I’m a sucker for stouts, but sometimes I’m in the mood for the sweeter side of things, which is where milk stouts come into play! Ska Brewing Co.’s Steel Toe Stout is a “traditional cream stout” that weighs in at an easy 5.4%ABV and 29 IBU’s.

Contrary to popular belief, milk stouts, also sometimes referred to as “sweet stouts,” do not contain milk. Lactose (aka “milk sugar” because it is the predominant sugar in dairy) is added during the brewing process. Lactose is a non-fermentable sugar. In other words, the critters in beer that convert sugar to alcohol don’t eat it (and then poop out alcohol… lovely, no?), so when lactose is added to beer it will raise the sweetness level without contributing to the alcohol content.

The classic, benchmark milk stout and one of my all-time favorites is Left Hand’s Milk Stout, which I reviewed in January, 2010. Another favorite milk stout (which is also a coffee stout and an oatmeal stout!) is the aptly named Breakfast Stout from Founder’s (reviewed April 2011).

Unlike their roastier, darker, drier-finishing cousins in the “regular” stout world, milk stouts are expected to be sweeter and generally have a nice body and mouthfeel due to the lactose addition. True to form, Ska’s version has a great aroma of roasty components with a sweet overtone that makes me think of chocolate (although the aroma is not chocolatey, per se). It pours black with about a 1/2″ tan head. While this is certainly an opaque glass of beer, it has a fair amount of amber/tea colored highlights in the corners of the glass.

As I was pouring this beer it seemed like it was a little on the thin side, but the mouthfeel is pretty good. Very little carbonation on this beer, but I did type the whole intro to this review as it sat in the glass. I’m guessing I’m drinking this beer in the mid-50°’s range.

The flavor is pretty surprising. There is some roasty, classic stout type of flavor on the front end, tempered by the sweetness of the lactose, but that is quickly taken over and dominated by hops. I haven’t had too many hoppy stouts, so this is unique for me. The finish and aftertaste are definitely hop-forward. It’s hard to get the components of the hops (i.e. resiny, piney, floral), but the bitterness is definitely there.

Interestingly, the sweetness is there, but this is not a “milkshake” like Left Hand Milk Stout. Steel Toe Stout actually has a rather dry finish and that hoppiness takes away from the drinkability compared to Left Hand’s.

This is an interesting beer. I expected more “sweet” and a lot less hops, so it came out about opposite of what I was thinking it would taste like. It’s interesting from the perspective that I haven’t had too many hoppy stouts, and all the components of this beer work well, but it’s not as balanced as I would like. For my money, Left Hand is still the reigning king of the Milk Stouts. When I reach for a “sweet stout” I do so for the sweetness, so a milk stout that is hoppier than it is sweet leaves me wanting. Overall, a pretty good beer, though!

I’ve also reviewed Ska Brewing’s True Blonde Ale here.