Updated on November 3, 2023
Although initially used pejoratively to refer to sickly sweet, adjunct-laden beers, “pastry stout” has been universally adopted in the craft beer community. We can credit Don’t Drink Beer with the creation and proliferation of the term. Most commonly, it refers to a stout brewed intentionally sweet and often made with plenty of sugary ingredients, usually to mimic a dessert’s flavor—and sometimes appearance.
At first a divisive category, pastry stouts have gained traction beyond imagination over the past few years. Much like milkshake IPAs or dessert/pastry sours became crazier and wilder in the age of social media, pastry stouts gained fame from fans drawn to their dessert-like sweetness. We cannot understate the excitement commonly associated with releasing these beers.
“You cannot add enough Oreo cookies to beer to satisfy [people],” says Adroit Theory Owner Mark Osbourne, who has been making standout stouts, many now with unique dessert-like ingredients, for almost ten years.
Although Osbourne admits that he didn’t make beers with sweets for the first five years. “And then it dawned on me: People like sweet things!” he says. “Perhaps we should serve that need, and God, it’s [now] never-ending.”
Critics typically deride the style for the “kitchen sink” approach of tossing just about any adjuncts with reckless abandon into beer. It’s about as far from Reinheitsgebot as you can get.
According to data from Untappd, the category “Stout – Imperial/Double Pastry” ranks just outside the top ten this year with almost 300k check-ins. The only stout category that ranks higher? Imperial stouts with 863k check-ins
“The advent of pastry-adjunct versions of stout have kind of kicked the barrel-aged and general stouts to the back burner a bit because these beers are approachable to the nerds…but also the general public who just, frankly, loves sweet things,” says Osbourne.
Regardless of how you feel about the style, it’s certainly a contemporary phenomenon. So, since today (Nov. 2, 2023) is International Stout Day, we’ve decided to take a deep dive into the Candyland world of pastry stouts. And, like all beer styles, there are those excelling in the category. So, we’ll share a few of our favorite pastry stout examples.
Is Pastry Stout an Actual Style of Beer?
Unlike hazy or New England IPA, which was given an official categorization at the Great American Beer Festival, pastry stout didn’t have any formal designation at one of America’s biggest beer competition until just earlier this year.
“The addition of Dessert Stout, or Pastry Stout, to the Beer Style Guidelines reflects the increased commercial availability of these beers,” wrote the Brewers Association (BA) in a press release. “Strong, sweet beers with a dark beer base, these beers incorporate culinary ingredients to create sweet flavor profiles that mimic the character of desserts or pastries. Wisely consumed as a digestif, this style of beer is perfect for generating conversation at the end of a meal.”
If anything can show you how popular pastry stouts have become, it’s gaining a coveted place in the BA’s Beer Style Guidelines.
This year, Corporate Ladder took home the first ever gold in the category for its Board Meeting pastry stout aged in Old Fitzgerald barrels with Tonga vanilla beans and toasted coconut. Followed by Modern Times’s Mega Devil’s Teeth: Double Dutch S’mores Edition and Chaos Grid: The Final Final Course, picking up silver and bronze, respectively.
“At its most basic, these stouts feature culinary ingredients that drive home the impression of rich dessert flavors,” says J.C. Tetreault, founder of Trillium Brewing Co., one of the prominent producers of the style. Other brewers tend to agree with this baseline interpretation of the style.
“To me, pastry stouts are any stouts that are adjuncted with anything that you might find in a dessert, either gourmet or something your grandma made you as a kid,” shares Skip Schwartz, innovation & wood cellar lead at WeldWerks Brewing Co.
Besides the dessert-like qualities, some brewers suggest that sweetness is the main component of pastry stouts. “My mind goes directly to residual sugar,” says Jeremy Grinkey, The Bruery’s director of production. “After all, look at the wine industry and how every dessert wine is sweet, not just ’off-dry’ but really sweet. So, for me, I believe that the word and style of pastry stout demands the finished product be very sweet.”
What Ingredients Do You Usually Find In Pastry Stouts?
As Schwartz intimated, the adjuncts found in pastry stouts can range from the simple to the extreme. In fact, this is the difficulty in establishing a concrete guideline for the style.
Does a chocolate stout brewed with cinnamon and vanilla count as a pastry stout?
Do you need lactose to make a pastry stout?
