One of the best beers that's ever appeared at the annual Portland Pro/Am beer festival was headed for a drain pour.

It was 2014, and Natalie Baldwin, then recently hired as an assistant at Burnside Brewing, paired up with longtime pro brewer Dave Flemming of Kells. She was 24 and got to know Fleming while tending bar at Pints in Old Town.

Baldwin and Fleming teamed up for the Pro/Am—the event, which pairs amateur and pro brewers, returns Saturday—to brew a milk stout. It was intended to be a roasty and slightly sweet homage to Great Divide's Chocolate Yeti, a classic beer from Baldwin's native Colorado she credits as her gateway drug.

On the day they brewed, Baldwin and Fleming gave their beer a heavy dose of lactose, an unfermentable milk sugar that is often used to back-sweeten a beer. The "milk" in milk stouts lends thick, creamy mouthfeel with its sweetness, providing a round, quaffable quality to sharp-edged dark malts.

"I had never brewed with lactose before and Dave had, but not super consistently," she says. "He'd done it once and didn't think it was enough, so this time he added more."

More was too much.

"It was a shit load of lactose," Baldwin says, "It was way—way, way—too sweet."

With the competition coming up, the pair met up over coffee to discuss their tank full of Frankenstein. As they spoke of what to do with the many gallons of thick, sweet, ale at their disposal, Baldwin dumped some of it into her coffee cup as a joke.

"'Oh, it's a sweetener,'" she recalls joking, before stealing a taste.

That sample, and the beer that would emerge from it, were a delightful accident. The acidity from the coffee perfectly balanced the overly sweet character of the dark ale beneath it, a utopian blend of chocolate roast and fluffy-sweet malt. Their coffee milk stout went on to win both people's and judge's choice at our 2014 competition, and helped Baldwin climb the ranks at Burnside.

(Christine Dong)
(Christine Dong)

Part of what makes Baldwin so good—we've seen a renaissance at the brewery since she took over the tanks—is that she's able to work on the fly. Over a shift-ending pint at Burnside, she tells the story of a late-night brewing session when she ran out of ice for the bath she was using to chill her beer.

"I ended up using Otter Pops from the freezer as the ice for the ice bath," she laughs, "The beer actually turned out pretty well."

Part of what makes the Pro/Am so special is that the brewing teams man their own tables, unlike other festivals where volunteers do the pouring. They not only talk about their beer, but see who loved it as they collect marbles from the voters. Those marbles are the ballots and crown the winner. After the voting boxes had been taken from the 2014 competition, three people came up late to give Baldwin their marbles.

Two years later, she dug them out of her purse to show me.

"I almost always have them on me," she says.

Last year, Baldwin judged the competition, which was won by a 19th-century stout made by 13 Virtues and Bill Schneller. This year, Baldwin will compete as the pro half of the Burnside team, having aided homebrewing couple Jen McPoland and Jeremie Landers in the creation of a lavender and vanilla cream ale.

(Christine Dong)
(Christine Dong)

Though her humble beginnings are now thousands of batches behind her, Baldwin still feels some anticipation when it comes to helping birth her latest creation—especially given her history.

"It's kind of cool to be on literally all sides of the competition," she says, "It's definitely nerve-wracking."

SEE IT: The Portland Pro/Am beer festival is at the North Warehouse, 723 N Tillamook St., on Saturday, Oct. 15. Noon-6:30 pm. $25. Tickets at wweek.com/beerproam.