Milk stout: The beer style makes a comeback

Adrian Tierney-Jones

11 December 2018

Rich, sweet and intense, milk stouts are the polar opposite of IPAs. And that, says Adrian Tierney-Jones, might just be one of the reasons they’re now on the lips of savvy venues – and drinkers – across the country


Milk stout was always the unfashionable beer style – the ancient uncle in the corner, socially awkward or boring everyone else with memories of smog-filled London, rickety hansom cabs and ancient stewed pubs with equally ancient stewed clientele.

It was not the kind of beer (or uncle, frankly) with which you would particularly want to be seen in public.

If we think of milk stout, Mackeson springs to mind. First sold in 1909, it shared its DNA with both sweet and oatmeal stouts, and became popular with sweet-toothed drinkers, especially after sugar rationing ended in the 1950s. A long-running TV commercial for the brand at the time starred British actor Bernard Miles.

However, decline hit hard in the 60s and 70s, when it was perhaps a casualty of the golden gleam of lager and muscular assertiveness of real ale. Its fate? The bottom pub shelf of history.

Despite its name, no milk was ever used in production. Instead, when it was first made by Mackeson, it was (and remains) lactose (or milk sugars) that enabled the creamy, smooth and sweet mouthfeel; lactose is unfermentable and therefore adds body and some sweetness.

In those pre-food-safety days, milk stout was promoted as a nourishing drink, especially for invalids and new mothers. In the late 1940s, the government, concerned that the use of the word ‘milk’ was misleading, apparently banned its use. The handful of breweries that made the beer obediently got rid of the word milk, though most kept the ubiquitous dairy churn on the label.

Mackeson Stout (yes, with the churn on the label) remains alive, if hidden. Once owned by Whitbread, it is now with AB InBev and has been shunted from plant to plant over the years.

A few years back, the alcohol content was dropped from its original 3% to 2.8%, and it is available in both bottle and can.

So far, so fall of the Roman Empire? Well, not exactly. Times are changing for this venerable beer style. And now a new wave of adventurous breweries are unafraid of producing milk stout, albeit with a difference.

From trad to rad

Bristol Beer Factory’s Milk Stout was introduced in 2006, and is possibly the first modern example of the style. It was an immediate hit and duly picked up a milk-crate of awards.

Be astute with your stout
Top ways to pair the dark stuff with food

Lost Monster is definitely an end-of-dinner beer, so it is best served with a cheeseboard
or a rich chocolate pudding for a total chocolate overload.
Euan MacEachern, Loch Lomond Brewery

Guinness Milk Stout is an obvious pairing for chocolate- and vanilla-based desserts, even pouring some over vanilla ice cream. It also works well with more savoury umami flavours, where the sweetness offsets the savoury, so hearty meat dishes. Even meat dishes with hoisin sauce make a perfect pairing.
Padraig Fox, Guinness

I always like Millionaire with blue cheese, especially a rich creamy blue. This is an awesome match. The first time [I tried the pairing] it surprised me, [but] that saltiness n a blue cheese, which has a bit of funk, matched the intensity of the richness of the stout.
Andrew Cooper, Wild Beer Co

‘The first year we brewed it was for the CAMRA Bristol Beer Festival where it won Beer of the Festival,’ explains managing director Simon Bartlett.

‘We sell it at a variety of venues: cask goes well in the more traditional pubs and boozers; keg goes amazingly well in the trendier bars and café bars; while bottles sell very well online, in supermarkets and in many restaurants. Because many people still associate stouts with Guinness, we recommend the bartenders go through the whole spiel of “well it’s like Guinness, but less bitter and with a creamy mouthfeel”. Apart from the diehard Guinness drinkers this is usually enough.’

Talking about Dublin’s greatest export, Guinness has also produced a 5% milk stout as part of its Open Gate range (though this is currently only available in the off-trade). As with all examples of the style, lactose is added to the beer during the boil, giving it a full body and silky texture.

It is also carbonated rather than nitrogenated and, according to Padraig Fox, general manager of the Open Gate Brewery, ‘it is a great alternative for people who want a change from hop-forward IPAs, but still look for that depth of flavour and character to satisfy the palate.’

Perhaps the greatest game-changer for milk stouts has been, to paraphrase former Blairite press secretary rottweiler Alastair Campbell, how they have been ‘sexed up’.

Or, to put it more delicately, ‘the use of the beer as a canvas’. As Wild Beer’s co-founder Andrew Cooper neatly explains it, when talking about the brewery’s popular Millionaire, milk stout is ‘a style that presents a great base for adding other flavours’.

There was also another factor at play when Wild Beer came to develop its popular chocolate and salted caramel milk stout.

‘We could see that people like Left Hand in the US had built breweries around their milk stouts,’ he says. ‘Because [fellow co-founder] Brett [Ellis] and I had worked with it at Bristol Beer Factory, we had always been fans of this sort of beer. At the time we brought it out, a lot of people were making imperial stouts.

