Dark beers have developed a serious sweet tooth.
Cavity-forward new releases like New Glory’s King Size Satisfies, an imperial stout that mimics the flavor of a Snickers bar, or Fort Rock’s holiday-themed Jingle Juice, which was brewed with lactose, molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, candied ginger and gingerbread cookies, became increasingly ubiquitous and popular at Sacramento-area tasting rooms in the last year.
This mirrors a national trend toward dessert-like stouts overloaded with extra ingredients — increasing customer demand for imperial stouts that taste like cookies, cupcakes and candies is turning brewery tasting rooms into dessert diners. Welcome to the era of the pastry stout, the style that is simultaneously uniting and dividing the craft beer world.
“We have this joke around here that people don’t like beer that tastes like beer,” says Trevor Davies, the brand manager for New Glory, one of the leading purveyors of pastry stouts in the area. “It’s not appealing to anyone here, but people want it.”
The term “pastry stout” was originally coined by beer blogger Alex Kidd in 2017 as a pejorative dismissal of these sort of rich, decadent, sticky, high-alcohol, highly sweet, adjunct-heavy imperial stouts, but the aptness of the description only increased the substyle’s populist appeal. Since most small-batch craft breweries have limited tank space to devote to dark beers, the runaway popularity of the pastry stout has been pushing other dark and strong styles off of area tap lists.
“It’s definitely more popular than things like Belgian Quads and Barleywines, but I think it is also replacing the normal Russian imperial stout, just because it’s more interesting,” says Derek Gallanosa, the head brewer at Rocklin brewery Moksa, and a man widely considered to be one of the leading pastry stout brewers in the country.
Sweet stouts filled with adjuncts have been around for a while — High Water’s s’mores-flavored Campfire Stout, for example — but those exceptions are fast becoming the rule. “You see the breweries reacting to that demand and moving all their production of stouts toward these treated stouts,” Gallanosa says. For the brewery’s first anniversary party in January, Gallanosa created Moksa ONE, a 15.4 percent ABV imperial stout that features Madagascar vanilla beans and a 30 pounds per barrel blend of raw and toasted coconut.
Moksa ONE is described as “a Mounds bar to the face” on the popular beer review website Untappd, where users have rated it higher than legendary dark beers like Founders’ Canadian Breakfast Stout and The Bruery’s Rum Barrel-Aged Black Tuesday. Moksa’s pastry stout bottle and can releases invariably attract long lines of beer geeks, as these outwardly excessive but surprisingly balanced brews are not only popular in the area, they also attract a tremendous amount of attention on the trade and resale market.
One of Moksa and New Glory’s most popular pastry stouts is Mallow Blaster, a collaboration beer that includes Belgian candi sugar, cacao nibs, vanilla beans and 150 pounds of marshmallows. Despite the 15.5 percent ABV and a high residual sweetness, each individual ingredient remains distinct, the ultimate goal of the pastry stout brewer. “We’re trying to balance it all out to where you taste all the flavors, where one doesn’t overpower another,” says Gallanosa. “Our goal is to make all the ingredients that you put into the beer noticeable.”
Gallanosa first started creating pastry stouts several years ago while at Abnormal Beer Company in San Diego. “I was inspired by the kitchen over there and the flavors they were playing with, and I wanted to incorporate those in the beers,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan of layering flavors from base beers, and the Stouts were a great canvas to paint all those flavors onto.”
When Gallanosa relocated to the area to open Moksa, he helped ignite a passion for pastry stouts in the region, to the point that he can barely keep up with the demand. “Our stouts go really fast,” he says. “Right now, we have one on tap, but we also have four in the tank.” Moksa typically sells out of pastry stout cans and bottles within hours of release. According to Gallanosa, the fact that pastry stouts don’t “taste like beer” is part of their appeal. “They simulate dessert, which a lot more people are familiar with,” he says.
One recent imperial stout by Moksa contained nearly $3,000 worth of vanilla. “It’s a pretty massive treatment, but we want to create beers that are memorable and over the top a little bit, but still approachable and drinkable.” Due to the gigantic additions of adjunct ingredients, as well as the higher grain bill needed to leave a residual sweetness while still hitting a higher ABV, pastry stouts are some of the most expensive beers to produce.
Still, even breweries that were initially resistant to the pastry stout trend are jumping on the bandwagon. “It totally goes against what you learn in brewing school about how to make beer,” says FiftyFifty Brewing head brewer Brian McGillivray, referring to the high residual sugars, adjunct ingredients and post-fermentation flavor treatments.
McGillivray also believes that the bold and distinct flavors required for a successful pastry stout have made the use of flavor extracts, a long-time no-no for prideful independent craft brewers, more widely acceptable. No matter his reservations, McGillivray is already starting to dabble in pastry stouts at Truckee-based FiftyFifty. “We’re getting a little bit more into that kind of realm because it’s honestly what people are asking for. It’s clear that there’s a much higher demand for that style of stout.”
Meanwhile, Gallanosa is already dreaming about his next envelope-pushing concoctions. “I’m curious about candy cap mushrooms, which give off a very distinct maple flavor but also a slight mushroom flavor,” he says. “I still haven’t pulled the trigger on that.”
There is probably no stronger indication of the strength and maturity of the Sacramento beer scene than the fact that so many breweries, both local and out-of-town, have opened or plan to open second or third locations in the area.
At the end of a long day, Nevada City resident Dustin Harper likes to unwind with a cold, robustly flavored craft beer. Harper considers himself a beer aficionado and enjoys sampling brews across Northern California. This spring, he will have a new option to do so just minutes away from home. By the end of this summer, he may even have two.