Shut Up And Drink Your Dessert: Pastry Beers Part 2

In part one of this deep dive into the world of pastry beers, we looked at what they are, where they came from, and how they’re made.

In part two, we’ll explore why they’re so appealing and who’s drinking them; what brewers are trying to achieve with pastry beers, and how they’d respond to people who think they’re "not real beer"; why they’re expensive and how many calories you might expect to find in one. (Warning: it is not a small number.)


WHAT'S THE APPEAL?

Pastry beers have a "wow" factor.

It’s genuinely difficult to take a sip of a proper pastry beer and not say" “Wow.”

More often than not, these beers deliver an array of flavours you’re not expecting in a beer (even when it’s written right there on the label) at an intensity you’re not expecting (even if someone tells you immediately before you take a sip). And all of this is typically brought together in a drink that looks as outrageous as it tastes, whether it’s dark brown sludge or bright pink mousse.

Nick Calder-Scholes is the brewer responsible for the ever-escalating insanity in One Drop’s special releases.

“If we’ve put in, say, mango, guava, banana… I want you to taste all three of those, but I also want you to look at it and go, ‘Whoa, okay, that’s a thing. That’s a big, thick beer.’ It’s an experience beyond just taste. There’s a bit of theatre as well,” he says.

As much as we might love traditional styles, beers such as Munich helles, Irish red ales or Belgian dubbels aren’t designed to trigger the extreme responses these saccharine sasquatches do.

Dayvid Clark, co-owner and manager of Melbourne’s Beermash, says: “You just watch people’s faces as they drink these ridiculously delicious pastry stouts compared to a regular stout. It’s a completely different experience, a completely different reaction. It’s that decadent factor, which just brings you absolute joy.”

Dayvid is constantly seeing punters fall in love with such beers, and he talks about "the spectrum of silliness" and "how ridiculous these beers are" with a real warmth. According to him, people often don’t walk into a bar looking for pastry beers, but they stumble across them and are transfixed.

“Your eyes light up when you see certain keywords,” says Dayvid. “It might say ‘marshmallow’, ‘hazelnut’, ‘fluffy’ ‘sprinkles’ – things that sound like lollies.

“I made a beer recently with Bad Shepherd and it was a peanut butter, chocolate and caramel brownie imperial porter. People might not necessarily think ‘I want to drink that’… but at the point they see that, they think, ‘Well, I need to try that.’ It’s like if you go to the ice cream shop and you see a flavour you’ve never heard of, you’re like, ‘Well, I need to try that.’”

 

Dayvid Clark at Beermash loves that pastry beers exist, and loves that people love them.

 

He tells a story of watching a chain reaction of people discovering a new flavour at Beermash.

“A customer of mine purchased a hazelnut imperial stout, he had a sip and he said, ‘Holy fuck, this is amazing.’ And there were all these people sitting on their own in the bar in the afternoon, and he let everyone have a sip of it, because it was so delicious. And the next thing you know, ten minutes later, everybody’s got that same beer in front of them.

“Nobody came here thinking that they wanted that. But you can’t not have that experience – if you see it, if it’s there in your face.”

These are big beers you wouldn’t buy by the four-pack. Heck, some of them you might not be able to drink a whole one. But you’ve just got to try it. It’s an experience worth having – and worth talking about.


Pastry beers are good for sharing.

Beer has always been a social drink, and craft beer has always been a product that invites you to discuss it with your drinking buddies. But when you have your mind blown with the first sip of a rocky road pastry stout as you taste chocolate and marshmallow and cherry and peanuts and Turkish delight… you simply cannot keep it to yourself. You want, you need, to share this experience with someone.

“There’s something about beer that’s a very inclusive thing,” says Ross Kenrick of Bacchus Brewing (pictured below). “People want to share the experiences of the flavours… I can never remember going somewhere and seeing an espresso martini handed round ten people to try.”

Ross has been known as the Willy Wonka of the Aussie beer scene for years. Not only has he been making specialty dessert beers longer than most, but he has a reputation for being able to reproduce flavours of popular desserts and confectionery in an uncanny way: the schnozberries taste like schnozberries. So it’s no surprise he sees customers at the Bacchus taproom sharing these beers around, especially over the last few years as he’s been creating bigger, pastrified versions of his beers.

“We’ve normally got 70 different beers in cans here,” he says. “A group of people can buy a can of RocknRoada, or a pastry coffee stout or something, and share it amongst them. You can enjoy a much smaller amount [of a pastry beer], and really enjoy the flavour that it gives.”

