Stout: Once You Go Black, You'll Never Go Back

by: BeerAdvocate on 02-28-2001
Most Americans look at Stout as a thick, murky, "eat it with a spoon" beer. It is also a common misconception that these black beers are more potent, simply due to their appearance. Plenty of Bostonians see it as a nitro forced black beverage and happily quaff down several pints a night with out a second thought, usually a Guinness Draught or Murphy's. Guinness has less alcohol than Budweiser, around 4.2% alcohol by volume (on tap, 4.1% draught can, in the US) which would explain why everyone can drink so much of it, so quickly, and why it has become a popular session beer. But, here's a little Stout 101 for the novices, for those that might want to switch things up a bit: We have all been to one of the many Irish pubs in the area, and friends or co-workers talk in awe about Guinness and how it is the best stout, if not beer, in the world. Not entirely true. The modern day Guinness "on draught version" is definitely the best selling Stout in the world, but there's more to the story.

There are many variations of the stout beer style. Some are dry and some are sweet, some hoppy and some alcoholic. All have that common characteristic of a roasted flavour that sets them apart from any other style. Usually this roasted character comes from the use of roasted barley, which is barley grain that has not been malted, but rather highly kilned. The process imparts a uniqueness to the grain and creates flavours ranging from bitter unsweetened chocolate to coffee, to a dry grain astringency.

In the late 1600's to early 1700's, the term "stout" was often used to reference a strong beer. When the term actually became a style is up for interpretation, however, what we do know is that back in the late 1700's, when Guinness was first brewing what was then called its Porter, it was not brewing the light bodied easy to suck down creamy stout that most imbibers enjoy today. It was a dark murky looking brew, standing, roughly, a whopping 7.5% abv. Guinness first brewed a strong export style to be shipped to the Caribbean, an Export / Foreign Stout, hence the name Guinness Foreign Export Strong Porter (later to be called, Foreign Extra Stout). It had a very complex, huge body, big hop profile and an intense robust character. You can still purchase it today -- and it's very much brewed the same way -- but only in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

In the very late 1700's, some English breweries produced an export stout, similar to a foreign export, specifically for the Baltic area. This variation was called a Russian Imperial Stout. Brewed to an extreme strength, around 8-11% abv, and conditioned for months, even aged for years before consumption, these brews were quite popular within the Russian Imperial Court. The closest rendition of this brew is A. Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout imported by B. United International. Others include: North Coast's Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, Smuttynose Imperial Stout, Sam Smith Imperial Stout and Rogue Imperial Stout.

One of the most common stouts, Dry Irish Stout, can be any where from 3.5-5.5% abv, with a moderate body to keep it on the drinkable side. They're usually a lower carbonation brew and served on a nitro system for that creamy, masking effect. Bitterness comes from both roasted barley and a generous dose of hops, though the roasted character will be more noticeable. Examples of the style are, of course, the big three, Murphy's, Beamish and Guinness (draught, can and the bottled Guinness Extra Stout, 6.0%), however there are many American brewed dry stouts that are comparable, if not better. Gritty Mcduff's Black Fly Stout and Shipyard Bluefin are the best stouts to come out of Maine, and they are available in Boston. As for local stuff, John Harvard's dishes out a mean Dry Irish that we consume pitcher after pitcher, Boston Beer Works Curley's Irish Stout was reformulated a while back and is superior to Guinness Draught in our opinion and Northeast Brewing Company's Black Sow Stout is also a treat, with its rounded roasted bitterness and hint of smoke.

An often ignored style, the Sweet Stout, is one of the youngest styles (early 20th century). They contain large profiles of crystal, amber, roasted and pale malt blends and usually range between 6-8% abv. A sweet stout variation also includes lactose or milk sugar, and often additions of cane or other fermentable sugars for priming, dubbed a Milk Stout. Additions of oatmeal are commonly added to both to induce an even smoother mouthfeel and body. Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Young's Luxury Chocolate Stout, John Harvard's Milk, Mackeson's XXX Milk Stout and Tennent's Stout are prefect examples.

Another old style of stout once contained ground oyster shells, oyster meat or just oyster juice. The Oyster Stout is said to be a style inspired by the early 19th century London dock workers, whose staple diet was ... oysters and stout. At first, brewers used finely crushed oyster shells to filter their brews, but later, the adventurous slipped shucked shellfish into their stouts, and the style was born. Oyster Stouts are extremely rare these days, but you can make your own by adding the left over liquor from a shucked oyster and blending it with your favourite stout - a strong one is recommended.

One of the most brilliant births to come out of the micro-brew revolution of the 80's is the American Stout. American brewers embraced the styles of old, but basically said "Okay, but how can we make it better?" Sierra Nevada Stout, Redhook Double Black Stout, Rogue Shakespeare Stout, Boston Beer Works Buckeye Oatmeal Stout and Ipswich Oatmeal Stout are just a few answers to the question. This style 100% American in uniqueness and taste, and should be 100% supported. Buy, drink and celebrate.

So, as you can see, there is more to stout than that low-alcohol creamy milk shake-like thing in your hand. Go ahead and drink it, have another if you like, but consider alternatives now and again.
© BeerAdvocate.com, Inc. All rights reserved.