Drink this now: Neapolitan Milk Stout from Saugatuck Brewing

Yes, Saugatuck Brewing’s Neapolitan Milk Stout tastes exactly like strawberry, chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

Photograph:David Magnusson

It’s not often that a beer sets high expectations for itself and then actually follows through. I can think of just a couple beers aside from this one where the name matches the flavor perfectly—Strawberry Short’s Cake for one, the Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter from Willoughby in Ohio for another. (If they distributed here, I would demand you drink those now as well.)

Saugatuck Brewing’s Neapolitan Milk Stout immediately tells you what the beer should taste like. You expect three separate flavors, like the ice cream, starting with chocolate, progressing to vanilla as an intermediary, then that sort of artificial strawberry sweetness that tastes like a synthetic representation of the color pink. This beer pretty much nails it.

The Michigan brewery has been distributing in Chicago since September of 2012, and their initial offerings have flown under the radar. Brews like the Pier Cove Porter and Bonfire Brown are fine, but the Neapolitan speaks to something a little deeper. Head Brewer Ron Conklin told me that it started as a homebrewing recipe and kept getting tweaked. It was released by Saugatuck in 2011.

This beer mixes together dark roasted chocolate malts on top of chocolate, strawberry and Madagascar bourbon vanilla extracts. Purists may scoff at the use of extracts, but for a beer like this, I think it’s fair to use them in order to replicate the somewhat artificial flavor of the ice cream itself. Using actual strawberries may be the cooler thing to do, but it wouldn’t nail that blend of ice cream flavors the same way.

This beer pours deep black with a halo of mahogany and offers a long-lasting, hearty tan head. That foam gives way to a creamy mid-bodied beer that coats but doesn’t linger or stick to the palate. There’s a long tail of flavor, but the little sparkle of carbonation right at the finish makes this something that won’t make you feel parched.

The flavor comes on you in three distinct sections, as it should. Lightly roasty chocolate notes start you off, then syrupy vanilla drifts in before just enough strawberry finished off to let you know it’s there. It’s not faint, but it’s not overwhelming. The more you drink, the more it layers itself across your palate so the tastes become less distinct. It’s best to sip this slowly—and not because of the 6.3% ABV, but to keep the experience of the beer as true as it can be.

As it warms, notes of cola, dates, walnut, espresso and a little savory root beer work their way in to complement the chocolate. The beer leaves a long tail of strawberry on the palate that’s backed up by vanilla. Like an ice cream float without the ice cream, it’s truly a dessert beer.

Other than Michigan, the Chicago market is the only one lucky enough to get their hands on Saugatuck beers. While expanding to Indiana and Ohio are currently up for discussion, other than the Mitten, we’re it, so take advantage of what they’re sending us.

And Saugatuck is expanding at a rapid pace—they’ve expanded capacity thrice already (earlier this year they stated they were shooting for 6500 barrels in 2013, a massive jump from just 500 in 2010) and have graduated from a 10bbl system to a 40bbl one. If you want to know what rapid expansion looks like truly, Conklin told me that before they were brewing three to four times a week on the 10bbl system. Now they’re brewing four times a day on the 40bbl. Michiganders love their beer.

The Neapolitan is starting to show up on draft handles and in coolers throughout Chicago, but if you see it on a shelf and it looks like this, do not buy it. That’s last year's packaging, and some retailers are still trying to move it. (It’s still okay, but the strawberry has faded significantly, and let’s be honest, that’s what you’re really buying this for.)

It’s worth mentioning that if you’re looking for a Christmas present for the beer nut in your life, you can actually go brew your own beer at Saugatuck if you want. They have a tiny little pilot system that can be reserved along with ingredients and brewmaster expertise. If you feel like making the trip to the Mitten it looks like a fun setup. If your brew-dork significant other is already making you take a trip to Kalamazoo, Holland and Grand Rapids for Bell's Brewery, New Holland Brewing Company and Founders Brewing Company anyway, what’s one more detour? 

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)