 

Ross Kenrick wants it to be easy for anyone to find a beer they like at Bacchus.

 

Pastry beers are accessible to everyone.

Most beers are an acquired taste, often due to the hoppy flavour and bitterness. Pastry beers don’t have this hurdle: the adjunct flavours of chocolate, confectionery, and fruits are familiar, and the sweetness hides the bitterness. People can enjoy the flavour of a pastry beer the first time they ever try one.

In a time when self-professed non-beer drinkers are going to brewery taprooms, often with a beer-drinking partner or as part of a group, it’s inclusive and satisfying for these people when they find a beer they enjoy.

“Sours open up beers to a lot more people, as do the chocolate beers. [Especially] the bigger, or the more like it is to a true chocolate,” Ross says. “If you give someone just a dark beer, like a Tooheys Old or something else, it’s still very ‘beery’. But you give them something like a Snickers beer where you’re getting all that caramel and chocolate and peanut, you really are getting away from the ‘normal’ beer flavour. And it wows people, if they’re not expecting to enjoy a beer, and finding there is one they like.”

Fruited sour beers have been converting non-beer drinkers with their surprising flavour notes for a few years now. When it comes to pastry and smoothie sours that are pumped with up to 40 percent fruit puree (and lactose and vanilla), this effect is amplified.

Ross says, “If you enjoy a fruit juice, you seriously can’t be offended by drinking one.”


Pastry beers are nostalgic and comfortable.

When you focus on the beer world, it’s easy to talk about pastry beers as offering new flavours and an experience people have never had before. But when you focus on the actual flavours these products offer, you find they tap into something old and familiar, something more than just a beer. You find comfort food. You find good memories. You get transported to a joyful time in your life.

Dayvid says: “You don’t sit there thinking about, ‘I really feel like toasted marshmallow peanut butter beer.’ But then when you see that you think, ‘Whenever I’ve had those things, I’ve had a good experience in my life. So let’s drink that right now.’”

This was a big factor of the rise of pastry beers in Australia, Dayvid reckons, as the COVID lockdowns in 2020 had everyone seeking comfort.

“We all needed serotonin, we needed something. Booze was a big factor for a lot of people, but also treats. And I think that’s where, in the winter time, the pastry stouts really kicked off here. I remember watching all the breweries releasing things that were parallel or inspired by trusted desserts… That trusted nostalgia.

“And it works! You’re drinking a liquid version of that thing.”

 

Carwyn Cellars' 24 Hour Bakery event had them pairing pastry beers with pastries. It seems no one told them: "Never go full pastry."

Pastry beers are fun.

We talk about brewers putting in blood, sweat and tears. But how about putting in laughter?

Pastry beers are a chance for brewers (and drinkers) to play. To say: "Let’s get stupid. Let’s not take things so seriously." They’re especially good for collaborative brews – if brewers are going to get together to brew a beer, they want to have a good time. Well, throwing around absurd ideas and throwing raspberry candy or whole cupcakes into a beer is a good time.

“It’s playful!” Nick says. “We don’t play enough as adults any more.”

Breweries and bars are also finding ways to dial up the indulgence even further: think events where pastry beers are paired with actual pastries, run through soft serve machines to make pastry beer ice cream, or given a burnt meringue top as per this year's GABS People's Choice winner.

“I just wanted to see what was possible,” Nick says about experimenting with beer soft serve at One Drop’s taproom (see the middle photo of the title image). “And these beers were perfect for it" high fruit content, high sugar, flavours that tend to work well in that format. And it worked really well for us. Our customers lost it!

“Parents are always doing stuff for their kids. But adults forget to play a little bit. And if you can have a pastry sour in an ice cream form… it’s a playful experience.”

The marketing and social media aspect of pastry beers opens up a world of opportunity, too. With beers called things like Double Vanilla Custard Pancake Imperial Nitro Thickshake IPA, One Drop know they’re attracting attention.

“That’s the closest we came to using a beer as a marketing stunt,” he says. “I wouldn’t say gimmicky, but quite playful and off-topic of beer.”

Long beer names like this are a way to convey the ridiculousness of the beers they’re making. A huge beer name crammed full of words tells you this is a huge beer crammed full of ingredients. It also tells you the brewers know how to poke fun at themselves.

And with pastry beers, the playfulness stretches beyond the funny names and whimsical artwork on labels (which are nothing new in the craft beer world). These beers are often social media darlings.

