By Kendall Staggs (The Beer Prof)
Spring is here. Blossoms have appeared, and they promise longer and warmer days ahead. St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone. On that day, beer lovers think of one particular brew: Guinness Stout. Garrett Oliver, the author of The Brewmaster’s Table notes, “No other style of beer is as married to one brewery as Stout is to Guinness.” Yet Oliver reminds us that there are now 19 different versions of Guinness Stout brewed in more than 40 countries, and there are many varieties of Stout that are not brewed by Guinness. The Beer Judge Certification Program, which oversees the judging of homebrewed beer and offers guidelines for over two dozen beer styles, identifies six different sub-styles of Stouts: Dry, Sweet, Oatmeal, Foreign Extra, American, and Russian Imperial. All of them have brands that we can get here.
The Origins of Stout
In the English brewing tradition, “Stout” was originally the name for any strong ale. There were Stout Porters and even Stout Pale Ales. It was not until the late 19th century that brewers and their customers started calling Stout Porter just “Stout.” Since then Stout, when used alone, has become synonymous with the beer style that we recognize today.
In 1759 Arthur Guinness, aged 34, signed a 9000-year lease on a defunct brewery at St. James Gate, in Dublin. By the late 18th century, Guinness was brewing mostly Porter, the strong dark ale that was popular with the British and Irish working class. In 1820 the Guinness Brewery began making what it called Stout Porter. It differed from ordinary Porter in three ways. First, it was stronger, with more malt, hops, and alcohol strength. Second, it was darker. Because beer drinkers then and now associate darker beers with stronger beers, the brewers added black patent malt, a malt variety that is kilned at higher temperatures to achieve a very dark color. Finally, Stout Porter featured roasted, unmalted barley. This was made possible thanks to Daniel Wheeler’s patented roasting machine, which imparted a coffee-like aroma and flavor.
Beer writers disagree about what exactly differentiates modern Stout from modern Porter. I join the group that insists that Stouts are defined by the presence of roasted, unmalted barley. According to this definition, then, Porters, are dark brown ales that lack the intense roasted qualities found in Stouts.
Ireland’s National Drink
The world’s best known Stout is Guinness Extra Stout (4.2 percent abv). It defines the style now called Dry Stout, which is arguably the national drink of Ireland. Dry Stout is actually a very light beer. It’s not light in color, obviously; the use of roasted grains makes it nearly black. But it’s light in body and in alcohol strength. Guinness Extra Stout, whether on draft in a tavern, in a bottle, or in a can, has the approximate alcohol strength of an American mass-produced lager. This allows Guinness lovers to consume several pints during an evening out. The characteristic creamy head is the result of an ingenious tap system that forces dissolved nitrogen from the beer under very high pressure. Guinness and its rivals combine a robust hop bite with flavors reminiscent of coffee and dark chocolate.
In Ireland, Guinness has had plenty of competition over the years. The Beamish and Crawford Brewery, established in Cork in 1792, brewed Stout that actually outsold Guinness until 1833. Another Cork brewery, Murphy’s, was established in 1856 on the site of a well consecrated to Our Lady. Many residents of Cork still prefer Beamish Stout or Murphy’s Stout to Guinness Extra Stout.
Murphy’s Stout (4.0 percent abv) is my recommendation for the Dry Stout style, if only to get people to try something other than Guinness. I poured it from a 500 ml. can featuring the widget, the now ubiquitous device invented by Guinness that dispenses nitrogen in the beer, giving it the same creamy texture that kegged versions have. Murphy’s Stout has a delicious, lightly roasted, milk chocolate flavor. It is much thinner than the beers I normally drink and goes down very easily. This beer quickly disproves the notion that dark color indicates strong beer.
My other Dry Stout recommendations include, from Ireland, Guinness Extra Stout, Beamish Irish Stout, and O’Hara’s Irish Stout; from California, North Coast Old 38 Stout and Mendicino Black Hawk Stout; and from Maine, Shipyard Blue Fin Stout.
