In the fall of 2012 I was in Las Vegas with some friends to see a concert and to enjoy some general debauchery. For our first day in Vegas, we had booked a “drive and shoot” package whereby we were to spend the morning driving exotic race cars followed by an afternoon firing automatic weapons in an indoor shooting range. The company that had arranged the package stood us up, so we found ourselves in a popular Vegas English style pub at 10 AM drinking pint after pint of popular American craft beers. Rogue Dead Guy, Deschuttes Black Butte porter, Mirror Pond and the like.
We became friendly with the Bartender who happened to be a homesick Canadian. This led to many more pints on the house, and we spent most of that day in the bar. When the wives came looking for us and it was time to leave, our Bartender said “we just got this one in on tap. It’s a dark beer called Velvet Merlin, you have to try it”. We left the Pub with full Solo cups to go.
That beer, Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin, was delicious and a total revelation to me; up to that point my experience with stouts was limited to Guiness, a classic dry Irish stout (BJCP 15B). Velvet Merlin was labeled an Oatmeal Stout, and to me it offered a much more complex and pleasing range of flavours over the black, woody, almost harshly bitter and very roasty Guiness. It had smooth flavours of coffee, chocolate, toasted malts, moderate hop bitterness, and it was off dry with a wonderful creamy texture. I had only just started homebrewing at the time and was completely clueless as to how I would go about formulating a recipe like Velvet Merlin, but I was hell bent to figure it out.
Since that first taste of Velvet Merlin in Vegas, brewing a world-class example of 16B has been a very long, obsessive, painstaking and frustrating journey for me. Looking through my brew logs, I’ve literally written and brewed a dozen Oatmeal Stout recipes, none of which have done particularly well in competitions, generally ending up with scores in the high 20’s to mid 30’s. To avoid boring the readers with the details of all those failed revisions, this post discusses my attempt at improving the last iteration which I believe had the most potential to be excellent with just a few adjustments.
Oatmeal Stout, Mk12 (The Darkness)
Targets (74% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.043, OG = 1.055, FG 1.015, ABV ~ 5%
SRM = ~37
IBU = ~28
BU:GU = 0.5
3.75 Kg Crisp Maris Otter (69.8 %)
0.5 Kg Quaker Quick Oats, toasted @ 350F/177C 20 minutes/side 40 mins total (9.3 %)
0.25 Kg Briess Victory Malt (4.7 %)
0.2 Kg Baird Carastan Malt (3.7 %)
0.2 Kg Thomas Fawcett Dark Crystal I (3.7 %)
0.2 Kg Thomas Fawcett Chocolate Malt (3.7 %)
0.250 Kg Simpson’s Roasted Barley (4.7 %)
Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 6g CaCl2 + 8g NaHCO3 added to mash.
Mashing Regime: Single Infusion @ 154F / 67.8C for 60 minutes, No mash out.
90 minute boil
Hops: Single boil addition, 35g 5.6% AA Yakima Chief Hops UK East Kent Goldings pellets added at 60 minutes, for an estimated 28 IBUs.
Yeast: ~300 ml Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire slurry from prior Dark Mild, 4th generation re-pitch
I brewed iteration #12 “The Darkness” on March 15, 2017. Building off of my prior recipes, my goal with this version was to keep it authentic by using as many English ingredients as possible. Crisp Maris Otter for a biscuity, “English” malt foundation. Two levels of English crystal malts for complexity, Simpsons’ and Thomas Fawcett roasted malts, West Yorkshire “Timothy Taylor” yeast, and traditional UK East Kent Goldings hops for bittering.
Oatmeal is added to this style is to impart a smooth texture and mouthfeel. I had read that Oatmeal by itself contributes no oat flavour when added to beer, and that toasting the oats would help increase the impression of oatmeal which most BJCP judges expect. The Victory Malt addition was suposed to further compliment the “oaty” character.