According to the BA’s Beer Style Guidelines, a dessert or pastry stout has a “strong dark beer base and incorporates culinary ingredients to create rich, sweet flavor profiles mimicking the character of desserts, pastries, or candies.”
The guidelines mention nothing about the addition of lactose but list common adjuncts that can include but aren’t limited to chocolate, coffee, coconut, vanilla, maple syrup, peanut butter, marshmallow, and various sugars.
Among brewers, the answer depends on who you ask.
“Whereas most brewers will employ milk sugar (lactose) to carry a lot of the creamy structure that folks have come to expect,” says Tetreault, “it is by no means necessary as we tend to use it sparingly, for we know there’s a large audience who’d prefer it wasn’t included.”
“When we think of new ideas for our pastry stouts, we always dismiss ingredients that won’t scream out,” shares Tom Hayden, regional director of Great Notion Brewing. “The most important hallmark for our pastry stouts at Great Notion is that they deliver the flavor of all the ingredients used in a bold and harmonious way. If it reminds you of a favorite dessert, even better.”
Ultimately, brewers give themselves free rein and unabashed creativity in the category. There’s no limit to what could end up in a pastry stout. (In some cases, that’s not a good thing.)
From blueberry cheesecake stouts to stouts that taste like chocolate-covered marshmallows.
For Tetreault, there’s a line that they don’t cross. “Trillium strictly adheres to the use of real, highest-quality ingredients in our pastry stouts,” Tetreault explains. “Which often stands in direct contrast with the widespread use of essences or ‘natural’ flavorings and extracts.”
What Makes a Good Pastry Stout?
If it isn’t clear already, throwing a bunch of sweet treats into your beer doesn’t mean you’ll end up with something good. Or even drinkable.
“I know the word balanced isn’t really used when talking about pastry stouts, but I do think there is a delicate balancing act between the different adjuncts,” says Schwartz. “Too much coconut, and you lose the vanilla. Not enough maple syrup, and the whole idea of a coffee maple beer is out the window. I think most people look at pastry stouts and say just add a ton of everything, and it will turn out alright, and that’s just not true. Trust me, I have learned that the hard way.”
So, what makes a good pastry stout?
“I would say balance,” Grinkey shares. “Ultimately, it’s a beer, not a liquid fudge walnut brownie, or at least that is what I think. So for me, the base beer needs to be solid and free of off-flavors and flaws.”
Although it might not always seem like it, there is a technical side to the pastry stout style. Even with a laundry list of adjuncts, off-flavors and defects will still come through. So, a good pastry stout starts with a good beer.
Tetreault affirms that good pastry stouts start with good ingredients. “Assuming an equivalent base recipe, as well as quality brewing, cellaring, packaging, and storage practices, poorly made pastry stouts tend to rely on extracts and ‘natural’ flavorings.”
And, ultimately, a pastry stout is a recreation of, well, a dessert. So, it should taste like it.
“To me, a ‘good’ pastry stout has all of the flavors that you would expect to find based on the label,” Schwartz continues. “The beer should somehow resemble the dessert that the brewer modeled the beer after.”
For Osbourne, he puts it pretty simply, saying, “Sell it with a fork and knife!”
“The first thing to come to mind is not delivering on an advertised flavor,” Hayden says. “The pastry stout crowd isn’t looking for subtle or suggestive flavors. Certainly, if you can deliver several bold flavors that have balance and are complementary, then you are on the right path. We want a great huge body in a delicious base beer for the stout that can be enticing on its own.”
What’s the Future of Pastry Stouts?
Time has proven that this style has legs, starting with a crawl, moving to a walk, and pretty much progressing to a run.
So, what’s next?
“Pastry stout will inevitably have to compete for the throne with the next new thing,” suggests Hayden. “But I do predict that it will enjoy some longevity.”
And from a brewing perspective, pastry stouts make much more sense than, say, barrel-aged ones. “It’s so hard to justify [barrel-aging] at this stage when you could cut to the chase, make a beer, adjunct it, and twenty-four hours after you made the beer, you’ve got a souped-up version that you can serve to the general public who will love it even more than they would a bourbon barrel-aged beer you sat on for three years,” says Osbourne.
Many of the brewers we spoke to also mentioned that excitement around pastry stouts can bring more drinkers into the fold. Some cited the style as a “gateway” for new drinkers to experiment within craft beer.