Dry Stouts go well with a variety of foods, but my favorite is oysters. Stouts have been associated with oysters since the early 19th century. Charles Dickens frequently described such a meal in his novels, at a time when oysters were so plentiful in England that taverns often served them free with an order of beer. Dry Stouts also go well with mussels, clams, scallops, and smoked salmon—just about any assertive seafood. They also pair well with corned beef, pastrami, and smoked hams. Garrett Oliver recommends them with steaks and burgers, and adds, “every Irish household has an old recipe for Guinness stew, a dish that I imagine is as old as the brewery.”
Sweets for the Sweet
Stouts have long enjoyed a reputation as a healthy tonic. “Guinness is Good for You” was one of the brewery’s most famous and longest-running advertising slogans. The Irish called Stout “mother’s milk” and prescribed it to nursing mothers. This practice is now controversial, but there are still many people around the world who believe it is medically sound. Perhaps this helped inspire English brewers to add milk sugar (lactose), which does not ferment, to their Stouts. The resulting Stouts were sweeter but still relatively low in alcohol. They were not only served to nursing mothers, but also to people recuperating from illness or injury. They were also regarded as what today might be called an energy drink, favored especially by British miners and shipyard workers.
Most modern Sweet Stouts are sweet because they emphasize maltiness rather than hop bitterness. A few have lactose added. These beers retain the coffee and chocolate flavors of roasted barley, and have been compared to cream liqueurs. In recent years a few American and Japanese breweries have added Milk Stouts to their line-ups.
A more recent innovation among Sweet Stouts is the use of chocolate. I’m very fond of Double Chocolate Stout (5.2 percent abv), which was introduced by the Young’s Brewery of London in 1997. It was the first Stout to be brewed with added chocolate—both bars and essence. It is silky smooth, especially when dispensed from the nitrogen-charged can. The flavors begin with a hint of ginger, followed by fudge and cream. It is balanced with a bitter-chocolate finish.
My other Sweet Stout recommendations include, from England, Mackeson’s Stout (the original Milk Stout) and McMullen’s Chocolate Stout; from Colorado, Left Hand Milk Stout; from Pennsylvania, Lancaster Milk Stout, and from New York, Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence.
Beer writers are unanimous in proclaiming that wines—even dessert wines—don’t really pair well with chocolate cakes, puddings, or mousses. Sweet stouts do. Michael Jackson offers this particularly tempting idea: Sweet Stout with Sachertorte, the famous Viennese chocolate cake with apricot preserves. Just writing about it makes my mouth water. If you can’t find anything that fancy, try a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass of Sweet Stout. It works.
Not Just for Breakfast Anymore
Another Stout sub-style is Oatmeal Stout, which may have been invented when brewers ran short of malted barley. Modern versions only use a tiny proportion of oatmeal in the brewing process; otherwise they would turn the grain mash into glue. The use of a little oatmeal imparts a delicious creaminess of both texture and flavor to Oatmeal Stouts, which also feature the aromas and flavors of coffee and chocolate.
Oatmeal Stouts began to fade from the British brewing scene in the 1960s, and in the 1970s they disappeared. Samuel Smith’s Brewery in the village of Tadcaster, England, revived the style in the 1980s and began exporting it to the United States. Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout (5.0 percent abv) has a fresh, flowery hop aroma and a sweet, creamy flavor. Its palate is silky and full-bodied and its finish is relatively sweet. It is remarkably easy to drink, and very delicious.
I also strongly recommend Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout (5.8 percent abv), from the tiny town of Boonville, in Mendocino County, in northern California. It is a little more robust and has more pronounced hop aroma, flavor, and bitterness than its English cousin. Its flavors include freshly baked bread, toffee, and dried cherries. It is one of the highest rated Oatmeal Stouts on Beer Advocate website; in fact, the founders of the site award it the rare score of 100. The Anderson Valley Brewery was founded in 1987, and was one of the first twenty craft breweries in America. Some of the local residents around Boonville still speak a local slang called Boontling, leftover from early days when timber harvesting was a booming local business. On its bottles Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout is described as “shy sluggin’ gorms neemer!” which means, “not just for breakfast anymore!”