For water treatments, I used Calcium Chloride to boost calcium levels to help with fermentation and also to enhance the malt balance of the beer. I also added baking soda to the mash to raise the pH. From my past experience brewing with our extremely soft water, a grist so high in crystal and roasted malts would drive the mash pH to an unacceptably low level resulting in a thin, harsh, acidic and unpleasant stout.
Brew day started out with a technical error. I mashed in at too high a temperature and so the actual temperature of the duration of the mash was close to 158F/70C, approximately 4F/2C higher than intended. Rather than adding cold water to bring down the temperature, for some reason I decided to carry on, fully aware that this mash temperature would favour Alpha-Amylase activity and result in a less fermentable wort. Other than the mash error, I hit the numbers, pitched the yeast, oxygenated with pure O2 and fermented the beer starting at 64.5F/18C and finishing out at 71F/21.6C over the course of 2 weeks.
I kegged my Oatmeal Stout on April 15 almost exactly 1 month after brew day. FG was 1.020, higher than my 1.015 target, a result of the too-high mash temperature. Other than the high finishing gravity, my tasting notes say “tastes really good warm and flat” and things finally seemed to be looking up.
Judgement, Oatmeal Stout Mk12
A week after kegging, carbonated samples were tasting quite good and so I thought perhaps I had finally achieved my goal of brewing an award-winning Oatmeal stout. This time, I was partially right. I sent this beer to 4 competitions to get a decent sampling of feedback from qualified judges.
I first entered The Darkness into the 2017 Vanbrewer Awards where it received scores of 29/50 and 32/50, and it didn’t place. Both judges remarked that it wasn’t creamy enough and suggested that more oats would help to encourage a silky, smooth mouthfeel. One judge also mentioned a bitter, metallic taste.
Next, I sent it to Edmonton Aurora Brew Challenge where it earned 35/50, 38/50 and a bronze medal in the combined stout category. The main comments from both judges were that the beer was solid but a bit low on flavour and intensity, could use more oats to add a nice “slickness” and that I should bump up the carbonation slightly.
Feedback from the National Capital Homebrew Competition was consistent with VanBrewers and EHG with regards to needing more oats to improve the mouthfeel, and general lack of flavour intensity. Judges gave my Oatmeal Stout 34/50 and 37/50, but it didn’t medal.
Finally, I sent The Darkness to Members of Barleyment where it scored 34/50 and 36/50 and again it didn’t place. The comments from the judge who gave the lower score was very consistent with all the other competition feedback, “nothing really stands out” and “could be more creamy”.
Main competition Feedback Take-Aways:
- Lack of creaminess and mouthfeel, needs more oats
At only 9.5% of the grist, the contribution of the oatmeal likely had little to no impact to creating a creamy, viscous mouthfeel that is desirable for this style. A very interesting article by Scott Janish implies that in order to get a noticeable slick mouthfeel contribution from the oats, a percentage > 18% of the grist is required. It is also interesting to note that my too-high mash temperature didn’t seem to help much with the body and mouthfeel of this beer. The judges were really looking for a lot of viscosity here.
- Good but doesn’t stand out / lack of malt complexity and intensity
I suspect that in my attempt to raise mash pH with baking soda I added too much. Although I didn’t measure the mash pH on brewday (my pH meter probe was broken), re-entering the malt bill and salt additions into the Brewer’s Friend Mash Chemistry and Brewing Water Calculator indicates a mash pH above 5.6, too high considering sparging would raise the pH even higher. It’s also possible that the bitter, metallic comment from one of the VanBrewers’ judges was related to too much NaHCO3 as well.
- Low carbonation
The style guidelines call for medium-high carbonation. Too low carbonation could certainly be another contributor to the dull / lack of intensity comments and also impact the creaminess and mouthfeel of the beer in a negative way. This is not a recipe issue and is easily corrected by tweaking carbonation before bottling from the keg.
