Joe Sixpack: Cream of the hop

Posted: January 15, 2010

YOU'VE GOTTA love the scientific mind, circa 1877:

An author identified in the French Journal d' Hygiene as A. Chevallier opined that, if beer is good for you, and milk is good for you, then beer made with milk instead of water has to be even better. His imagined concoction, La Biere de Lait, would combine the restorative qualities of malt and hops with the nutritional components of milk.

With rock-solid logic like that, it's a wonder, in our modern century, we don't drink beer through straws from cartons labeled with pictures of missing kids.

Alas, no one ever devised a palatable milk beer, possibly because brewers found it a lot easier to turn a tap than yank an udder. But they came pretty close with milk stout.

Creamy, wholesome and chocolaty as that glass of Nesquik you used to dunk your Oreos into, milk stout - aka cream stout or sweet stout - seemingly comes straight from the dairy. Yet it contains not an ounce of moo-juice.

The story behind its name goes back even earlier than those grand days of 19th-century milk-and-beer experimentation.

It stems from the age-old practice of adding sugar to beer to create a festive punch or to take the edge off overly tart or sour beer. Yellowed texts speak of sweetening beer with honey or nectar.

In an 1869 treatise, "Cups and their Customs" (Roberts and Porter), there is a description of the "Freemasons Cup," which consisted of a pint of Scotch ale, a pint of mild, a half-pint of brandy, a pint of sherry and a half-pound of sugar. The practice lives even today, in the small children who stir teaspoons of sugar into their low-alcohol faro at Brussels' famed café À La Mort Subite.

Sugar, however, had another benefit: added calories. Medical literature of the 19th century is filled with advice to feed sweetened beer - especially dark, rich stout - to the pale and sickly. Whether the patient had tuberculosis or was simply pregnant, those extra pounds couldn't hurt; if nothing else, the booze certainly dulled the pain.

From that standpoint, Chevallier hardly sounds like a crackpot. Indeed, it was only a matter of time till someone wondered: If brewing beer with milk is out of the question, what if you simply added the essence of milk?

The essence, these deep thinkers suggested, is lactose, or milk sugar.

By the end of the century, several competing scientists had filed for patents for some type of lactose-spiked beer. The idea leaped from theory to practice in 1907, when the Mackeson brewery in England bottled the first milk stout, labeled with an old-fashioned creamery churn.

"Each pint," Mackeson slickly claimed, "contains the energising carbohydrates of ten ounces of pure dairy milk."

One hundred years later, the curative value of sweetened beer has been mostly debunked. We know that lactose contains none of the important fats or proteins (the true essence) of milk, and carbs are a dirty word.

But that doesn't make milk stout any less a marvel.

Lactose will not ferment with typical beer yeast, so its latent sweetness balances the dark ale's roasted malts, typically with a creamy body. Other similar sweet stouts achieve the same quality with sucrose.

Even if it isn't quite La Biere de Lait, surely a pint of richly complex Duck Rabbit Milk Stout from North Carolina or lusciously creamy Lancaster Milk Stout from Amish country is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Here's a few other varieties to fill your cup: Hitachino Nest Sweet Stout (Japan), Samuel Adams Cream Stout (Boston), Left Hand Milk Stout (Colorado), Bell's Special Double Cream Stout (Michigan).

About the original: Sadly, you have to travel to the United Kingdom to taste Mackeson XXX Stout - and even then you'll have to satisfy yourself with a weakened (3 percent alcohol) version packaged in a can.

If you happen to find it in your local distributor, it's almost certainly a year-old bottle brewed under a now-expired arrangement between Mackeson's corporate parent and a U.S. importer. It's probably stale, so don't buy it unless you can wrangle a deep discount.

Join Joe at McKenzie

I'll be guest host at the inaugural beer dinner at McKenzie Brew House (451 Wilmington-West Chester Pike, Glen Mills) on Jan. 21, leading a beer-and-food pairing featuring fresh French- and Belgian-style ales crafted by McKenzie's award-winning brewers, Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson.

Dinner includes five courses matched with farmhouse-style ales, including Saison Vautour, a Belgian-style saison that has won the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival twice in the past three years.

Dinner starts at 7 p.m. Tix are $39. Info and reservations: 610-361-9800.

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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