Sweetness is one of the primary tastes and, in moderation, most people enjoy a bit of sweetness now and again. We have evolved this way, as sweet foods tend to be energy-dense, so that even newborn infants show preference for sweeter milks.
In the beer world, sweetness tends to be a function of the interplay between malt and yeast. Whatever sugars remain after fermentation will provide sweetness and body to the beer. These sugars balance bitterness from hops or roasted malts (in dark beers) and can complement spicy or fruity contributions from particular ale yeasts.
In stronger beers, like Trappist ales, German bocks, English old ales and Russian imperial stouts, the sweetness generally results from the yeast hitting its maximum alcohol tolerance before all the sugars are used up. In mid-range beers, like pale ales and ambers, sweetness generally comes from caramelized malts, which contain complex sugars that yeasts cannot ferment.
But there is another type of unfermentable sugar that brewers can add directly to their beers to produce a sweeter, more full-bodied final product without boosting the alcohol content: lactose. British brewers began adding lactose (or milk sugar) to their stouts in the late nineteenth century to create a style called sweet stout or milk stout. This was one of the most popular styles in mid-century U.K. and was thought to be particularly good for nursing mothers. Mackeson XXX Stout(5%) is a classic example that has been made for more than a century.
The style has gone into decline in the U.K., but as with many trends in the beer world, North American and Scandinavian brewers have taken it to new places. First, they began to infuse the sweet stout with a nitrogen gas blend (an innovation pioneered by Guinness for their dry stouts in the 1950s), producing an even creamier mouthfeel that works beautifully with the style. Around 2010, Left Hand Brewing Company developed a method to put nitrogen widgets in bottles and their Milk Stout Nitro (6%) has become representative of the style and is available in Japan. This stout will particularly appeal to people who take their coffee with milk and sugar – creamy, “chocolaty” and rather low bitterness.
Another innovation that has taken off in North America is to add lactose to the NE IPA style I highlighted in the last column (Traveler Issue #64, Summer 2017), often in combination with vanilla and fruits, creating a new style called the “milkshake IPA.” This playful name originally came from a criticism of the hazy NE IPAs made by Tired Hands Brewing Companyoutside Philadelphia, but their brewer, Jean Brouillet IV, decided to turn it into a trademark. In a series of collaborations with Omnipollo, an innovative Swedish brewery who had already been developing a line of “Smoothie IPAs,” Brouillet created a trend for these super-hazy, creamy, slightly sweet and often fruit-forward IPAs. I am not aware of any Japanese examples yet, but if you are traveling in North America, Europe, Australia or New Zealand keep an eye out for this interesting new style.