My other Oatmeal Stout recommendations include, from England, Young’s Oatmeal Stout; from Oregon, Rogue Shakespeare Stout; from Massachusetts, Ipswich Oatmeal Stout, and from Montreal, Canada, McAuslan St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout.
Oatmeal Stouts are the perfect accompaniment for creamy desserts. Garrett Oliver recommends them with cheesecake. Michael Jackson recommends them with zabaglione or tiramisu. I have to admit I had to look up what those are. Zabaglione (sabyayon in French) is Italian dessert, usually served in a champagne glass, that’s a whipped custard made from egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine. Tiramisu, also Italian, is a layered dessert made from lady fingers dipped in coffee, layered with a mixture of whipped egg yolk and mascarpone cheese, and flavored with Marasala wine and cocoa. They sound delicious, and I look forward to trying them with Oatmeal Stouts.
Beer Fit for a Queen, or Tsarina
The strongest Stouts were originally made in Britain for export to the countries of Scandinavia and the Baltic coast. Because these beers were favored by the royal court in St. Petersburg, they were called Russian Imperial Stouts. These beers are very rich, and they often combine the coffee-like roastiness of other Stouts with blackberry fruitiness and the flavors of dark chocolate, licorice, and mild smokiness.
According to Michael Jackson, the original Russian Imperial Stout was brewed by the Barclay’s Brewery of London in the late 18th century. It was first exported to St. Petersburg at the request of the Russian tsarina, Catherine the Great, after she sampled Stout on a visit to England. Catherine was famous for her appetites; she supposedly breakfasted on vodka-laced tea and a caviar omelet. According to legend, the first shipment of Stout sent to Catherine spoiled on its way across the Baltic Sea, so the brewers made a stronger, hoppier version that not only survived, but became very popular in Russia. Other British brewers shipped Stouts to Nordic ports and to the Baltic states, and over time, local breweries began to brew their own interpretations of the style, which are usually called Baltic Porters.
Courage Imperial Stout (10.0 percent abv), from the Wells & Young Brewery in Bedford, England, is available in some parts of the United States. It’s based on the original recipe for the beer Catherine the Great commissioned from Thale’s Anchor Brewery in Southward and later brewed by the John Courage Brewery for the Russian imperial court.
My favorite Russian Imperial Stout is Old Rasputin, from the North Coast Brewing Company of Fort Bragg, California. It’s plenty strong at 9 percent alcohol by volume, and has rich, toffee, rum notes, and, true to style, a generous dose of hop flavors and hop bitterness. I am impressed at how delicious and well balanced it is with all of the intense aromas and flavors swirling around in such a big beer. Worth seeking, too, is the bourbon barrel-aged version of Old Rasputin. The North Coast Brewery was founded in 1987 in an old Presbyterian church and mortuary in Fort Bragg, which was once a whaling town.
My other Imperial Stout recommendations include, from England, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout; from California, Stone Imperial Russian Stout; from New York, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout; from Florida, Cigar City Marshal Zhukov’s Stout; and from Oregon, Rogue Imperial Stout.
I’ll just offer recommendations for the remaining Stout sub-styles. Among Foreign Extra Stouts, the one I would seek first is Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 percent abv). Until recently, it was available in the Caribbean, where it is wildly popular, but not in the United States. My other Foreign Extra Stout recommendations include, from England, Ridgeway Lump of Coal Stout; from Australia, Cooper’s Best Extra Stout; from Wyoming, Snake River Zonker Stout; and from Seattle, Pike Street XXXXX Stout, with an extremely intense coffee-like flavor, which I just sampled last weekend.
My recommendation for American Stout is easy to find in these parts: Deschutes Obsidian Stout (6.4 percent abv), from Bend, Oregon. It is relatively hoppy and robust, and practically defines the style. My other American Stout recommendations include, from California, Sierra Nevada Stout and Steelhead Extra Stout, and from Michigan, Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout.
Stouts, with their heartiness and roastiness, might seem best suited for the winter, and that’s when I usually have one. But they are surprisingly good year-round, and go well with a lot of different foods. There are a lot of different varieties, and the best among them are sure to please. Drink one, and you will prove your worth.