Peering Into The Darkness: A Look At Stouts, In A New Light.
Even the most casual of beer drinker enjoys a stout at one time or another. Chances are fairly high that when they do, it is one particular stout. For many, enjoying this particular stout may only be an annual experience, done while trying to mimic an Irish accent and wearing a plastic green hat. For others, this stout is imbibed on a regular basis and enjoyed with great sincerity. Nothing is necessarily wrong with any of this, of course – Guinness does make the world’s best selling stout, and it can be found just about everywhere, from the smallest of local bars to the most common of chain restaurants. Now perhaps you do only enjoy this pitch black brew once annually, or maybe it’s a regular “go to” beer, and you consider yourself a true fan. Either way, due to the incredibly high availability of Guinness and the creative marketing department behind it, it certainly is difficult to miss. Which only goes to show that at the very least, the Guinness marketing department has been doing a pretty darn good job through the years – perhaps even a “brilliant” job, right?
Now although what follows might seem slightly critical of Guinness, it definitely isn’t intended to be. But the world does tend to revolve around perceptions, and I think that it’s common for something that is as highly recognizable as the Guinness Stout found in most restaurants to perhaps be perceived as the expected “standard” for the kind of product it is, at least among casual consumers. Let’s face it, Guinness is so very different from the rest of those taps at your local pub, chain, or restaurant – dark, very dark, and it definitely tastes differently. But as with all beer styles and types, generalizations only lead to trouble. As I’ve written before, using a single beer as a good example of an entire style because it’s widely available is no more a good idea than using a McDonald’s cheeseburger as the standard of all cheeseburgers. (Thank goodness that’s not true.) Simply put, sheer availability is only that, and that Guinness you’ve had on draft is only one stout.
The reality is this – the world is full of stouts, other than the familiar gold and black labeled one found just about everywhere. What’s truly important to realize is that the world of stouts is a broad one to say the least, filled with a long history, all kinds of styles and variations, and worth getting more deeply into. Speaking of which, ever heard of an Oyster Stout?
The term “stout” began to show up in the early to mid 18th century in England and Ireland as simply an adjective, given to stronger versions of the common English Porter. Because of the higher alcohol content (many reached at least 7.5% abv), they could withstand long voyages, and therefore, many were shipped overseas. Brewery records mention that some were shipped to the West Indies, and Guinness specifically shipped an “export” version of a porter, known as their “West India Porter” to that area which eventually became their “Foreign Export Stout”. Today, the terms “Porter” and “Stout” continue to cause heated discussions among those who live a bit too strictly by beer style definitions. As always, the lines by which beer style definitions are drawn are very often moving targets, and thin differences between these two tend to come down to a matter of opinion. The only true fact seems to be that one was born of the other, and that’s about where you have to draw the line. Among Stouts themselves, there is also one other common bond. Although not used in the original stouts and porters, today, stouts get their black color and their unmistakable coffee and bitter, dark chocolate like flavors from the use of roasted barley, which is heated nearly to the point of charring.
No attempt at defining stouts would also be complete without explaining that the Stout by itself really isn’t a specific beer style, but more of a name for a larger family of individual styles. That Guinness you have had on tap before, probably the “Guinness Draught” is technically a Dry Irish Stout. Although body and alcohol content is kept in check for day to day drinkability, the taste of the roasted barley can be pretty dominant in these, and give the beer a slightly to moderately bitter flavor, with a drying quality, especially in the finish. They may have a slightly charred, charcoal, or bitter chocolate taste. Often, these have a fair amount of hop character in them as well, balancing the roasted flavors, and some additional bitterness can come through as a result. Dry stouts are also another great example of a beer mythbuster. Care to guess the alcohol content of the Guinness on tap at your local pub? In what is proof that the color of a beer has nothing to do with alcoholic strength, a Guinness “Draught” has actually less alcohol content than a Budweiser.
Two other types of stouts tell stories with an exotic, world traveling, almost Indiana Jones like feel. Remember the Guinness Foreign Export Stout I mentioned before? High alcohol content and a high level of hops, a natural preservative, allowed these beers to be shipped over long voyages to locales such as the Caribbean. The term stuck, and today, the Foreign Export is a style all its own. It is a bit of a throwback to some of the original stouts, at least in terms of alcohol content – many are around six to seven or so percent abv. Still another has a globe crossing story behind it, and is even more romantic, involving royalty no less. In the early 18th century, several English brewers began shipping a version of a stout to Russia, apparently as trade between Europe and the Baltic area opened up more widely than before. As the story goes, an even higher level of alcohol was desired in these “Imperial” stouts, to satisfy the high tolerances members of the Russian royalty and their courts apparently possessed. The term “Imperial”, and now is very commonly used to describe just about any strong version of a beer – think Imperial India Pale Ales for example. Today, Russian Imperial Stouts are still quite strong, with a common alcohol levels around eight to ten percent or higher. They often have a very creamy, smooth mouth feel and feature huge malty flavors, often featuring dark chocolate and occasional dark fruit flavors, such as prune or raisin. Less likely than other stouts to be balanced out by much hop presence, they can be very complex beers, and in my opinion, make an awesome cold winter’s night brew.
