Roger Protz, in his nice book on stouts, has a couple of great quotes to demonstrate how early milk stouts were marketed.
"Make Stout More Nourishing! That was the aime of Mackeson & Co. when after a long period of exhaustive research in conjunction with one of the leading analytical food chemists, they were to produce a beverage containing nature's best food, scientificially and carefully introduced."The "nutritional stout" phase continued for decades, but ultimately began to marginalize stouts as a medicinal drink. They became associated with grandmothers who offered them to stave off the winter flu. Mackeson survived, but mostly milk stouts died off.
Milk stouts don't actually employ milk, but rather lactose. Unlike most sugars, however, lactose can't be broken down by beer yeast, and remains unfermented, as calories and carbohydrates. It gives the beer a unique sweetness and silkiness on the tongue that does in fact suggest milk. It's not so much a flavor as a quality. Cream ales, the light summer alternative, often also employ lactose (and never cream).
Widmer's milk stout has a fascinating story behind it. Nearly ten years ago, the brewery embarked on a program with local homebrewers to produce little known-beer styles. The Brothers work with the homebrewers to come up with a style, and then the homebrewers have a competition to find the best example. It's brewed at the brewery and sold on tap at area pubs. The very first Collaborator beer was this milk stout, and it remains, to my knowledge, the only style to have made it into the bottle.
Although it looks black in the glass, if you tilt the beer and hold it up to light, you see that Snow Plow is not opaque, like many stouts. Lactose is reputed to make heads thick and long-lasting, but I kept getting a rather meager mocha skiff--though it was very dense and creamy.
It's interesting that this style has slipped off the radar because it's a real crowd-pleaser. It's completely likeable--I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this beer. The palate is largely sweet and creamy, bordering on decadant, but there are hints of roasty malt and a breath of hop at the end. It isn't a burly stout, but it has enough body to satisfy big-stout lovers; on the other hand, it's modest alcohol content makes it a great winter session.
Oregon is rightly famous for our hoppy beers, but dark beers are an unheralded fave. Perhaps it's the rainy skies, but a lot of people love stouts and porters--some drink them exclusively, even through the summer heat waves. Brewers oblige this preference, and we have a number of great dark beers. But for milk stouts, you have to go to Widmer.
Malts: Pale, caramel, wheat, oats, carapils, roasted barley
Hops: bittering: alchemy, aroma: Willamette
Alcohol by volume: 5.5%
Original Gravity: 17° Plato
Bitterness Units: 28
Other: 2004 GABF gold medal winner
Available: Throughout the Northwest
A Northwest classic.