With Dessert Beers, You Can Have Your Cake and Drink It, Too

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- A frosty mug of fizzy yellow pilsner might not sound like the most luxurious post-dinner drink, but what about an imperial stout that’s twice as strong as a regular brew and tastes like pistachio-chocolate ice cream?

Certain boozy subgenres of sweet beer—porters, stouts, and barleywines, particularly—are increasingly popular as dessert drinks. Defined by their high alcohol content, they do the work of a nightcap while doubling as a dose of sugary satisfaction before bed. Some of their potency comes from aging in used spirit barrels, but clever beermakers have discovered ways of coaxing wine-level alcohol content out of yeast as well.

Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand stout is generally recognized as the first of the style aged in whiskey barrels. Greg Hall, the Chicago company’s brewmaster in the mid-’90s, wanted something memorable for its 1,000th batch of beer. A chance acquisition of spent Jim Beam barrels led to the proverbial lightbulb: What flavors would surface if you filled the barrels with stout? “It’s not a normal beer,” says Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s research and development manager. “You can take 10 sips over 10 minutes and taste something new every time.”

Another dessert beer with the punch of an after-dinner digestif comes from California’s Firestone Walker. Its anniversary ale changes every year but always spotlights the decadent enjoyability of sweeter, “stickier” beers. This year’s XXII release is heavy on malt while packing notes of dark fruit and an herbal, spicy edge.

Some dark dessert beers are brewed with the ingredients of a favorite sweet, giving them the name “pastry stouts.” The Willy Wonka of this category is Sweden’s Omnipollo. “If I didn’t make beer, I’d be a pastry chef,” says co-owner Henok Fentie. “One thing that fascinates me with pastry stouts is how one element instantly signals a dish. Put maple in a beer, and chances are you’ll think of pancakes. Add coffee, and it’s as if you just woke up.” Lorelei Extra Maple—the world’s second-highest-ranked imperial porter on the RateBeer website—provides one such Proustian memory flood.

Maine brewer Barreled Souls, founded by duo Chris Schofield and Matthew Mills, has created unorthodox pastry stouts using anything from bacon to marshmallows. Their secret to making a superlative meal ender? “With dessert beers,” Schofield says, “it’s all about the first impression.”

Bottle Buying Guide: Best New Dessert Beers

Mexican Donut
This imperial stout from Barreled Souls is finished with roasted Fresno chiles as well as vanilla, chocolate, and cinnamon doughnuts from Maine’s beloved Holy Donut shop. 10.1 percent ABV; $12 per bottle

XXII Anniversary Ale
For its 22nd anniversary, Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, Calif., blended miscellaneous strong ales aged in bourbon, rum, and even gin barrels. 12.7 percent ABV; $13

Lorelei Extra Maple
The mad scientists at Omnipollo add the sweet sap to barrel-aged imperial porter to create “the closest thing to drinkable maple syrup.” 10.5 percent ABV; $11.50

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine
This Goose Island limited release, aged in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels, adds flavors from Guatemalan coffee beans. 15.1 percent ABV; from $16

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net

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