Critics might be quick to mention that a liquid that tastes like chocolate cake isn’t exactly similar to a kettle sour, pilsner, or farmhouse ale. Moreover, this fascination with sweetness is bleeding into other categories.
“At WeldWerks, we make a handful of pastry sours, meaning we take some of the same ingredients from our pastry stout and blend them with fruity versions of our quick-soured beers,” says Schwartz. “Evil Twin in NYC has their line of pastry hard seltzers called Evil Water in which they are doing similar pastry things with hard seltzer. I hope we, as brewers, can agree to keep one style sacred and leave pilsner beers alone. But I am sure it is only a matter of time before we start seeing pastry lager beers being turned out. My guess is someone in Florida is already doing it.”
Speaking of Osbourne’s Oreos mentioned above, there are even breweries like Holidaily Brewing Co. incorporating gluten-free versions of the iconic cookie into beers. Like with its GF Oreo Stout, first released a couple of years ago. “Two of our brewers, Connor and Nikolas, have been pushing for a cookie beer for years now, and we just could never get the ingredients worked out,” shares Alan Windhausen, head brewer of Holidaily Brewing. “With gluten-free Oreos coming on the market, this was an opportunity to fulfill their brewing dreams and make a true Oreo Stout!”
It’s only a matter of time before we see non-alcoholic pastry stouts! (We’re sure Athletic is on it!)
“Pastry stouts aren’t terribly new, but the proliferation has absolutely exploded, seemingly in tandem with direct-to-consumer sales,” remarks Tetreault. “Like all else, they’ll peak and then pull back from the heights at some point, but they are far too delicious to go away!”
Hop Culture’s Best Pastry Stouts of 2023
If you’re looking for the best examples of the style, we certainly recommend starting with the breweries mentioned above. Below, we’ll share a few of our recent favorite pastry stouts that we’ve tried.
BBA Squatch Tracks or BBA Peanut Brother 2023
Great Notion Brewing — Portland, OR
To put it bluntly, kooky imaginative flavors, whether in a sour or stout, are Great Notions’ cake and batter (?).
So you can’t go wrong with any of ‘em. For instance, the newly dropped BBA Night of the Living Squatch.
But we think two stood out this year.
BBA Squatch Tracks, a blend of imperial stout aged in Blanton’s and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels for twenty-seven months, conditioned on toasted almonds, cacao nibs, marshmallow, and vanilla beans.
And BBA Peanut Brother 2023, ages Peanut Brother in Weller and Pappy Van Winkle barrels for thirty months with cacao nibs and toasted peanuts.
Great Notion describes this beer as an “extreme peanut butter cup flavor.” And we couldn’t agree more!
Corporate Ladder Brewing Co. — Palmetto, FL
We named Corporate Ladder one of the top ten best breweries to watch in 2021. And for good reason. The Palmetto, Florida-based brewery is producing exciting and enjoyable beers that have caught the eyes of locals and followers from afar.
Board Meeting was yet another example of the utter joy that oozes out of every Corporate Ladder beer. Brewed in collaboration with another stout steward, Bottle Logic, Board Meeting ages in Old Fitzgerald barrels for eighteen months and Stagg Jr barrels for thirteen months on top of West Papua, Brazil, and Tonga vanilla beans from Ted Jones & Co. and toasted coconut.
Corporate Ladder absolutely nailed it with this wonderfully decadent, slightly tropical stout.
So much so that they picked up the first-ever gold in the “Dessert Stout or Pastry Stout” category at GABF in 2023.
Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche (2023)
WeldWerks Brewing Co. — Greeley, CO
WeldWerks nails an imperial pastry stout with its original Medianoche, but it’s all the variants that have come thereafter that truly impress us.
The recently re-released Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche, a fan favorite at GABF, is just naughty.
The blend starts with ten-year-old Eagle Rare bourbon and twelve-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon barrels, chosen specifically for their distinctive peanut butter and dark chocolate notes.
But WeldWerks doesn’t stop there. Oh no, these peanut butter paramours then get peanut flour, cacao nibs, and actual peanut butter cups!
We’re getting goosebumps and shivers going up and down our spine right now just thinking about this indulgent treat.
When peanut butter and chocolate meld together perfectly, and it’s done just right, there is nary a pairing more pleasurable.
And WeldWerks just smashes it.
Negation [Oreo Cheesecake Edition] (Ghost 1458)
Adroit Theory — Purcellville, VA
As Osbourne said, he can’t make enough beers with Oreos. And he’s right.
