Thick, sumptuous, and sweet, dessert stouts have a reputation for bombarding your taste buds (in a good way) and soothing your sweet tooth.
Brewing a dessert stout is all about creativity and balance. It requires a robust malt bill filled with caramel and roasted malts with some imaginative adjuncts to create a unique brew reminiscent of your favorite dessert.
When brewing a dessert stout, it’s important to:
- Use debittered chocolate malts
- Add oats to your grist
- Mash at a high temperature
- Use a big HEALTHY yeast pitch and temperature control
- Bump your chloride levels up
- Use high quality adjuncts
We’ll cover all you need to know about dessert stouts below. When you’re done, you’ll have the tools you need to craft the perfect brew.
What is a Dessert Stout?
Dessert stouts (or pastry stouts) evolved from imperial stouts. They are high in alcohol (9-15% ABV), sweet, and characterized by a thick velvet-like mouthfeel. Most are adjunct heavy as well. Many are loaded with ingredients like coconut, vanilla, maple flavoring, pecans (or any nuts for that matter), cinnamon, chocolate, bourbon, coffee, and fruit.
Flavors in a dessert stout are only limited to what you can think of and would expect to find in a dessert. Think, “coffee cake beer.”
What Makes a Good Dessert Stout?
The best dessert stouts have a big ABV but aren’t solvent-like or harsh. A thick mouthfeel is of paramount importance. Sweet but not SO sweet that you have to drink a glass of water in between sips. I’m a nut about vanilla and consider it to be almost mandatory in all great dessert stouts.
The most enjoyable desserts are the kind you feel a little guilty eating. The finest pastry stouts are the kind enjoyed from time to time, and they are best shared with a friend.
Finally, the best dessert stouts still resemble beer. Don’t lose the beer in the dessert, add dessert to the beer.
How to Brew a Dessert Stout
Here I’ll lay out the keys to brewing a great dessert stout. From grain bill through fermentation, I’ll highlight the most important details and… hold your hand the whole way.
Just kidding about the hand thing.
Expect to have a big drop in efficiency when brewing a huge beer like this. Use brewing software to adjust the brewhouse efficiency to 55 or 60 percent. This will give you a decent idea of where you’ll end up in respect to the starting and finishing gravities.
Grain Bill and Adjuncts
Normally, I’d recommend not going crazy with a lot of different specialty malts, but let’s face it… these are not normal beers. Feel free to throw in four or five different chocolate and roasted malts. I highly advise using debittered versions of these malts. The result is a smoother and less acrid (think burnt coffee) expression of malt.
You’re going to need a lot of base malt. About 20 pounds minimum. I’m a huge fan of Maris Otter, but with a beer this big, even a “boring” base malt will work fine. That said, I like to compensate with a healthy dose of munich malt. Cheap base malt + munich malt = “the poor man’s specialty base malt”.
No dessert is complete without a little caramel, so caramel or crystal malts should be a part of the grist. One pound of crystal malt for a five gallon batch is enough. More than that is fine too.
To oat or not to oat? Oats will add a ton of mouthfeel and body to the beer. This is largely due to their beta-glucan contribution. I think oats are a must in a good dessert stout, but if you’re opposed to it, use some of the tricks below.
There are two main adjuncts that can be used to sweeten and enhance the mouthfeel of your stout, lactose and maltodextrin. Lactose will add sweetness and give a smoother/fuller mouthfeel. Maltodextrin can be added to enhance the mouthfeel and body. It is also used to help improve head retention. If you’re brewing a dessert stout on the lower side of the ABV range, you may want to add some of these adjuncts.
Don’t use weird hops. None of the following: Galaxy, Citra, or Chinook. Save them for IPAs. Magnum will do just fine here. Use a quality brewing software and target 45-65 IBUs. That may seem high on IBUs, but with a huge beer like this, there is a lot of sweetness and malt to counteract the bitterness from a hop addition.
Use one bittering addition at the beginning of your boil. Keep it simple.
The purpose of the hop addition in a dessert stout is to keep it from being too sweet. I’ve found that when I’ve overdone the hops and the beer is a touch too bitter, it usually mellows out after a few months of aging. In case you didn’t know, dessert stouts age really well!
If you’re planning to age for a year or more, it’s wise to have at least 65 IBUs. Less than that and the beer will become too sweet with time.
Yeast and Fermentation
For yeast, use something like an English or American strain. If you want to brew something on the “light” side (9% ABV), go with a less attenuating English strain. Don’t freak out if the final gravity (FG) is way above the projected one. Depending on your original gravity, a final gravity of 1.040 to even 1.060 is not out of the question. This is ok.
Make sure a lot of yeast is pitched and that it is healthy. My personal favorite method is to brew a small beer first and ferment these big beasty beers with the resulting yeast cake. If you’re in a hurry, use three packs of dry yeast.
Be sure to allow enough time to find your actual final gravity during fermentation. Two weeks is probably a minimum time frame to achieve full attenuation. No bottle bombs, please!
Maintain a stable temperature, especially during the first 24 hours of fermentation. If it gets hot at the beginning, you’ll end up with a solvent booze bomb. After 7 days, raise the temperature by a few degrees (if possible) to help things along.
Now, I’m no chemist, but water will make or break this beer! Take the time to delve into a water calculator and get your sulfate to chloride ratios nailed down. Go heavier on the chloride side. Use a 2:1 ratio of chloride to sulfate, but the total amount of each is a huge consideration. Don’t go over the recommended maximums for these ingredients.
