appearance. They give the brewer the canvas for creating a beer that essentially doesn’t taste like beer. However, you’ll still find the same maltiness, aroma, and fizz you love about beer, so you needn’t worry that trying a pastry stout coincides with turning in your beer lover card.

The Deal With Lactose

Many brewers will use lactose (milk sugar) to achieve the creamy texture most people expect from a pastry stout, but some brewers resist adding lactose unless necessary. Because it’s already used in other styles of beer, the brewer might not be able to capture the exact flavors desired in the beer if the lactose is added.

Many brewers even feel that adding lactose is a shortcut to creating texture and enhancing sweetness. Because pastry stout brewers are currently fighting for their seat at the big kid’s table, using the highest quality, most innovative ingredients will get their creations more attention.

Adjuncts

Like, all the adjuncts. Whether they use syrups, fruit extracts, pure spices or spice extracts, non-malted grains, or vegetables, you’ll find craft brewers experimenting with numerous adjuncts to create the flavor of your favorite desserts. There’s a delicate balance to adding adjuncts, though. Some of them overpower others, and adding too many can result in a train wreck of fermented sugar.

As with all beer brewing, precision and dedication to the final outcome are necessary for perfecting a pastry stout that is sweet, balanced, and believable.

Are All Pastry Stouts Good?

This is highly subjective, but we’d say… no. Just because you can add everything, but the kitchen sink to a beer doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Fortunately, we find that most passionate brewers are extremely careful in how they brew their pastry stouts. From selecting the perfect malt to the addition of their adjuncts, they are obsessive about getting the balance just right.

Balance is what you’ll look for in a superior pastry stout. Even though these beers are created to mimic desserts and sweets, you certainly don’t want to feel like you’re chugging buttery pancakes and maple syrup that have simply been liquified.

A quality pastry stout will have a rich essence of the food after which it was modeled. The key is to elicit the memory of the dessert or food in the drinker’s mind, not force the flavors into their mouth in an uncomfortable, liquid illusion.

To craft a pastry stout that reminds you of chocolate coconut cake, a brewer will carefully use adjuncts to bring out certain flavors in the malt and give the stout aromatics that tell your brain, “this tastes like the chocolate coconut cake from the wedding I went to in 2016.”

 

Ultimately a pastry stout should:

Be Heavy

These beers are large, thick, and standalone. You’ll rarely pair them with anything but rather drink them on their own in lieu of a rich or decadent dessert.

Have Sweetness

Sugary adjuncts reign supreme in these stouts. This is more than just malty sweetness. This is sweetness that is noticeable, rich, and decadent — dessert-like.

Be Believable

If the label says maple pancakes, you should get aromatic, buttery goodness on the nose and taste the sweet hint of maple syrup and bread on your tongue.

Have a Thick Head

Pastry stouts are known for the thick, caramel-color foamy heads that give them an almost whipped cream-like quality.

It’s more than just adding sugar to beer. Pastry stouts are expertly crafted and perfected to be balanced, drinkable versions of desserts you love.

Are Pastry Stouts the Only Sweet Beers?

No. Plenty of beers are malt-forward and, thus, sweeter than they are savory. Beers that are not sweet usually have a more hop-forward balance. These beers, like IPAs, have more of a bitter taste than they do sweet, malty flavor.

Pastry stouts, or distinctively sweet beers, are an art form, and they’re bleeding over into other categories of beers. Some brewers experimenting with these adjuncts have developed pastry sours and seltzers. We could be on the verge of seeing multiple new beer subcategories based solely on the creation of the pastry stout.

Whose Idea Was the Pastry Stout Anyway?

The history of the pastry stout is short and sweet. See what we did there?

These beers have only been around for a few years before 2017 when the term “pastry stout” was officially coined by a blogger who didn’t care for them.

Derek Gallanosa, the head brewer for Rocklin Brewery Moksa, was working at a restaurant in San Diego when he began experimenting with the flavors that were popular in the kitchen in his brewing. He felt that the stout presented the perfect backdrop for adding the sweet dessert flavors that the restaurant patrons loved, and thus, the “pastry stout” was born.

However, it wasn’t until 2017, when beer blogger Alex Kidd coined the term “pastry stout” to describe these rich, sugary, high-alcohol, adjunct-crazy imperial stouts, that the stouts created by Gallanosa actually had a style name.

Although Kidd used pastry stout as a derogatory term, the cult following for these beers had already assembled and adopted the name of this substyle with pride. Sorry, Alex.

