Oatmeal beers were first brewed briefly in the 1500s, but were unsuccessful and did not last because of the overpowering bitterness that came from using solely oatmeal in the grain bill. However, oatmeal re-surged in 1895 with the creation of the oatmalt stout by James Maclay. By the 1900s, oatmeal was being used as an add-on in incredibly low quantities, often below 1%. Since then oatmeal has gone from being used in mostly stouts to now creating a plethora of styles including variations of the Oatmeal Pale Ale, the Oatmeal Brown Ale, and the Oatmeal Amber Ale.
So, why is oatmeal desirable in a beer? Well, the trait that makes oatmeal so desirable is the creamy mouthfeel and fullness it adds to the beer. Oatmeal gives beer a velvety slickness and aids in head retention. Adding it to a beer can end in a delicious creation but is also a complex process when following an oatmeal ale recipe.
To make an Oatmeal Ale, the oatmeal needs to be mashed in the presence of other grains and requires its own mini mash, unfortunately you cant just steep it and add it. Oats are high in protein that can aid in head retention and result in a beer with a haze which isn’t as much of a problem with dark beers like stouts, but can be more noticeable and problematic when brewing lighter beers.
Of course, it’s understandable that oatmeal added to a rich dark beer is delicious, but that’s not the only beer they are good in and used for. Some brewers want to incorporate the thick creamy consistency in a pale beer with a bright hoppy palate.
Oatmeal Brown Ale has a velvety complex mouthfeel, is delightfully rich, and has great retention like any good oatmeal beer should. They regularly balance malty, toasty, complex flavors with an earthy herbal hop character. Oatmeal Brown Ale recipes often call for English ale yeast, which adds in flavors and esters of dark cherry and plum. Brewers have also experimented adding in other flavors resulting in beers like the popular Coffee Oatmeal Brown Ale.
As for the Oatmeal Pale Ale recipe, the brewers intention was to produce an ale with the loveable IPA-like juicy hop flavors, and juxtapose them with a soft, silky malt base. A popular version of the style is the Oatmeal Belgian Pale Ale started by Bill Schneller.
A Belgian Oatmeal Pale Ale follows the Belgian beer style of being yeast driven with malt and hops playing supporting roles. Flaked oats are used of course for the smooth finish while noble hops and yeast bring out the Belgian characteristics.
The ABV of these oatmeal ale beer styles typically range from 5-6%, and come in so many styles since the craft beer world is all about experimenting and finding new niches.