Mesmerising blueberry pie sours that glow nuclear purple to strawberry milkshake IPAs just begging to be topped with whipped cream. Pastry stouts poured to overflowing, their viscous liquid spilling over the sides and onto the table. All kinds of beers styled with the fruits and candy and desserts that share their name. Half the time the imagery shows those ingredients being plopped into the glass of beer, whether it be whole fruits or whole cupcakes, and the beer splashing into the air or oozing over the edge of the glass to give that feeling of abundance – like a simple glass can’t contain this banquet of a beer.

It’s all very gluttonous, very Henry VIII. And no one’s apologising for that.

And then there are the memes: breweries mocking their own beers, taking the piss out of their customers, and playfully batting away their critics. American breweries with larger marketing budgets post more memes than Australian breweries do, but I like the tone of the local ones better: in Australia, making fun of ourselves is an artform, making fun of people we love is a show of affection, and making fun of haters is how we say: "I’m happy with my choices, thank you very much."


Pastry beers are as photogenic as they come.

WHO'S DRINKING THEM?

An astonishingly wide spread of people, it seems.

At Beermash, Dayvid has a front row seat to the wide spread of drinkers enjoying pastry beers. He does see the craft beer veterans searching for something new - “People who have tried all the normal beers, and they know this West Coast IPA is going to taste like the next West Coast IPA, or this hazy’s going to taste like that hazy” – but also those who are just starting out on their craft beer journey, or who he’d normally consider as mainstream drinkers.

He sees people driven more by their sweet tooth than any allegiance to beer.

“I had some crew in the other day who were going out to cocktail bars but couldn’t get in anywhere, so they came in and asked for a sweet stout - the sweetest stout I had," he says. "Maybe they like sweet spirits. Maybe they drink Baileys or something.”

He sees that it isn’t restricted to young people: “There are people in their 60s and 70s frothing on this stuff.” 

And he’s seen a lot of love for pastry beers from people who… let’s just say "enjoy using herbal remedies for relaxation".

There certainly seems to be a broad appeal for these kinds of beers: everyone I talked to just kept coming back to how utterly accessible and inclusive they are; perfect for inviting people into the fold.

Ross sees pastry beers winning over the most unlikely of people at Bacchus.

“People come in here, pretty well defined XXXX drinkers, and we’ll suddenly find they’ll have one of the big pastry stouts that’s on tap and be absolutely blown away by it, and become absolute convert.”

He told me a story about a woman who came with a group to Brumalia, Bacchus’ dark beer festival, announcing that she didn’t like beer – and definitely not dark beer. But she ended up drinking a spider made with pastry stout and ice cream… and another one, and another one.

“She just absolutely adored them. These pastry stouts add a sweetness, people have put off beers by the bitterness, I think having the sweeter option opened it up to more palates.”

Of course, that customer is unlikely to wake up the next day wanting to chase down Munich dunkels and Belgian dubbels. But taking that step from "I don’t like beer" to "I had a great time drinking delicious beers at a brewery" is a significant one. A category of beer that encourages diehard drinkers of commercial lagers to branch out and try different styles, and gets self-professed beer haters to think: "If I like this, maybe there are other beers I’d like, too" … that’s something.

“I think the pastry beer is opening up the beer market,” Ross says. “It becomes a lot more encompassing.”


WHAT ARE BREWERS AIMING FOR?

It was interesting to hear how each brewery approaches pastry beers from a different angle, with a different goal in mind. Maybe it’s because pastry beers are still in their infancy; maybe it’s because they’re so far out that everything is still trial and error; maybe it’s because pastry beers have more room for experimentation than more defined styles, and so brewers simply do what they want as they attempt to tame this amorphous creature from the great unknown and bend it to their will.

Everyone I spoke to shared some things in common: they cared deeply about making high quality beer they could be proud of, and they all talked about the balance of flavours. Maybe not the kind of balance like someone walking a tightrope; more like the kind of balance of a juggler on a unicycle with a chainsaw, a watermelon and a chicken. If the balance is slightly off, you’ll still get a great show. But if the balance is off in a different way you may get a kind of mess you wish you weren’t there for.

With that locked down, each brewery brings nuanced philosophies and end goals to their approach. At Bacchus, it’s all about the food or drink they want to replicate, the vibe they want to capture. Take their Peanut Brittle Imperial Gose, for example. The idea wasn’t to take an imperial stout and add flavours of peanut brittle; it was to create a peanut brittle beer. And the nearest style that Ross landed on to help carry those flavours was a gose.