What To Expect From a Pastry Stout

It’s not all candy and rainbows with a pastry stout. Although you’ll be drinking a beer that arguably does not taste like a beer, you’ll still be able to appreciate the delicate beer-like qualities that make it, well, a beer.

The Color of a Pastry Stout

Most pastry stouts are dark, as is typical of all stouts. You’ll find the colors range from light brown (resembling chocolate milk) to dark, rich espresso.

As a side note, if you find a pastry stout that is described as chocolate in color, that doesn’t mean it’s chocolate in flavor. Most often, chocolate-colored pastry stouts have notes of coffee.

The Aroma of a Pastry Stout

Rich, toasty, and warm notes on the nose are the hallmarks of a pastry stout. You’ll also pick up any spices and extracts like vanilla, coconut, caramel, or cinnamon. It’s not unusual for pastry stouts to smell nutty and malty.

The Body of a Pastry Stout

The mouthfeel of a pastry stout will be thick, creamy, and almost milkshake-esque. You can also feel that it is frothy and heavy. Carbonation is light.

The ABV of a Pastry Stout

Most range from 4.5%-5.5%, with some imperial pastry stouts reaching ABVs of 10% or higher.

The Flavor of a Pastry Stout

It’s hard to define the flavor of a pastry stout by itself. It will always be sweet, but the flavor should remind you of the description on the label. I.e., if the label says you’re getting blueberry cheesecake, you’re going to get fruity notes, lactose sugar, and thick, creamy goodness.

Pastry Stouts To Try First

Pastry stouts are easy on the palate, so unlike a triple hopped IPA, you don’t really need to proceed with caution. However, we’ve got a few favorites that we think make excellent choices for both the newbie and the well-rounded connoisseur.

  • My Favorite Thing Enfant Terrible. This strong, dark ale is brewed with so many delicious flavors that it’s hard to name them all. Both vanilla and chocolate, dates, honey, and pistachios give balance to the heavy dark malt.

    Inspired by baklava, you’ll love the unique taste and likely experience a new flavor with every sip. Opa!

  • Crowns and Hops Brewing Company Santa Slays Glazed Pecan Stout. The holiday version of Crown and Hops Brewing Company’s classic stout, this features notes of coffee, cocoa, pecans, cinnamon, vanilla, and maple syrup.

    Although it’s not technically a pastry stout, it has all the sweet ingredients to make our list, and we’d argue it definitely qualifies to be included in the sweet subcategory.

The inventory of pastry stouts at TapRm is always changing and evolving. Because we work with small craft brewers, some of our beers are only available on a limited basis or during certain seasons. If you see something you love, grab it, we never know how long it will stick around.

Pass on the Pie; Grab a Pastry Stout

Sugary, sweet, over-the-top, and the closest you’ll come to a dessert in the beer world, pastry stouts have taken their pejorative substyle classification and turned it into gold. Craft brewers who make these delicately balanced brews are artists who combine the perfect harmony of adjuncts on the canvas of their stouts to deliver rich, delicious beers that remind you of your favorite guilty pleasures.

While they don’t yet have their own official style category, you can find craft brewers all over the nation experimenting with different flavors and turning out seasonal and year-round pastry stouts that have a cult following.

At TapRm, we believe in these craft brewers and their ability to make amazing beer. We also understand it’s hard to get great beer into the mouths of passionate beer drinkers when you’re a smaller company. That’s why we’re here.

TapRm: Your Source for New Beer

At TapRm, we’re connecting the most obsessive and creative craft brewers with the most discerning and passionate beer drinkers. To do this, we’re building a better beer infrastructure that allows small craft and microbrewers to get their beer into the hands of more and more people.

By using TapRm, the craft brewer on the west coast can easily get their seasonal pumpkin ale to a drinker on the East Coast without all the red tape and shipping expenses that small brewers can’t afford.

Because we work with so many different breweries all across the nation, our inventory of beer and styles changes constantly. If you love new beer, experiencing new styles, or discovering interesting backstories about the breweries we work with, check us out. We’re always ready with a recommendation, and we constantly have “the good stuff” on deck.

The Sweet Stuff

Pastry stouts are the sweetest of the sweet. You can enjoy them alone in lieu of your usual dessert, or go hard and drink them along with your cake. Either way, check out TapRm for the best selection of pastry stouts you never knew you needed to try.

Sources:

Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines | Brewers Association

The Rise of the Pastry Stout | Comstock's Magazine

Beer Adjuncts, Their Role and Brewing Variety | The Spruce Eats

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published