Adding Lactose to Beer

Milk and sugar? They’re ingredients you’d expect to add to tea, not beer.

However, many brewers are doing just that, by supplementing their beer’s body and sweetness with lactose, a complex sugar found in milk.

However, adding lactose is far from the latest way for craft brewers to push the boundaries of beer. In fact, brewers in Britain have been doing it for at least a century.

There’s even evidence before then that milk was mixed with dark beer, such as stout, to create a fortifying lunchtime drink for workers. Thankfully, these likely-curdled cocktails were put to rest when lactose was isolated and added to stout recipes instead.

These “milk” or “cream” stouts were typically low in alcohol–as little as 2% ABV–yet rich and sweet from the lactose and low hop additions. As such, they were even deemed a healthy drink for breastfeeding mothers.

Like many beer styles, milk stout fell out of favour when lager began to dominate global sales, but was then picked up again by the growing legion of 21st-century craft brewers–particularly over the past five years or so.

First came the craft milk stouts, higher in alcohol (typically 4-6% ABV) with more malt roastiness balancing out the sweetness; the overall effect can taste a lot like coffee and cream. It’s a hearty, almost decadent beer to take your time over on a cool evening, and despite its lower alcohol level, can pair nicely with fruity desserts. If you don’t think you like dark beers, a milk stout will likely convert you.

Of course, it wasn’t long before brewers thought about adding lactose to other styles–and so, one of the latest trends in craft beer was born: the milkshake IPA.

Thankfully, it’s not a return to those milk/beer cocktails. These opaque orange ales are brewed with bags full of hop varietals such as Citra, Galaxy and Mosaic that are known for their citrus- and tropical-fruit characteristics. The hops are added late in the boil to preserve their aromatic qualities and keep bitterness to a minimum. They’re usually also steeped in the beer during fermentation (a process known as dry-hopping) for even more fruity hop presence.

What really sets milkshake IPAs apart though is the inclusion of lactose, which lends the beer a creamy quality and lingering sweetness. Often, oats are also added to lend a silkiness to the mouthfeel, while some of these beers even contain vanilla to enhance the cream soda-style effect.

Taken all together, the creamy fruitiness can be discombobulating. The traditional American IPA has a reputation for being crisp, dry and bitter, but milkshake IPAs are the direct opposite: rich, full-bodied and sweet. Along with the recent trend for “juicy” IPAs, which also have a reduced bitterness, ample body and full fruitiness, milkshake IPAs have been described as a new entry point into the craft market for drinkers who may not necessarily like the bitter bite that’s found so often in craft beer.

So, as per the milk stouts, if you don’t think you like IPAs, a milkshake IPA could well convert you.

Beer purists may frown at this perceived dumbing down of the American IPA, which is now effectively regarded as a classic style. But let’s be honest, adding lactose to IPA isn’t that far removed from adding it to a stout.

It should also be mentioned that it’s not just the brewers of Britain who have a history of modifying their beer with sugar. The Belgians, regarded by many as the original craft brewers due to their disdain for set styles, have long used simple, fermentable sugars in their recipes to lighten body and dry out a beer’s finish.

Lactose, again deals in the opposite. This complex sugar can’t be fermented by beer yeast, and so any beer in which it resides will retain its richness and sweetness.

As with all beer, balance is vital. Too much lactose and the beer will become thick and cloying. However, when used sparingly, lactose sugar lends a lightly sweet, almost nourishing-tasting boost to these beers.

It’s yet another example of craft brewers pushing the envelope; but this time, using an ingredient that has a long-standing tradition in brewing.