Every Wednesday, Adam Cowden brings you The Man Who Invented Beer, where he breaks down the latest in craft brewing, usually with a history lesson for flavor.
Studies have shown that beer preferences are intimately linked to cultural exposure, membership social groups and experience/upbringing. This is more than fluff; your choice in beer has been shown to be a fairly reliable predictor of your political leanings and voting reliability. I have yet to see a study on the correlation between beer preference and music preference, but then again, who needs one? If you listen to Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel, it’s a pretty safe bet that PBR is your poison of preference. If you prefer Skynyrd and Zac Brown…well, you’re probably drinking warm PBR. There is one musical culture, however, whose members have managed to really nail the beer thing. These long-haired, fiercely-tattooed, death-and-destruction-obsessed maniacs prefer beer that is robust, flavorful, strong, and just as dark as their music. I’m talking, of course, about metalheads. This past weekend, I found myself at Lockdown Bar and Grill in Chicago’s Ukranian Village. The soundtrack was both frightening and intoxicating, but the Left Hand Milk Stout I enjoyed…well, that was just one of those two.
What’s the story?
Left Hand Brewery was incorporated in Longmont, Colorado in September of 1993 under the name “Indian Peaks Brewing Company.” Indian Peaks was the brainchild of two college buddies (starting to notice a pattern?) named Dick Doore and Eric Wallace, whose interest in brewing reportedly began when Dick Doore received a homebrewing kit as a Christmas present in 1990. Shortly after beginning operations, Indian Peaks Brewery was forced to change their name due to a conflict of interest with another brewery using “Indian Peaks” as a name for one of their beers. They decided to re-christen the brewery in honor of a chief whose tribe used to winter in the area, Chief Niwot, whose name in Arapahoe means “left hand.” Left Hand’s first beer, Sawtooth Ale, took home a gold medal in the Great American Beer Festival in October 1994, and now, just shy of 20 years later, they’re the proud owners of “18 medals & 1 honorable mention at the Great American Beer Festival, 8 medals at the World Beer Cup, 4 medals at the European Beer Star (3 gold), (3 gold), a Gold Medal at the International Stockholm Beer & Whiskey Festival, and a growing loyal customer base in 26 states and throughout Europe.”
Left Hand’s Milk Stout is their most popular and best-selling beer. Milk/Sweet stout arose around the same time that dry Irish stouts such as Guinness were taking shape, and allegedly can be traced back to the practice of blending stout with milk in the UK during the 1800s. Stout and porter were staples in the lunches of UK workers, and the addition of milk added both sweetness and calories to their drinks. Some brewers began to experiment with adding unfermented sugars to stout to counteract the drink’s bitter/dry character, and lactose (the unfermentable sugar found in milk) became a popular choice. Milk stouts such as Mackeson’s were originally marketed as healthy and nutritious, and claimed to contain “the energizing carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk.” Much like Guinness, milk stout was recommended by doctors to nursing mothers. Shortly after WWII, however, the British government outlawed any such health claims and forbade milk-related advertising for sweet stouts. Today, Mackeson’s Milk Stout is known as Mackeson’s XXX stout. The American craft-beer Renaissance has seen a resurgence in the popularity of sweet/milk stouts, and there are quite a few highly-rated varieties on the market, though Left Hand’s is probably the most popular and widely available.
Why should I drink it?
Any actual health benefits you might glean from drinking a milk stout are negligible, but that doesn’t mean it won’t taste great. If you’re thinking of picking up a six-pack in this style, you should know that Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro in a bottle is kind of a big deal. Left Hand boasts that they are the first American brewer to release a nitro beer in a bottle, and, at least to my knowledge, they are the only brewer other than Guinness to successfully bottle a nitro-carbonated without the use of a widget. Guinness pioneered the use of nitro-carbonation in beer, and in the 1980s invented the Queen’s Technological Achievement Award-winning nitrogen-widget that allowed for nitro-carbonation of canned beer. A widget for bottled Guinness soon followed, and only recently did the company roll out widget-free bottled Guinness Draught. Having recently had the widget-free Guinness in a bottle, I regrettably have to report that it tasted like ass. Bitter, fizzy and watery, this variety tasted nothing like Guinness on tap.
When I first saw Left Hand Milk Stout nitro in a widget-free bottle, I had serious doubts. The cashier though, couldn’t recommend it highly enough and described as “milkshake-like,” so I decided to give it a shot. I was more than pleasantly surprised — the bottled Left Hand Milk Stout is everything that a nitro-stout should be. The exact method used by Left Hand to achieve this feat is being kept a secret, though it reportedly involves adding gas to the beer at several different stages throughout the brewing/bottling process. The key to achieving the perfect, creamy nitro-head is to “pour hard” — that is, to invert the bottle completely and let it pour quickly into the glass. If you’re confused, Left Hand has you covered: the beer’s label includes a QR code linking to a video explaining how it should be poured. I don’t know what they did to make this work, but I can only hope that Guinness follows suit.
What does it taste like?
Left Hand Milk Stout tastes like how a Guinness looks like it would taste. When I hear Guinness described as a “chocolate milkshake,” I understand the sentiment, but have to mostly ascribe the comparison to wishful thinking. The smooth texture and creamy white head sure make it look like one, but in terms of taste it’s very dry and not-sweet. Left Hand Milk Stout still doesn’t taste like a chocolate milkshake —and it shouldn’t; it’s a beer — but all of the flavors are certainly there. Where Guinness is coffee, Left Hand Milk Stout is chocolate, and where Guinness is dry/bitter, Left Hand Milk Stout is wet/sweet. The chocolate and lactose sweetness are not overwhelming, though, and do not dominate your mouth in the way that the sugars Belgian/Lambic beers do.
The roasted caramel malt flavor is still very evident, though this is not overwhelming either. In accordance with the style, nearly all hop bitterness is masked by the slight roasted bitterness and more prominent lactic sweetness. All in all, this beer steps perfectly in line with Left Hand’s philosophy of balance; there are lots of flavors going on, but none of them dominate the beer, and the final result is much mellower than you might expect. This is ultimately a great virtue, because the beer succeeds in being sweet, tasty, and complex while avoiding the pitfall of being too heavy or “big” to enjoy a few in succession.
At Lockdown, I had my Milk Stout served from nitro-tap, though I’ve also had it from a nitro-bottle and a regular bottle. Served from a nitro tap, it has nearly the exact same silky-smooth mouthfeel and consistency as a Guinness, and as mentioned previously, the widget-less Left Hand nitro bottles do a much superior job at replicating the nitro-tap than the widget-less Guinness nitro-bottles. My only complaint with the nitro version of Left Hand Milk Stout is that the nitro seems to rob it of almost all the aroma. It’s a small, subtle complaint, but I actually do remember the toasty, chocolatey aroma of the regular version being exceptionally good. If you have to pick, though, I’d say go for the nitro over the regular version. The velvety texture and whipped cream-like head more than make up for any missing aroma.
Should I try it?
Yes. This, in my opinion, is one of the top five American stouts. Stouts are very popular among American craft brewers, and there are certainly heftier, bolder, more complex American stouts on the market, but none are more enjoyable than Left Hand’s. Left Hand Milk Stout is the only American stout to come in a nitro-bottle, and as a Guinness guy, I believe that stout and nitro go hand in hand. The silky-smooth mouthfeel and white cream-dollop head courtesy of the nitro act as perfect counterpoints to the sharp roasted flavors that characterize the style. Left Hand Milk Stout is superbly balanced, drinkable but robust at 6% ABV, and nearly impossible not to like. Do yourself a favor and pick up a 6-pack, and please order one if you ever happen upon it served on tap.