Negation [Oreo Cheesecake Edition] (Ghost 1458) is currently Adroit Theory’s highest-rated beer on Untappd with a 4.78 ranking. Adroit Theory conditions its well-known Negation Russian imperial stout on tons of Oreos and New York-style cheesecake.
This is one thick boi bursting with creamy cookie decadence.
Squeeze The Batter
Horus Ages Ales — Oceanside
We’ve said it before, but Kyle Harrop of Horus Aged Ales is a master in flavor. And that wizardry applies to pretty much one style only—stouts.
Nearly every pastry stout released by Horus Aged Ales manages to balance wild flavors to great effect.
Squeeze the Batter ages in Kentucky Owl bourbon barrels for twenty-eight months with Saigon cinnamon, wild Thai bananas, and maple syrup from Harrop’s in-law’s Wisconsin farm. Harrop considers this his riff on banana pancakes.
Do we need a beer like this in our lives? We’ll say: Take one sip of this imperial pastry stout, and you’re instantly in love. Is that an answer for you?
Barrel Aged Broom
The Eighth State Brewing Co. — Greenville, SC
The Eighth State just nails it when it comes to stout, making some top-rated oatmeal and imperial ones.
So it’s no surprise.
What is surprising is how the Greenville-based brewery keeps surprising us with new creations.
Barrel Aged Broom, a collaboration with WeldWerks, included—get this—ube, cashew, Madagascar vanilla, Ecuadorian vanilla, and toasted coconut.
We mean, c’mon!
In someone else’s hands, this beer could lose all the nuances from subtle ingredients like cashews and big flavors like toasted coconut, ube, and two different types of vanilla. Somehow, all these flavors carry their own thread, melding together like a crazy ube shake with all the fixins in a bottle.
The barrel-aged version, released in August, includes a twenty-seven-month nap in WL Weller barrels.
And if you don’t believe us, believe this: BA Broom ranks as The Eighth State’s fifth-highest-rated beer on Untappd out of its 509 beers, with a 4.76 rating.
Oh, and also check out Barrel Aged Broom With Pistachios, a variant with pistachios added and an additional barrel-aging step—thirty-one months in Willett/Blanton’s barrels.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Macaroons Before Dying (2022)
North Park Beer Co. — San Diego, CA
In 2020, we learned that North Park Beer Co. is making some of the best pastry stouts in the country. We can say with certainty that North Park should be your first stop on the pastry stout journey.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Macaroons Before Dying (2022) was stunningly good. Rich and decadent, like truly sipping on beer-ified cookies, this decadent stout is extreme and over the top, but in such a gratifying way. Kind of like polishing off a whole box of Girl Scout cookies by yourself.
For this treat, North Park takes Death Before Dying Imperial Stout, ages it in Elijah Craig and Rye bourbon barrels for twenty-four months and conditions it on desiccated, shredded, and toasted coconut, Madagascar vanilla beans, and espresso beans.
If you imagine a liquid version of a Samoa Girl Scout cookie or, depending on where you live, Caramel DeLite, you might understand the deliciousness of this beer.
Small Joys or BA Small Joys
Long Live Beerworks — Providence, RI
The little things in life sometimes bring the greatest joys. That’s the message behind this beer from Long Live Beerworks. The original Small Joys delivers fantastic flavors without going over the top. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a marvelous pastry stout. But it manages to rein everything in for a delightful beer. Brewed with chocolate, coconut, toasted almonds, and lactose, this silky-smooth stout is a true bundle of joy.
The BA Small Joys, released in early 2023, blends different Long Live Beerworks stous in bourbon and apple brandy barrels before conditioning on that aforementioned coconut, almonds, and cacao.
Think of a boozy but well-balanced liquid Almond Joy, another small joy in life.
German Chocolate Cupcake Stout
Angry Chair Brewing — Tampa, FL
Angry Chair, has helped drive a craft beer renaissance of sorts in Tampa, pushing out epic pastry stouts (and more).
If you’re not from Florida and have heard of Angry Chair, it’s probably because of beers like Double Stuffed Oreo Fudge Bucket and German Chocolate Cupcake Stout, which turn decadent desserts into liquid.
The latter is one of those rich and flavorful beers you can’t finish even though you want to. Expect cake batter with a bit of bourbon from the barrel.
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