It’s never been easier to serve beer for dessert.

Over the past decade we’ve seen an explosion of sweet beers hitting the shelves, with all kinds of decadent treats recreated in beer form, and a proliferation of new beer styles, such as pastry stouts, milkshake IPAs and ice cream sours. For fans of more traditional beers, this new wave of sugary brews might seem over-the-top and sacrilegious, but for those who like new experiences and pushing the boundaries, it’s a fun and exciting movement that generates strong feelings of nostalgia and copious amounts of guilty pleasure.

The roots of dessert beers are varied and ancient, but the key ingredient that sparked this recent trend is chocolate.

Chocolate and beer are intrinsically linked for over 3000 years, as revealed by a recent archaeological study that discovered pre-Colombian Mesoamericans were fermenting “beer” using the fruit from cacao (the main ingredient of chocolate). For hundreds of years, it was thought these people were consuming something akin to unsweetened hot chocolate, but they were actually getting drunk.

Fast forward a few millennia to the 1700s and you’ll find the creation of porters and stouts in England. It was at this time that chocolate “notes” became prevalent in beer, as a natural result of using more heavily roasted, darker malts. Today, there are many beers that describe themselves as chocolate stouts, in which the flavour is coming entirely from the malt, rather than any chocolate or cacao products being added. But in the late 1990s, English brewery Wells & Young turned the chocolate dial up to 11, with the release of the now-legendary Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. Whilst this may not have been the first beer ever brewed with added chocolate, it is certainly the one that put this style on the map and introduced many modern beer drinkers to dessert-like beer.

Another key ingredient for a lot of sweet beers is lactose — the sugar found in animal milk. Lactose was first added to beer in England in the late 1700s, when milk stouts were created. The natural sugars in beer wort — glucose, fructose, maltose and maltotriose — are all consumed by yeast and transformed into alcohol, but lactose cannot be “eaten” by traditional brewing yeast. As such, it was used to create a sweeter beer that was marketed as more nutritious, and aimed at nursing mothers, to help them increase their milk production (a marketing practice that was finally banned in the mid-20th century). Milk stout remained a relatively rare style of beer until the early 2000s, when it was revived and celebrated by the modern craft beer movement.

Around 2015, adventurous breweries such as Sweden’s Omnipollo and Philadelphia’s Tired Hands started playing around with the concept of adding lactose to other beer styles, and we saw the emergence of milkshake IPAs, followed by ice cream sours. Head to a decent beer shop today and you’ll find a lot of different beers containing lactose; everything from vanilla & boysenberry cheesecake stout (Garage Project) to American Pie Ale (Behemoth) to pavlova sour (Deep Creek). Those easily confused might wonder if they’ve accidentally walked into a bakery.

Duncan’s Brewing on the Kapiti Coast has become well known for their exceptional and wildly creative dessert beers. Owner and head brewer George Duncan has always had a sweet tooth, and he was particularly inspired by the beers of Omnipollo, as well as various sweetened lambics from Belgium. Whilst most breweries in New Zealand only release dessert beers in small, limited batches, Duncan decided to focus on these styles and make them part of his core range. “You kind of need to brew things again and again and again to get good at them,” he told me. “A lot of times breweries will have a crack at it — something like an ice cream stout — and they might not nail it right from the get-go, but because they’re only going to brew one, they don’t really get a chance to hone that recipe.”

Whilst all brewing is essentially like liquid baking, dessert beers allow brewers to move into a more culinary mindset. Duncan is a big fan of cooking, and relishes the creative opportunities presented by this style of production. “The cool thing with these beers — and the way we’ve developed our way of making them — is we can kind of craft them throughout the process. You make your base sour beer with your lactose, but then on top of that you start adding all your adjuncts, like your fruits and your spices. Anything like that can be added later, to craft that beer into what you want. It’s pretty difficult with something like an IPA to really get a sense of what the final beer will be like, whereas with these sours, you dump the fruit in, you try it after a day or two when the fruit is mostly fermented out, and then you’re like ‘well, it needs more fruit’.”