“If you make a peanut brittle, it’s like peanut brittle. Not just peanut notes and a faint bit of caramel. To emulate the pastry, we’ve always tried to emulate that flavour, and the style of beer it goes into has been secondary.”

But jump across to Cheeky Monkey and there’s a slight shift in thinking. Brendan Day says that while their brewing team still wants to meet drinker’s expectations based on what’s on the label, they’re not trying to replicate the dessert so much as pull inspiration and flavour profiles from the dessert.

He says: “I love a piece of mud cake for example, but if I’m going to drink a chocolate beer it needs to be dialled back a bit while still having those flavours… It needs to be a good beverage above everything else.”

 

Brendan Day will never let Cheeky Monkey stop making big dumb beers.

 

While he loves the boundary-pushing that happens in the realm of pastry beer, he talks about intent – having a clear end goal in mind for a beer, and working towards that – more than experimentation.

“I don’t mind yeeting it sometimes and trying to go as big as possible. I enjoy really big beers as much as really clean and perfectly brilliant pilsners…. But for me, there’s a big difference between doing something thought out versus just throwing shit at a tank.

“It’s about how you’re balancing it to make that cohesive product. You go through concept, you build it, and end up where you think you’re going to end up. Rather than just ‘the distributor has mango, let’s throw mango at this beer.’ Your acidity levels and your malt balances need to support, and so you need to adjust those so you end up in the right place, while being fruit or pastry forward.”

Brendan waxes lyrical about his love of "big dumb beers", but love isn’t blind: he brings the technical eye of a Certified Cicerone to each pastry beer he tastes.

“Our favourites are those ones where you get shocked by the quality and balance. And while it’s not balanced in a pale ale sense, it’s acid forward, it’s fruit forward, but it remains very drinkable and not disjointed. There’s cohesion.

“You can nerd out on it. But you can also just pour them and enjoy them for what they are.”

Then there’s Nick from One Drop, who – also with a high degree of skill and technical knowhow under his belt – brings a YOLO approach like a surfer riding a ten-metre wave.

“We occasionally do some experimental, full on stuff. Like a few years ago we did a pastry nitro sour, Azul, with blue spirulina and coconut rum and stuff in that… that was a bit, ‘Where can we push this?’

“It’s those experiments – ‘Let’s just let go of all preconceptions and see where it goes’ – that allow us to learn and do the next round of great beers.”

Nick recounts the moment the One Drop team decided they never wanted to look back and ask: "What if?"

“That’s where the vanilla custard comes from. ‘You know what? This place could go under, and we’d always go: What if? How much lactose could we fit in a beer? How much vanilla can we fit in this beer? How much adjunct?’ 

"And that created a new ceiling for us in terms of where those beers could go, what kind of base we could create to build off of.”


ARE PASTRY BEERS "NOT REAL BEER"?

It’s worth addressing the thoughts of those – whether you call them purists, traditionalists, cynics or haters – who have no truck with such beers, or think "they’re for people who don’t like the taste of beer".

There’s an element of truth in there, of course. Many professed non-beer drinkers will happily drink a caramel mud cake stout, so there’s obviously something different going on.

But it rests on a shaky argument that beer has a one particular taste, or at least that "what beer is" is narrow rather than broad. It’s similar to the argument people used against Pacific Ale (“I don’t want fruit in my beer”) and against hazy IPAs (“That’s not what beer’s supposed to be like”) and against sours (“There’s something wrong with you if you like that”). Sure, there is a certain beeriness that many beers possess. But pushing the boundaries, breaking free of the norms, making beers that surprise and delight… this been a feature, not a bug, of the craft beer movement.

Anyone who says a pastry beer "doesn’t taste like beer" really means "doesn’t taste like other beers" – and that’s entirely accurate. But why does that need to be derogatory rather than a selling point? Surely it’s exciting to say to someone: “You’ve never had a beer like this before.”

As Ross says: “Tradition has only come about by people enjoying [things], and you develop new flavours and new ideas… You’ve just got to embrace what you enjoy. I just don’t see a need to critical on any drink if people are enjoying it.”

To me, many of the arguments against pastry beer feel like a kind of gatekeeping that doesn’t just exclude certain kinds of beers, but excludes the people who enjoy those beers. I sometimes wonder if the same critics would go up to people who eat poutine and accuse them of not liking potato.

