My Milk Stout – One Month On…

Mmmmilk Stout

Last month, I frantically set out to brew a batch of Milk Stout in time for the Beau’s Oktoberfest Homebrew Competition. Looking back at the past few weeks, I basically showed myself how not to brew a beer. The fact that I sit here, 24 hours before I have to submit my bottles, with something that is remotely close to falling within the stylistic guidelines of a sweet stout is nothing short of… well, luck.

I knew that it would be a bit of a tall order from the get-go. I had brewed a Milk Stout once before, and after about six and a half weeks it came together into something that I really enjoyed. This time around I had four weeks, from start to finish, and I felt the pressure.

Things started off great. I was very happy with how the brewing process went; I even got more sugar out of my grains than I had expected. The wort tasted nice. The yeast went to work like gangbusters. It was all coming up Millhouse. After a week, however, the weather changed and the temperature in my apartment became almost unbearable for me – imagine what it was like for my poor yeast!  Clearly fed up with their working conditions, said poor yeast decided to go on strike, leaving me with quite the predicament.

A stuck fermentation occurs when the yeast in your batch of soon-to-be-beer go dormant before finishing the job of converting sugars to alcohol. There are a number of things that can cause this to happen, but in my case, it was probably a mix of the heat and the fact that I racked my beer into the secondary fermentor way too early (again trying to cut some corners). Once this happens, there are only a handful of viable solutions that one can explore. Firstly, gently disturbing the yeast-bed by tilting the fermentor, being careful not to introduce any more oxygen into the wort, may sometimes coerce the bugs to get back to work. Tried it; no dice. A second technique is raising the temperature slightly (keep in mind that the hot weather was followed by cool, autumn-like weather, which allowed my liquid to cool down to an appropriate temperature), but I didn’t want to risk damaging the beer or producing off flavours. I opted instead to re-pitch some yeast.

At this time, the yeast had already created an almost 2% alcohol content in the batch. If I were to go out, buy a new package of yeast and toss it in to the mix, chances are the ‘unfriendly conditions’ would have annihilated them (or at least that is my understanding). In order to successfully reintroduce yeast to the batch, I decided that I would have to make a starter – think a mini-batch of beer designed, in this case, to accustom my yeast to alcoholic conditions. Rather than buying another package of yeast for this starter, I decided to harvest some from the bottom of my fermentor and hope that it would get going again. After a few days of sweating, it was clear that the yeast was active, so with fingers crossed, I re-pitched.

Thankfully, signs of life returned to the batch and slowly, but surely, the sugar content began to reduce once more. The key word in the last sentence, was slowly.

Worried next about getting the beer into bottles in time for it to develop some carbonation and more body, I decided to play mad-scientist. I would separate my beer into three small batches, hoping to better my odds at having one contest-worthy end product. I bottled one batch without any additions, a second with an in-bottle starter and a third I let ferment in a bucket for a few more days, added white and dark baker’s chocolate and then bottled. It was a bit of a crap-shoot, but I figured that each beer would end up in the range of 4-5% alcohol, probably a little sweeter than I had hoped. Nevertheless, if any of them weren’t boring and had nice flavour, I would consider it a victory.

So here I am – nervous as hell. I have three specimens in front of me – let me take you along for the ride.

The taster

Specimen A –

Still a little bit too young. Pours opaque – have to try really hard for much of a head. Chocolate, coconut, mild esters and roasted grain aroma – some diacetyl (butter popcorn), which isn’t uncommon when using Irish Ale yeast. Flavour is all chocolate upfront, with coffee, coconut, roasted grain – very sweet, very creamy. A little bit more bitter than I would have liked, but still very pleasant. Fairly good body, but very little carbonation. Could use another week or two at least. Overall, this is the best beer out of the lot, but sadly it isn’t quite ready.

Specimen B –

Raring to go. Borderline bottle-bomb from the in-bottle starter. Pours opaque with a beautiful inch-thick tan head. Aroma disappointingly, but not surprisingly, has a significant diacetyl element. Chocolate, dark grain and coffee also present. The flavour is predominantly chocolate with coffee, grain and some faint coconut. There is a bit more of a fruitiness than I would have hoped, but certainly less bitter than the first. This beer is more or less ready, but is definitely not on the same level as specimen A.

Specimen C –

Nowhere near ready to go. The white chocolate is still way too present. Needs a tonne of time to mellow out. Ask me again in November.

So where does that leave things? Well firstly, I plan to over-think things for the next couple of hours. Then I will change my mind three or four times – but in the end, I think I will probably lean towards the first one. Why? If I’ve learned a lesson from all of this, for one thing it is to: ‘plan better next time you idiot’, but more importantly to not try to force beer into being something it isn’t. The first bottle is the closest and purest version of the Milk Stout. Of all of the characteristics that I wanted, save for a little more maturation, it delivers.

As I sit here next to my most recent batch of beer, brewed on Tuesday of this week, watching the lid of the bucket bulge from the fermentation gas, I have made myself promise not to touch it for at least two weeks. Trust your ingredients and let the beer do its thing.