Ales,  Oatmeal Stout

Oatmeal Stout Competition Results

In my post Oatmeal Stout, BJCP 16B I explained that out of all the beers I brew, Oatmeal Stout is the style that is nearest and dearest to my heart. My quest to brew an excellent Oatmeal Stout is truly a passion project, and I was hoping that iteration #13 would finally produce a consistent medal winning beer in the Canadian Brewer of the Year competition circuit. It didn’t, and I ended up taking it out of my competition roster after only 3 competitions, my personal minimum to gather useful feedback.

I’ll first present a summary of the results, followed by the scoresheets, and then discuss what I think went wrong and explain my approach to correcting the recipe for the next go around.

Oatmeal Stout Competition Results Summary:

Number of competitions entered: 3

Medals earned: 1 (Gold)

High Score: 40/50

Low Score: 33/50

Average score: 36/50

Recall that I brewed this beer on March 17, 2019. The day after pitching the yeast, fermentation was going strong and all signs of visible fermentation activity were gone by day 5. I let the beer sit on the yeast cake for another 10 days, and then racked it to a CO2 purged keg without cold crashing. The final gravity was 1.017, down from 1.055 and a touch higher than my 1.015 target. This didn’t bother me much as I figured a slightly higher finishing gravity might help improve the mouthfeel of my Oatmeal Stout. My tasting notes at kegging read, “tastes excellent, huge mouthfeel”.

The kegged beer was placed into my serving fridge, and force carbonated it to approximately 2.5 volumes. I didn’t add gelatin to the keg, but I did add ~15ppm Sodium Metabisulphite as per my usual process to prevent oxygen damage to the beer.

A couple of days later, with much excitement I poured a sample. Initially, the beer looked fantastic, almost pitch black with a nice, thick tan foamstand. A few short moments later, I was completely crestfallen as the foamstand completely disappeared and left my oatmeal stout with no head, and the appearance of a carbonated soft drink.

The beer didn’t blow me away either. I was expecting a roasty, medium full-bodied and slightly off dry, creamy and delicious Oatmeal Stout. What I perceived was a washed-out, somewhat bland version of The Darkness #12 with less body and mouthfeel than I remembered at the time of kegging. What happened? My impression of this beer was validated when I offered a sample to my friend Ted, who has very high standards and isn’t afraid to speak his mind if I offer him a sub-par beer. While he didn’t explicitly say it wasn’t good, the eyes don’t lie and I could tell by his reaction this beer wasn’t anything special.

I’m a firm believer in sending beers out for blind judging to get 2nd, 3rd, and 4th opinions, even when I’m fairly certain they miss the mark style wise but are technically well executed. So not expecting much, I sent my 13th Oatmeal Stout into the competition arena for some calibration.

The first competition I sent Oatmeal Stout #13 to was the 26th Regina ALES Open. It scored 36/50 and 38/50 in the Stout category which had a total of 35 entries, and it did not place.  The low scoring judge offered some peculiar feedback regarding how it had a high citrus-melon hop flavor and a fairly persistent head, which didn’t seem to describe my beer at all. This Judge also suggested that the beer could use more carbonation, body and a “silky oatmeal feel” to make it better. The second Judge commented on the beer having a very, very subtle overall nose, a mild overall flavor and suggested it could be improved with higher carbonation. 

Next up was the Vanbrewer Awards, where my Oatmeal Stout competed against 18 other entries in the combined Irish and British Stout category. The Judges scored it in the low 30’s and once again, it didn’t place. Both Judges also mentioned that the beer wasn’t creamy or full-bodied as one would expect, and suggested adding more oats would fix that problem. One judge also commented on the beer having “weak coffee like flavours” which I agreed with and was also consistent with the ALES Judge who commented on the mild overall flavor.

To gather some final data on this beer, I decided to send Oatmeal Stout #13 to the 2019 Hamilton Because Beer Homebrew Competition. This competition was unusual in that it required entries to be shipped no later than May 11, but competition results wouldn’t be announced until mid July. After shipping my entries, I dumped the rest of the keg as I was getting ready to move house, wasn’t enjoying the beer and to add insult to injury the keg it was in had developed a CO2 leak. 

Of course, after dumping Oatmeal Stout #13, it ended up taking first place in the Dark British Beer category at Hamilton. However, this was quite a small competition (287 entries in total) and my Oatmeal Stout was judged alongside only 8 entries in its category.   

Scores from the Because Beer competition were fairly high at 40/50 and 37/50, but I had to read carefully between the lines of the check mark type scoresheets as comments were sparse. The Judge who gave the beer 40 points found the body and creaminess medium / medium-low. From the lower scoring Judge’s scoresheet, I inferred that this individual found the body, creaminess and flavours of the beer on the low end of the style too.

Discussion and Next Steps

After the disappointment of Oatmeal Stout #13 it’s time to reflect upon what happened, and discuss my approach to making a better version of BJCP 16B the next time around.

From a process execution perspective, this was a well-made brew with no obvious flaws. However, it was rather bland, had a lack of body and it certainly didn’t have a silky, viscous mouthfeel the BCJP guidelines and others insist comes from adding oatmeal to the grist. According to the Judges, carbonation could have been a touch higher, a packaging issue I’ve mentioned before as something I need to work on. But the real downfall of this beer was the recipe, specifically, the oats.

How could this be? I’d added over 20% flaked oats to the grist which is by all accounts a very large amount. According to homebrew lore, surely that amount of oats should have provided the beer with a thick, smooth, silky body and mouthfeel. My experience however was the exact opposite of this; in my opinion the only thing that the oats did to the recipe was kill the head retention, contribute fermentable extract, and dilute the flavours and aromas of the English malts used in the recipe.

Looking back at the recipe, it is obvious to me now that > 20% oats in any recipe would dilute the flavour and aroma levels of other malts in the grist. Flaked oats have very little flavor to begin with, and what little flavor they do have is subtle and rather bland. Unfortunately, when I wrote the recipe I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and was fixated on trying to get that heavy, oily slick mouthfeel with oats which I didn’t end up getting anyway. An important lesson learned from this experience is to pay attention to percentage outliers in a recipe and consider how that may impact the overall flavor profile of the beer, before you brew it.

The lack of slick, oily mouthfeel and body was much more of a surprise. I am now completely convinced that the claim oats add body and mouthfeel to beer is nothing more than a persistent and false home brewing myth. Even several Judges wrote “add more oats”, as if more than 20% flaked oats wasn’t enough. To make myself feel better, I posted this thread on Homebrewtalk which generated a number of responses that both agreed and disagreed with my experience. However, a number of replies did agree that there were much better ways to get body and mouthfeel in an oatmeal stout that didn’t involve using oats.

I’m hell-bent on brewing this style until I get it right. So, I brewed the 14th iteration of my Oatmeal Stout recipe on August 25, 2019. I kept the recipe almost identical to #13, with the main change being the flaked oats were reduced to only 1.6% of the grist, just enough so I could still call it an Oatmeal Stout with a clear conscience. The other ~19% flaked oats were replaced by equal amounts of Flaked Barley and Crisp Maris Otter to make up the gravity points. I also raised the percentage of Simpson’s Roasted Barley ever so slightly (25g) as extra insurance that the beer would have a bit more roast presence. So much for moving one variable at a time. 

Will my Oatmeal Stout be improved by these changes, and will the Judges prefer my nearly oat-less Oatmeal Stout better than #13? We’ll see how this version performs in the competitions ahead!

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