The answer, of course, is drink ’em! Left Hand Brewing Company is a nice brewery out of Longmont, CO. Today I’m reviewing their classic Milk Stout, as well as a Vol. 1 of their new Fade to Black Series, an export stout. One of their most famous beers is their Milk Stout, a great example of the “sweet stout” style. The sweet stout style (also referred to as milk stouts or cream stouts) gets its designation from the addition of lactose to the beer. Lactose is an unfermentable sugar, so the yeast in beer that eats the sugars and poops alcohol (more or less) can’t do anything with lactose. As a result, the lactose sweetens the beer. Since lactose is the primary sugar found in dairy products, hence the “milk” and “cream” terms used to describe these stouts.

Left Hand’s version is a classic. The beer pours black (some very minute highlights in the very bottom of my snifter) and the off-white head disappears quickly. The aroma on this beer is awesome, smelling mostly of coffee and sweet chocolate. It’s one of my favorite aroma beers. Milk Stout weighs in at 5.9% alcohol and 25 IBU’s. The flavor is roasty malt with a silky mouthfeel that is shockingly similar to milk! The nice texture of the beer comes from a relatively low carbonation, the lactose, as well as some oats in the beer.

Milk Stout is difficult, for me, to drink slowly. The smoothness of the beer and it’s sweetness make it a chugger! As far as the sweetness goes, it’s not quite like a dessert beer, and there is some good bitterness from the roasted malts, but it still leans toward a sweet finish, as opposed to a dry stout. This would be great with ice cream and probably something like strawberries. I highly recommend this beer if you’ve never had it.

Fade to Black

In the past, Left Hand’s winter seasonal beer was always Snow Bound Spiced Strong Ale. This year, they decided to retire the beer and start a new series, called Fade to Black (reflecting the overall lack of sunlight from October through March). According to Left Hand, the name and packaging will be the same each year, but the style will vary. For the inaugural beer, Left hand chose an export style stout.

Export (or “foreign”) stouts are stouts that were originally brewed for export to foreign countries, particularly England’s colonies in the tropics. To survive the trip better, these beers are brewed for a higher gravity (more alcohol), which acts as a preservative. Export stouts can be of the dry or sweet style. Vol. 1 weighs in at 8.5%ABV, 30 IBU’s and according to Left Hand, “Pours black with licorice, espresso bean, molasses and black cardamom notes.” They also add the marketingspeak that the flavors “give way to a feeling of self-loathing, burnt opportunities and smoked relationships.” The overall marketing package of the Fade to Black series is a little unusual, with the dark imagery in the marketing language, the neo-tribal label and being named after a Metallica song about suicide, but maybe depression and suicide sell lots of beer!

Volume 1 poured, as you would guess, black as coal. No highlights to speak of in this beer. It’s opaque and black and despite a vigorous pour had a very small tan head that faded quickly (common for higher alcohol beers). The aroma on this beer is typical stout aroma, with roasty malt, maybe a little cocoa, and a subtle hint of smoke.

Contrary to the aroma, the first sip really nailed me with the smoke flavor. This is just like the smokiness that is found in a lot of Scottish ales, so I think it a smoky note from the deeply roasted malts, rather than the addition of any smoke flavoring agents or even smoked malts. The smokiness really comes through in the second half of the sip. This is a neat beer because the flavors seem to really “light up” different parts of my tongue, and they seem layered, almost as if the brewer designed one to develop after another.

The sip starts with a heavy mouthfeel, with some roastiness on the front of my tongue, then both sides of my tongue and cheeks seem to come alive with a good amount of bitterness (a little hop bitterness, but mostly from the roasted malts), and then the smoke rolls in and hits the back of my tongue and palate.

As with Scottish ales, the smokiness seems to die down with each subsequent sip as my palate fatigues. The beer is nice and smooth with a hint of carbonation, and for an 8.5% ABV the alcohol is not apparent at all. This is a fairly complex beer and well-suited to being drunk in quiet contemplation. I look forward to seeing what Left Hand thinks up for Fade to Black in 2010!