Cream of the crop
Five milk stouts that should be on your lactose radar

Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout
A retro gem that is a delicious delight, from the waft of chocolate buttons on the nose, through the creamy, mocha-like character on the palate, to its dry toasty finish.
4.5%, £21.36/12x50cl, Nectar, nectar.net

Loch Lomond Lost Monster
This potent reimagining of milk stout is a sleek mahogany in colour, with chocolate, toffee, milky coffee and cocoa notes, accompanied by an oat-like silkiness and a bittersweet finish.
10%, £60/24x44cl, EeBria Trade, eebriatrade.com

Tailgate Peanut Butter Milk Stout
It might seem like a fanciful idea, adding peanut butter to milk stout, but the combination works, delivering a velvety, nutty smoothness allied to a lightly roasted quality and a full-bodied mouthfeel.
5.8%, POA, Matthew Clark, matthewclark.co.uk

Wild Beer Co Millionaire
Milk stout with more twists than Chubby Checker on the dance floor, as salted caramel and cocoa nibs give a luxurious and luscious character to this unctuous classic.
4.7%, POA, Matthew Clark, matthewclark.co.uk

Wiper and True Milkshake
As well as lactose, vanilla pods and cacao go into the mix for this elegant Bristolian beauty, which resonates with chocolate and mocha coffee notes.
4.8%, £29/20x33cl, Wiper and True, wiperandtrue.com

We wanted to make something more accessible with less alcohol, but just as full-bodied and flavoursome.’

The result is a beer where salted caramel goes into the mash, while lactose and Valrhona cocoa nibs are added to the boil. ‘It is a beer that has been appreciated by both beer lovers and non-beer drinkers,’ says Cooper. ‘I think the salt offsets some of that sweetness. We had a visit from a restaurant group the other day and some were saying that they didn’t drink beer. We got them on Millionaire and they were completely into it.’

Milk stouts seem to be popular with brewers in and around Bristol. As well as Bristol Beer Factory and Wild Beer, which is based in nearby Shepton Mallet, Wiper and True also produces a luxurious milk stout, Milkshake, inspired by its namesake.

‘I started to think about the pairing of vanilla, the dark roast malts of a stout and how we could brew something that took on all those wonderful forms of a good milkshake,’ says one of the brewery’s founders Michael Wiper, describing ‘thick, creamy, slightly indulgent textures.’

If a bartender wants to know how milk stout can be sold to drinkers who normally go for IPAs, or even don’t drink beer, Wiper thinks Milkshake is the ideal choice. ‘It challenges the preconceptions of what a beer tastes like,’ he says. ‘Or it could be suggested as a pairing. It’s a great dessert beer.’

Milk with your dinner

This is the joy of the current renaissance of milk stouts. It’s very much both a playground for brewers and beer lovers out for something slightly different, but it also matches well with food.

One example growing in popularity in the UK on-trade is Tailgate’s Peanut Butter Milk Stout, which mixes and matches peanut butter and chocolate notes, and claims to go well with jam sandwiches, pecan pie and turkey and cranberry – ideal for Thanksgiving then.

‘It appears on a wide variety of beer lists,’ says Graham Richardson of Heathwick, which distributes the beer. ‘This includes cocktail lists, in pubs, bars, restaurants, diners, clubs and nightclubs, because it defies expectation and creates excitement. It is also very “grammable” because it is innovative and different.’

Finally, let’s head over the border to Loch Lomond, which has imperialised this meekest of beer styles. Lost Monster is an imperial milk stout, which head brewer Euan MacEachern suggests is ‘best served chilled’ to allow the aromas to develop as the beer warms up.

‘It can work well as a sharing beer in a pub or at home and is best served in one-third pints from keg,’ he says.

‘With a whole host of flavours and aromas, there is something there for most drinkers to pick out and enjoy. Love chocolate – try this. Coffee drinkers – have a go. Don’t like stouts because they are usually too dry or bitter? Let’s see if this changes your mind.’

Remember that ancient uncle? As if by a magic spell cast by the craft beer revolution, he is now a cool character and in danger of being as on-trend as the murkiest IPA.

Case study

Manager Jess Orange
Millionaire Milk Stout at Wild Beer’s Jessop House in Cheltenham

Millionaire is an all-round crowd pleaser and easily one of our best sellers even in the summer! We have converted hardcore Guinness drinkers. We get youngsters who can’t stand anything other than your standard lager who have been converted, wine drinkers too and let’s not forget craft beer folk who are willing to try everything.Getting people to try it is all about knowing how to deal with individual guests. For example, with wine drinkers we always ask about a guest’s flavour preferences and what they like to drink, whether it be wine, cocktails or spirits, and it’s all about being smart and plucking out what are clearly the prominent flavours there. Your conversation can go from wine to cocktails to Espresso Martinis to Millionaire Milk Stout, and in a brief few moments you’ve converted your wine drinker!

With the constant IPA trends, it can often be hard to recommend other styles of beer to people. However, it’s all about knowing how to recommend and bridging the gap between two completely opposite drinks. Natural charm is important. There is a lot of snobbery in the drinks industry and this can often be off-putting to the guest. It’s not about what you know and what they don’t, it’s about providing them with a new experience. In the case of Millionaire, maybe offer as a dessert or an after-dinner beverage? With the Millionaire, we’re quite lucky that its name, concept and reputation are enough to get even the most hardcore IPA drinker to try at least a third!

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