If the proliferation of craft beer culture over the past decade has taught us anything, it's that anything wine can do, beer can do better. Or at the very least, try. For the latest example of the wineification of beer culture, look to the recent proliferation of dessert brews, which champion sweet profiles with adventurous, sometimes unexpected ingredients.
Making dessert beer is "almost an entirely different universe" from traditional brewing, says Paul Schneider, head brewer at Cinderlands Beer Co.
Andy Kwiatkowski, head brewer at Hitchhiker Brewing Co., says the style allows them to push "culinary extremes" not possible in other recipes.
Brewing sweet beer isn't necessarily always about taking a dessert and incorporating it into the recipe — it's not adding chocolate cake to an IPA and calling it a chocolate cake IPA. Frequently, it involves blending a mix of flavors that when consumed, reminds the drinker of the beer’s title reference. Cinderlands’ Pancake Galaxy series, for example, uses maple syrup or maple sugar to remind drinkers of pancakes, without actually using them in the recipe.
Kwiatkowski says another approach is closer to eating cereal — when you're finished eating a bowl of say, Count Chocula, you're left with what is essentially chocolate milk. The same goes for beer. Add marshmallows into the mashing process, and the beer will extract the sugars, leaving behind a mallow-flavored wort.
Managing sweetness in dessert beers can be tricky, which is why many pastry brews are made into imperial stouts; the style’s strong malt and roast flavor balances out sugar content. Creating lighter dessert beer is a bit more difficult, but doable. (Cinderlands nails it in the pancake series, Hitchhiker with its Whole Punch: Guava, an IPA brewed with milk sugar and vanilla bean.)
If all this talk has your sweet tooth singing, check out some of our favorite dessert beers from local (and local-ish) breweries.
Hitchhiker Brewing Co.: Mashmallow
This brew is made and conditioned on Count Chocula cereal. Though it’s 8 percent ABV, the brew sips lighter than most stouts. Marshmallow adds a surprisingly subtle and not-too-sweet kick.
Cinderlands Beer Co.: Star Crumb: Pumpkin Pie
This brew falls into Cinderlands’ tartshake category, though it is an imperial ale. Drinkers fondly call it “pumpkin pie in a glass.”
Yuengling: Hershey’s Chocolate Porter
This beer smells and tastes exactly like “the sweetest place on Earth,” aka Hershey’s Chocolate World. The porter is light — only 4.7 percent ABV — and very drinkable. It drinks like molten chocolate with a hint of malt.
Grist House Craft Brewery: Udderly Toasted
Hints of chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow round out this imperial stout collaboration with Turner Dairy.
Southern Tier: Nitro Crème Brûlée
The nitro effect makes Southern Tier’s imperial milk stout even smoother, bringing out the brew’s notes of vanilla and custard.