Stone Brewing Company recently released freshly brewed batches of their seasonal favorite, Stone Coffee Milk Stout. While the recipe remains essentially the same, this year the bittersweet, creamy, coffee-laced stout has a slightly elevated alcohol content, ringing in at 5 percent alcohol by volume, and features a heftier mouthfeel.
Stone Coffee Milk Stout, these days, is a perennial favorite, but, like most craft beers, it has humble beginnings. Brian Gallagher, its creator, was a humble California-based home brewer who happened to meet someone who was starting up a coffee roastery at a highland games competition. The two became friends and they worked out a recipe for a coffee milk stout over several years—a recipe that eventually went onto win home brewing competitions.
Brian was later hired on as an assistant brewer at Stone Brewing Company and refined his recipe for the brewery. Originally named “Gallagher’s After Dinner Stout,” the recipe was formulated and brewed by award-winning home brewer, Brian Gallagher, on the 10-barrel pilot system at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station as a one-off, limited-release offering. The beer was an instant hit with Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele and company co-founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner. After the success of this pilot batch, Stone proceeded to add this beer to its newly minted seasonal line for a limited production on their main system.
The final recipe for this beer has all of the refinements of both the homebrew recipe and the Stone pilot batch. The full production batch uses Ryan Bros’ Coffee from San Diego, Magnum hops, British mild ale malt, and milk sugar. Unlike other coffee beers, they add the coffee beans directly into the mash, which allows the coffee flavors to steep out with the malts. “To make this beer stand out from others, I added coffee beans at a very early stage in the brewing process, which helped bring out the roast character from the coffee, while eliminating bitter acidity and astringency,” recalls Gallagher.
The English mild ale malts help give this brew some extra body and the milk sugars, which are not fermentable by brewers yeast, add a touch of sweetness. Magnum hops bring a clean bitterness, gently contrasting with the beer’s malt-forward qualities.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping Stone Coffee Milk Stout – a collaboration from San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company and Ryan Bros Coffee. Feel free to pull up a chair.
style: English-style Coffee Milk Stout
color: Chocolate Brown
ingredients: Coffee, Mild Ale Malt, Magnum Hops, Milk Sugar
Pouring the Stone Coffee Milk Stout into my tulip, visually speaking, it is a dark, dark brown—almost black—and, after a fairly vigorous pour, is topped by a thick, bubbly, mocha-colored head. The head dissipates pretty quickly, but doesn’t disappear all together; it clings to the glass and showcases a moderate lacing.
It has a subtle aroma—very subdued, compared to other coffee-infused stouts—which features notes of, of course, roasted coffee (more like coffee-roast, actually), barley, malt, tobacco, and baker’s chocolate.
The flavor follows the nose, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Very sweet flavors of brown sugar, milk chocolate, vanilla, bittersweet dark chocolate, and milk sugar are all present, but so are some pretty unpleasant notes of burnt coffee. The beer is very roasty, which makes it much more bitter than it is sweet. It pains me to say that that roast is a direct result of the coffee component; I can taste the beer’s malts separately and they are pretty lightly toasted—definitely not over-roasted.
That roastiness also gives the beer something of an oily mouthfeel, which makes it taste cheap. It’s a thick mouthfeel, to be sure, but not so thick that it covers the beer’s low level of carbonation.
Medium body; oily mouthfeel; no acidity; clean finish.
I had really high hopes for the Stone Coffee Milk Stout; this is Stone Brewing Company we’re talking about, after all—they craft some of the finest brews on the market today. Stone IPA, Ruination IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Delicious IPA… They’re all, well, delicious! (I’ve not had their Smoked Porter, so I can’t say for sure, but…) It seems that Stone’s strengths reside within their hop-forward beers, and maybe not so much their malt-forward beers.
Stone Coffee Milk Stout had all the trappings of a good beer, but it was the ingredients, I think, that was its biggest downfall. Without the coffee component, this might have been a very tasty beer—it is creamy, sweet, just enough roast on the barley and malts; the coffee, though, was just not up to snuff.
Personally, I think Stone should have instead enlisted the likes of another San Diego-based craft roastery—like Bird Rock Coffee, or Dark Horse, or even Caffe Calabria. This beer probably would have been a lot more successful with a specialty-grade natural Sidama; the creaminess and the berries of a natural Ardi, for example, would have made this a divine dessert stout.
Instead, Stone Coffee Milk Stout is a bitter missed opportunity; it tasted cheap and ordinary. The kind of coffee-infused stout where no thought went into the coffee selection as a complement to the beer. Stone wanted “that generic coffee flavor” as a flavor note and, unfortunately, the beer suffers because of it.