Depending on your water, you’ll most likely need to add some pickling lime or baking soda to the mash because there is such a large amount of roasted malts in the grist. Take the necessary steps to achieve your target mash pH.
Target a high mash temp. 158 F (70 C) is not too high. A 45 to 60 minute mash is fine. If you want to shave some time, check the gravity and move on to the boil when satisfied. Be sure your equipment can handle the enormous grain bill before the brewday.
60 to 90 minutes is long enough for boiling. If you’re looking to get some caramelization, pull off a pint of the wort and boil it in a separate saucepan on the stove. Use a candy thermometer and take the time to get real caramelization, not just melanoidin reactions. This will add unfermentable sugar to your wort and sweeten the beer. Caramelization is fun to play with but is not mandatory for a great pastry stout.
Secondary Aging and Flavor Adjuncts
After two or three weeks in primary, it’s time to transfer to a secondary fermenter and add adjuncts.The amount of time that’s needed in secondary depends on what adjuncts are being used. Let’s go over a few common ones here.
- Vanilla: Slice the bean in half down its length. Add anywhere from 5 to 10 beans for five gallons and let them soak for about two weeks in secondary.
- Coffee: Bag whole beans and add to secondary for one to three days. Coffee doesn’t take long to get into a beer. Try using a cup of beans to start with and taste the beer after a day.
- Cinnamon: Bag and add whole sticks to secondary. In my experience, cinnamon is easy to overdo and can dominate the beer. Use restraint here and try two or three sticks for two or three days. Cinnamon can also be added at flameout. One stick would be a good place to start.
- Maple: If you’re adding maple flavoring, use an extract that’s made from fenugreek. You can also make your own by soaking fenugreek in vodka. Dose your beer in secondary or at packaging to taste. It’s hard to make a recommendation on how much of a tincture to add. Add a little, taste, and repeat as needed.
Kegging and force carbing is the easiest solution. The challenge with bottling is that the ABV may be so high that the yeast have a hard time functioning. Take precautions and add some dry yeast at bottling. If kegging, take the time to package a few bottles with a beer gun and stow them away for the next few years.
Calamity Grain – Sample Recipe
This is a base recipe and does not include adjunct ingredients. The resulting beer is a fantastic canvas to add whatever dessert flavors you’ve got in mind.
- 6 gallons into primary (22.7 liters)
- Original Gravity 1.123
- Final Gravity 1.036
- ABV 11.4%
- 45-60 minute mash at 158 F (70 C)
- 90-minute boil
- Ferment at 64.2 F (18 C)
Grains & Adjuncts
- Pale Ale Malt 20 lbs
- Munich Malt 6 lbs
- Flaked Oats 6 lbs
- CaraBohemian 1 lb
- Castle Chocolate 1 lb
- Chocolate Rye 1 lb
- Midnight Wheat 1 lb
- Carafa I Special 1 lb
- Roasted Barley ½ lb
- Rice Hulls 2 lbs (Omit if using BIAB)
- Magnum 2 oz at 60 minutes for 42 IBUs
- Danstar’s Nottingham (Slurry or 3 packs of dry yeast)
Brewing Great Stouts Video Course
If you want to learn how to make great delicious stouts, check out this Craft Beer & Brewing video course:
Join Three Four Beer Company Head Brewer Linsey Cornish (formerly of Odell and Horse & Dragon) as she walks you through everything you need to know to design and brew great stouts.
It’s free for the first 30 days giving you access to over 60 homebrewing courses from the best brewers in the business.
Brewing a sumptuous dessert stout is an extravagant endeavor. This is not a good time to be stingy with ingredients. More is usually better. For example, I’ve heard of a brewer that used 9 vanilla beans in a 5-gallon batch.
This is a “style” of beer that is ridiculous, but that’s what makes it so fun! Loosen up. It’s ok to be a little hedonistic when brewing from time to time.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I add coconut to a dessert stout?
In my experience, coconut is best added into secondary and left to soak for a week or two. Use flaked coconut and roast it in an oven until golden brown. Make sure to stir it to ensure all the coconut gets a nice, even-ish roast. Roasting helps in two ways: it prevents your beer from tasting like sunscreen, and it reduces some of the oil content that will kill your head retention.
Start by adding around 1-2 pounds for a 5-gallon batch. Taste after a few days in secondary and package when ready.
How do I get bourbon or barrel-aged flavors?
The short answer is to use a bourbon barrel but… that’s a pain, expensive, and bourbon barrels are a crapshoot to work with. If you’re a homebrewer, take advantage of the fact that you can add bourbon directly to your beer before packaging. This is not cheating!! Pros don’t do it because, legally, they can’t..
Start with 250mls of bourbon for 5 gallons. Use your favorite brand.
For barrel flavors use some oak cubes or charred oak. Add it directly to secondary or keep some cubes soaking in vodka or bourbon on hand. Dose your beer with this tincture to taste. Dosing can be tricky. Start with a little and work your way up to the desired taste.
How do I add graham crackers?
Add graham crackers into secondary. If you’re concerned about infecting your beer, be as sanitary as possible. Remember that at 10-14 percent ABV, most bugs aren’t going to make it. After adding graham crackers, there will be some fermentation activity as the yeast consume available sugars. I like to use at least one box of crackers for 5 gallons.