Revision and Re-brew
Oatmeal Stout (The Darkness Mk13)
Targets (72% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):
PBOG = 1.043, OG = 1.055, FG 1.015, ABV ~ 5.3% (+.3%)
SRM = ~37 (unchanged)
IBU = 29 (basically unchanged)
BU:GU = 0.51 (basically unchanged)
3.75 Crisp Floor Malted Maris Otter (61.2 %)
1.25 Kg Willow Creek Thick Rolled Organic Oats, untoasted (20.4 %)
0.25 Kg Briess Victory Malt (4.1 %)
0.20 Kg Simpson’s Premium English Caramalt (3.3 %)
0.20 Kg Thomas Fawcett Dark Crystal I (3.3%)
0.20 Kg Thomas Fawcett Chocolate Malt (3.3%)
0.275 Kg Simpson’s Roasted Barley (4.5 %)
Water Treatments: Same as Mk12, except reduced NaHCO3 from 8 g to 5 g.
Mashing Regime: Let’s try this again – Single Infusion @ 154F / 67.8C for 60 minutes, No mash out.
Hops: 90 minute boil, 40g 5.6% AA YCH UK East Kent Golding pellets added at 60 minutes (29 IBU).
Yeast: 1 smack-pack of Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire, manufactured 27/02/2019. Stepped up with a 2L starter, decanted and woken up with a .5L “vitality starter” before pitching.
The revised recipe was largely the same as The Darkness Mark 12, but with some key differences.
I chose the Floor Malted version of Crisp Maris Otter for the base malt, which offers a more intense biscuity flavour over regular Crisp Maris Otter. I figured this might help the beer stand out a bit more and help towards fixing the “doesn’t really stand out” comments of the last version.
Rather than using Quaker quick oats again, I opted for thick rolled oats after listening to this Experimental Brewing podcast which explained that quick oats are more susceptible to premature rancidity because they are a chopped version of rolled oats, and that the thick rolled oats have better flavour (not that oats have much flavour to begin with). I also increased the percentage of oats to ~20% (above the purported 18% detection threshold), and didn’t bother toasting them this time around because IMO the effect of toasting the oats is subtle, if noticeable at all in this roasty style. I’d let the floor malted Maris Otter and Victory malt bring the oat “flavour” for this iteration of the recipe.
I left the crystal malts as similar as possible to Mk 12, except that I substituted Simpson’s Premium English Caramalt for Baird’s Carastan malt which is no longer available at my LHBS. Both of these crystal malts are similar in that they fall in the 20 – 40 lovibond range, the Simpson’s being somewhat lighter / sweeter and tastes amazing when chewed.
Roasted malts were similar to Mk 12 as well, although I punched up the percentage of Roasted Barley ever so slightly from 250g to 275g to elevate the level of coffee notes in the finished beer. I also dropped the amount of baking soda to keep the pH centered around 5.5 to allow enough separation of the roasted malt flavours while hopefully mitigating blandness in the finished beer.
I would keep the yeast the same for this version. Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire is a wonderful yeast that really accentuates mid-range malt characters. It’s a favourite of mine for most English style ales I brew.
I brewed The Darkness Mk13 on Sunday, March 17. There were no technical errors, I mashed in at the intended temperature and despite some anticipation of a stuck sparge due to the 20+ % oats in the grist, that never happened and sparging went without incident. I hit the pre-boil and post-boil gravity numbers, and at the end of the boil I was happy with the flavour and appearance of the wort.
I chilled the wort, siphoned it into an SS brewbucket, and moved the bucket into my chest freezer fermentation chamber and set temperature control to 64.5F/18C. I pitched the very active 1469 vitality starter and oxygenated with pure O2 for approximately 60 seconds.
By the next morning, fermentation was going strong.
So ends my 13th attempt at Oatmeal Stout, a frustrating style for which I have lived vicariously through other homebrewers who seem to easily make award winning versions. Hopefully I’ve addressed the main issues in this revision, and I look forward to sending this beer into the BOTY circuit.