Trendy Creamy Lactose Won't Go Home

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

But you can’t push lactose ‘round; lactose makes dough.

I really want to hate what lactose is doing to beers. In some implementations, it’s like pouring honey over homemade pasta—an insult to the chef at the very least. But for the brewery, it’s brought in a bunch of non-beer drinkers, which is fantastic. And as far as the taste goes, after telling my inner purist to take a seat, it’s not too hard to see there are some brewers out there making it work with an adept showing of balance.

Lactose, for starters, is simply milk sugar. It’s about a quarter of the sweetness of cane sugar and is, most importantly, nonfermentable. That means that all the sweetness from those sugars finds its way into the beer. Because lactose can be added at any point in the brewing process, with some ingenuity, brewers can turn one batch of their latest brew into two by splitting the beer into two vessels then adding lactose to only one during secondary fermentation.

Opportunity, however, doesn’t equate to success. The reality is most of these lactose-focused pastry beers and milkshake takes are subpar. It makes sense when considering brewing with lactose in most anything aside from Stouts is a recent trend, and the Milk Stout itself only goes back to 1907. Considered the first commercially available Milkshake IPA, Apocalypse Cow from 3 Floyds Brewing Company failed to garner much attention when it came out in 2008 (most likely because it was new rather than being a poor attempt), but now the style is everywhere.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Last year, a lot of people thought the lactose craze had reached its peak. For better or worse, they were mistaken. As I’m writing this piece, I’m drinking Saugatuck Brewing Company’s Blueberry Maple Stout. Even though it’s the well-established Stout-with-lactose style, to me, this beer had everything going against it. I love blueberry pancakes, why would I want the beer version of it?

Is it sweet? Yes. As sweet as syrup? Just about. What the—

Hold on one second, inner purist.

The hint of dryness in the backbone derived from the beer’s malt bill is actually doing a lot of work here in terms of managing the sweetness. I’m able to pull apart the beer on my tongue and more easily identify flavors, as opposed to being lost in too many sweets. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s stretching thin the idea of what is and isn’t a beer, yet there’s thought behind it. Something I can give a nod to and appreciate in both aim and execution. I won’t be hunting these down on a regular basis, but so what? Why does everything thrown at the wall of consumerism need to stick?

To get all sides of the argument, just listen to discussions happening at any brewery taproom. “I feel like both parties are super vocal about it,” says Danny McMahon, head brewer at Hacienda Brewing Company. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘Absolutely not. There’s no point. It shouldn’t be that sweet anyway.’ And then there’s breweries, who I have no issues with, who are like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it in everything.’”

No matter how convincing an argument might be for or against lactose beers, the fact is the machine has no shutoff, and no one knows how much gas is in the tank. We’re all riding it out, but some are actually enjoying themselves. Though after cracking open another beer—cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, and lactose—I’m rethinking my optimism. This beer is a mess, like Mr. Creosote’s dinner from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life—the entire menu mixed up in a bucket. Flavors that work well in tandem crash through the palate with no desire for harmony.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Matt Sampson, in charge of fermentation and branding and marketing for Hacienda, says, “A lot of breweries pair lactose with vanilla, which also tricks your mind into thinking the beer is sweet by itself. We feel it’s often way over the top—could be done extremely well, but we think lactose by itself adds enough sweetness and creaminess.” I’m more than inclined to agree.

Another point Danny brings up is that overdoing lactose affects drinkability, the quality of being able to drink more than one of a beer without feeling full. “Without the vanilla, you can definitely have a couple and not feel like it’s sitting in you, weighing you down.”

What I think we’re seeing on the bad side of lactose brewing is burdened further by people trying to get in on the getting because the getting’s good. So maybe they think about flavors that they like outside of beer that are sweet: candy, pastry, and mallow. Then they try to make the beer by throwing the same ingredients in there. In my opinion, it’s a novelty, and that’s just not what I look for as a beer drinker.

Back on the other side of the fence, Maplewood Brewery & Distillery has a rice crispy treat beer called Krispie Cakes that straddles the line between satisfying and overbearing quite well. The approach feels more like the brewers asked themselves what type of flavors lactose lends itself to.

That same is demonstrated in Hacienda’s endeavors. “We use lactose to draw inspiration from those types of beverages that typically have sugar added, whether it’s a cocktail or morning beverage,” says Matt. “We do a lactose tea IPA series. We started it based on a Thai iced tea that has Thai black tea and lactose added with condensed milk.”

Danny brings up that they were going to also feature beers designed around cocktails that have egg whites in them. “We were going to do a Gin Fizz IPA with lemon-lime and lactose.” COVID-19 put that one on hold for now, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

Lifetime beer drinkers might feel the need to push back against these changes, and I get it. That was my instinct as well. But perhaps even the most harmless blip on the radar of decorum would be better met with direction toward mindfulness and intention rather than flat out rejection.

To the sinking stones—may we soon learn to swim.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Hacienda Brewing treats lactose like a grain, and you owe it to yourself to experience their canny lineup. Danny and Matt also recommend beers from:

Eagle Park Brewing
Maplewood Brewery & Distillery
1840 Brewing Company
Vennture Brewing
Untitled Art