Oatmeal Stouts are just that, versions of the style in which the brewer has used flaked oats in the beer’s recipe. Oats are used in many beers, not just stouts, though, but in all are used to add a velvety smooth body to the beer. They are much more common than you might think, and actually show up in many stouts without any special mention.
Still others are Sweet Stouts and Milk Stouts. Sweet stouts use a fair amount of specialty malts known for giving any beer a bit of a sweeter taste, and do just that in the stouts they’re added to, along with the roasted barley. Milk Stouts use lactose as a sugar in the beer. Both of these use their sweeter flavors to take a bit of the edge off of the roasted grain character, and for some folks, this can make them a little less bracing, and “easier” to drink.
Then there are what many affectionately call American Stouts. So many legendary beer styles of more traditional, old-world beer producing countries have been taken on by American craft brewers and reinvented over the years, often with a “let’s see what we can REALLY do with this” sort of attitude, and the stout wasn’t going to be left out. Big hop and roasted barley flavors, the use of coffee or actual chocolate nibs for depth of flavor, or aging the beer in bourbon barrels are just some examples of the creativity being put into the American Stout or into stronger, “Imperial” versions.
So whether you enjoy a stout only occasionally or with some regularity, it’s definitely time to move the taste buds beyond any one in particular. The range of what’s out there is truly close to limitless. American craft brewers have taken this style and run with it, with delicious, creative variations like the ones mentioned above, or with more straight ahead, everyday drinking versions closer to the classic styles, but with results that perhaps taste better than, well, the “classics”. The legendary stout has a history behind it that sounds as if it has been authored with an ear for adventure and drama, and I swear it sometimes seems the essence of this mysterious history lurks in the black, impenetrable darkness of each and every stout poured. So the next time you feel like taking a beer adventure, pick up a stout, and make it something different. And toss the plastic green hat – you won’t need it where you’re going.
Below I’ve listed some examples of stouts to try if you haven’t already done so. Please keep in mind a couple things: that within each “style” of stout, there is always some overlapping here and there, so no sticking too strictly to style definitions, and two, there are just too many great stouts out there to even scratch the surface here. I picked these either because I’ve tasted them myself and enjoyed them, they are generally easy to find if you’re looking for jumping off points, or they simply come highly recommended. Enjoy!
Dry Irish Stouts: Avery Brewing (CO) Out of Bounds Stout, Starr Hill Brewing (VA) Dark Starr Stout.
Foreign Export Stouts: Lion Brewery Limited’s Lion Stout (Sri Lanka), Guinness (Ireland) Foreign Export Stout (after decades of shipping this only to places such as the Caribbean, Guinness has only recently begun shipping this back to the US).
Milk or Sweet Stouts: Left Hand Brewing (CO) Milk Stout, Terrapin Brewing (GA) Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout, Young’s (Wells and Young’s, UK) Double Chocolate Stout, Lancaster Brewing Company’s (PA) Milk Stout, The Duck Rabbit Brewery’s (NC) Milk Stout.
Russian Imperial Stouts: Brooklyn Brewery’s (NY) Black Chocolate Stout (seasonal), Great Divide’s (CO) Yeti and Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stouts, Oskar Blues’ (CO) Ten FIDY Imperial Stout, North Coast’s (CA) Old Rasputin, Victory Brewing (PA) Storm King Stout, Foothills Brewing (NC) Sexual Chocolate Stout, Heavy Seas Brewing (MD) Peg Leg Imperial Stout, Samuel Smith’s (UK) Imperial Stout.
American Stouts, Imperial and otherwise: Founders Brewing (MI) Breakfast Stout, Dogfish Head’s (DE) World Wide Stout, Highland Brewing (NC) Black Mocha Stout, Shooting Creek Brewery’s (VA) Farmhouse Stout, Rogue Brewery’s (OR) Chocolate Stout, Bells Brewing (MI) Kalamazoo and Java Stouts, Sierra Nevada’s (CA) Stout, Bluegrass Brewing (KY) Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout, Terrapin Brewing (GA) Wake N’ Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout, Deschutes Brewing (OR) Obsidian Stout.