“I don’t see the need to be too cynical,” Dayvid says. “I don’t want to drink huge, sweet things all the time. But I love that they exist. And I love that people love them. I love how much beer has changed… it makes beer fun, makes it for everyone.”

Brendan adds: “There’s a lot of jaded brewers out there who just want to drink pilsner, nothing wrong with that. But our team… we really fucking love these beers. From director level down.”

He and the rest of the Cheeky Monkey team have no time for detractors. Just look at the memes they post on social media. They’re too busy making pastry beers the best they can.

In Nick's view: “You’ve got your traditionalists who say that’s not beer, but they need to get out of the 80s and join us all in two-thousand-and-now.”

 

Cheeky Monkey's meme game is strong.

WHY DO THEY COST SO MUCH?

Personally, I try never to complain about the cost of craft beer. They are a luxury product I want rather than an essential product I need, and the things I love about them are the same things that make them expensive. Besides, I’ve never seen a brewer driving around in a Lamborghini with all the dollars they’ve price-gouged out of drinkers.

But even taking that into account, pastry beers cost a pretty penny. It’s not unusual for a can (almost always 440ml or 500ml, for reasons that no one could explain) to set you back $10, $12, $15, sometimes more. Certainly not cheap if you’re taking a punt on a new beer. So if you’ve ever wondered why these beers cost so much… well, here’s why.

When Ross at Bacchus is trying to get the flavour of a beer just right, he generally finds that real ingredients beat out essences.

“I’ve found it’s very rare that an essence tastes like the real thing. So [for example], all our banana beers are loaded with bananas; I think we’ve got one beer with $200 of banana in each keg. You could get away with 50c worth of flavouring, but to me it doesn’t taste like banana… 

“I’d much rather the essence tasted great! It would be a massive saving on making the beer. But we’ve always been about making the best flavour we can and worrying about the cost of a beer afterwards.”

It’s actually quite a strong display of the dedication of these breweries: the lengths they’ll go to in order to get mind-blowing beers into people’s hands.

Brendan talks about the approach Cheeky Monkey takes. “We buy a lot of purée now. If we’re doing a batch, around 3,000 litres of finished goods, it’s not unusual to be buying $10,000, $12,000, $13,000, $14,000 worth of purée alone to put in them.

“But just because a beer’s more expensive to produce, we don’t try to make more money off it. We try and keep them priced reasonable. We get a decent shelf price, but we take more risk on our end, because if one of the batches goes bad, it’s a lot harder to recoup.”

Interestingly, Brendan sees these beers as bringing benefits other than just the profit for the specific beers sold.

“We’re willing to take that risk because we’re getting growth for the brand out of it. Breweries don’t have large marketing budgets, but each [pastry] beer we release is a marketing campaign of its own. So we release it at the best price we can, and have fun with it.”

As well as the cost of the ingredients and the risk involved, Nick pointed out all the time (and cost) involved in the research and development of these beers. He wants people to see the value of these beers, and that the end result is worth it.

“This is what it costs to make. If you want this experience, we’re not going to put anything terrible out – that’s what it costs. That’s a barrier for some people. But they [taste it and] go, ‘Whoa!’ and they get it.”

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact there’s a high price tag on each can. But it does mean that if people want to experience these beers, they can shape their buying habits around that.

“There’s a growing market of people who seek these out in auxiliary to their other beers: a one-off IPA, a pastry IPA, a wild, and a case of fridge-filler.”

“But anyone who does buy a case [of pastry beers] – hats off to you!”


HOW MANY CALORIES IN A CAN?

You stuck around. And I promised. Ready to hear how many calories are in a pastry beer?

I asked a few brewers who didn’t know. But when I asked Nick, he had some software at hand – “It tests alcohol, but can do calories as well.” – that he said could figure out a rough estimate for us.

“I’ll give you the calories of what I will now call our custard vanilla pastry IPA. I’m gonna say upward of 400. Let’s see if I’m right.”

He calculated while we spoke, then let out low whistle.

“It’s 500-plus calories for a 440ml can. That is napkin maths, Mick, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

That’s over 2000kJ in a can of pastry IPA: the equivalent of two Big Macs, or two slices of mudcake. Not a small amount, but hopefully that isn’t too shocking a surprise for you.

We all knew this isn’t a health food. We do call them pastry beers after all.

These beers do what they say on the label.


You can read part one of Mick's feature here.

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