If you’ve been drinking beer in South Africa for a while, you’ll likely be familiar with Striped Horse. The contract brand launched in 2014 with a lager and a pilsner, at the time both brewed at Cape Brewing Company (CBC). Packaged in unique long-neck bottles, the brand was very much in the high end/craft/super-premium department. Over the years, Striped Horse evolved as a contract brand should – a flagship bar popped up on the Muizenberg beachfront, a pale ale was added to the stable – and then removed. The brand was then acquired by Signal Hill Products (owners of Devil’s Peak) and it seemed they had a different plan for Striped Horse.
In 2020 (I think – let’s be honest, the last year and a half is all a bit of a boring blur), Striped Horse lager was released in an almost-quart bottle (600ml). It was an interesting move that certainly caught the eye of craft drinkers. Were they trying to popularise a new bottle size? Or were they, perhaps, attempting to challenge SAB? The strategy became clearer earlier this year when Striped Horse launched a new beer. It was a milk stout, packaged in both 330 and 600ml bottles.
SA has a long and slightly curious relationship with milk stout, documented by UK beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell on his excellent Zythophile blog. It’s not a beer style that retains much popularity elsewhere, and yet of all the styles to choose from, a South African craft/premium contract brand decided on milk stout. There seems little doubt it was conceptualised to try and take on Castle Milk Stout (CMS).
But enough preamble. Let’s get to the tasting.
I’d be quite amazed if any South African reading this blog had not tried Castle Milk Stout. It is, by many reckonings, the best of SAB’s beers and until about a decade ago, it was one of the best and most interesting beer available in the country. It doesn’t necessarily adhere perfectly to the style parameters. Castle Milk Stout is fermented as a lager and its ingredients list caramel alongside the usual malt, hops, water and of course, lactose, which gives the beer its dairy-based name. But it still scores highly among drinkers and among judges – and rightfully so.
When I bought the two to taste side by side, I knew I had to taste them blind. But it didn’t really make much difference – one whiff of CMS was all I needed to identify which stout was which. It was a pleasantly nostalgic aroma – a touch of caramel, a hint of chocolate and a sweet bubblegum quality that took me back ten years or so, when I first moved to South Africa. Craft beer was largely limited to lagers, or ales that you could only find at the smattering of brewpubs around the country. Castle Milk Stout was widely available and it generally had its own dedicated place in our fridge.
I have fond memories of using it to break the monotony of sampling pale lagers when we first started studying towards the BJCP. I have very fond memories of occasionally finding it on nitro pour at select pubs around town. And I have the fondest memories of sampling its richer, bolder cousin NESSY (Newlands Extra Special Stout) – allegedly the base high gravity beer before it (allegedly) gets diluted and turned into CMS.
Then along comes Striped Horse. And it is good. It’s really good. Thicker and fuller bodied than Castle, Striped Horse Milk Stout is perhaps not what South Africans picture on their palates when they think of milk stout, but I doubt it would fail to impress an international appreciator of the style.
Borderline black with a lingering fluffy foam crown, it’s decadent to look at and more so to sip, with lashings of chocolate and coffee dominating. It has the telltale sweetness of the style but there’s just a touch of bitterness in the back to balance things out and keep you going back for another gulp.
In comparison, CMS seemed almost cloying and as I neared the bottom of my glass, I found myself craving another sip of Striped Horse to balance out all that sweetness.
They’re both undoubtedly great beers, and both took medals at this year’s African Beer Cup. But I think it’s safe to say that in my fridge the little corner that was once reserved for Castle Milk Stout is these days likely to be reserved for something with more legs.
Have you tried Striped Horse Milk Stout? How did it compare to the classic Castle version? Let me know what you thought in the comments section below.