Another two brewers with a passion for dessert beers are Luke White and Matt Eats from Small Gods Brewery in Auckland. Over the past two years, Small Gods have released a series of limited edition collaboration beers that have explored unfamiliar and exciting flavour territories, always with a perfect symbiosis of fun, quality and fearlessness. Several of these have been firmly in the dessert category, including a banana milkshake Hefeweizen, a Christmas pudding barley wine, and most recently Lyra — a Black Forest Gateau Baltic Porter, brewed in collaboration with Citizen. I asked White about what attracted him to brewing these kinds of beers, and he explained: “Like all brewers, I brew what I want to drink, and I’ve got a very eclectic palate. I want to make things that no one else is making.”

White and Eats also run Beer Jerk, a craft beer online store and subscription service, so they have a great knowledge of what’s happening in the broader beer scene in New Zealand and overseas. When we discussed the popularity of dessert beers, it became clear that there’s a strange juxtaposition at play — they are relatively rare and niche, yet they have the potential to appeal to a much wider audience than standard ales and lagers.

White considers them a “gateway” beer.

“When I’m at a bar with somebody who says they’re not a beer fan, I always borderline-force them to try some beer, and it will always be an interesting stout that has adjuncts, like a pastry stout. Then conversely it will be a kettle sour. Because people who don’t like beer, they don’t like bitter hops and they don’t like shit lager. Whereas these beers, which are more culinarily inspired, there’s more interesting stuff going on for non-beer drinkers.”

With the craft beer sector continuing to grow and reach new audiences, it will be interesting to see the role dessert beers play in the future of the industry. I’ve heard many people dismissing them as a gimmicky fad, but a lot of people said the same things when hazy beers first appeared and look what happened there.

Modern drinkers are becoming a lot more adventurous and people’s tastes and interests are much broader than they used to be. Whilst there isn’t yet a huge awareness of these kinds of beers — at least in the mainstream — they are extremely marketable and don’t require a huge amount of in-depth knowledge to decipher the label or understand how they will taste.

We’ve all been forced to grow up and pretend that we’re sophisticated and refined, but in reality most of us just want to sit on colourful chairs in the garden whilst eating cake and ice cream. Dessert beers are the next-best thing, and they’re a welcome relief to a serious world full of insurance policies, dental bills and feelings of impending doom. On the following page you’ll find six unique beers that I highly recommend tasting, and most of them are limited releases, so you might want to pick them up as soon as possible. Just like your childhood dreams, they’ll disappear before you know it.

Six dessert beers to try

a line up of dessert beers

8 Wired iStout Affogato

A whopping imperial stout brewed with coffee, vanilla and lactose. Deep, roasty bitterness swirls around sweet highlights, creating a creamy maelstrom of mocha-esque magnificence. This one lingers on the palate for many moons.

Duncan’s Whippy Milkshake IPA

What a mouth party! Made with lashings of mango, vanilla, lactose and tropical hops, this beer takes everything to the extreme and yet it’s somehow perfectly balanced. Massive candied fruit and mango lassi vibes, brought down to earth by beautifully bitter hops.

Kereru Brewing Navel Gazer

An incredibly deep and rich chocolate orange imperial stout with an unbelievable, velvety mouthfeel that emulates the chocolate it’s inspired by. For me it invokes strong memories of boozy British Christmases. Save this one for the end of the night!

Mata Beer Berry Sundae

An unbelievably juicy and smooth ice cream sour that superbly captures the taste of fresh berries with cream. Save yourself the cost of a winter holiday and kick back with this can-full of summer.

Urbanaut Hokey Pokey IPA

There’s a lot going on here. This is a big, juicy and sweet hazy IPA with a strong taste of marshmallow and vanilla, almost like a cream soda. Underneath the highlights you’ll find a deeper, caramelised sweetness and a robust hoppiness to balance it all out.

Small Gods Brewing x Citizen Lyra

A black forest gateau baltic porter that tones down the sweetness, creating a deep, dark and rich chocolatey abyss. Perfect for curling up with on a cold winter night, whilst reading dense 19th Century literature about poverty and madness.