As winter draws near and the weather gets cold, many beer drinkers are drawn to the appeal of something richer, darker, stronger and more complex. For many, stout fits the bill perfectly. For others, stout is a year-long staple. Regardless of the time of year, there is no doubt that this centuries-old style has a broad appeal for its rich texture, roasty aroma, and malty—sometimes sweet—flavor. In fact, in April 2011, the Brewers Association reported that stout was the fastest-growing style of beer, outpacing both pilsner and IPA.
One of the most common stouts on the market today is Guinness. If you’ve had this beer, then you’re familiar with the creamy mouthfeel and full-bodied texture. Although it seems heavy, Guinness is a relatively light beer weighing in at roughly 4 percent alcohol by volume. The creamy, heavy feeling comes from being gassed with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, Guinness is merely a single example of one style of stout. The world of stout is far broader and more delicious than any single example. Today there’s a wide variety of stouts, including oatmeal stout, milk stout, dry stout, imperial stout, bourbon barrel-aged stout, cherry stout, chocolate stout, coffee stout and oyster stout.
The history of stout actually begins with porter, which was first introduced around 1722. In those days, porter was a ruby red or brown beer, made with brown malt that was roasted over a fire, which made the malt smoky and a few kernels pop like popcorn. It was a popular style among the working class, particularly porters, who carried heavy loads of dry goods from warehouses to markets—thus the name “porter.”
Around the same time, in the early 1700s, “stout” was used to describe any beer as strong with a higher alcohol content, bolder taste and a darker color (due to the use of more malt). Consequently, a stout porter was a stronger, slightly darker porter. Likely as early as 1820, brewers began to drop “porter” and started to produce a product known as stout, the predecessor to the modern stout. Around the same time, black malt was invented, enabling brewers to create truly black beer, further indoctrinating the term “stout” into the English beer lexicon to mean darker and stronger.
This is the style of stout made popular by Guinness. Like all stouts, the color is very dark brown to jet black with a head that ranges from tan to brown. The aroma of dry stout is dark-roasted, sometimes toasty or bready, and often coffee-like. Unlike most other styles of stout, dry stout has little to no chocolate or cocoa notes. The flavor is dry, not sweet, with a roasted malt and hop bitterness that is moderate to high. Dry stout can actually contain a light to moderate amount of acidity and has a dry, coffee-like finish. The texture of this style is full-bodied and creamy, which acts as nice balance to the dry roasted flavors. Despite the seemingly harsh flavors, dry stout is surprisingly smooth and quaffable. Alcohol by volume is usually moderate at 4 to 5 percent.
Dry Stouts to Try: Guinness Draught Stout, Murphy’s Stout, Russian River OVL and Three Floyds Black Sun Stout.
Sweet stout is also known as “milk stout” or “cream stout” because it is brewed with lactose, or milk sugar. Because lactose is not fermentable by brewer’s yeast, it adds extra body and sweetness to the final product. This stout variation has a comparatively recent history, appearing in the late 1800s gaining peak popularity only after World War II.
Sweet stout has a milder roasted grain aroma than other stout styles but it still has notes of coffee or chocolate. It typically exhibits qualities of a creamy sweetness; when combined with chocolate aromas, it can be reminiscent of chocolate milk. This is a moderately bitter beer with medium-to-high sweetness from the lactose. Sweet stout has a full-bodied and creamy texture with moderate alcohol by volume typically ranging from 4 to 6 percent.
Sweet Stouts to Try: St. Peter’s Cream Stout, Left Hand Milk Stout, and Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout.
Oatmeal stout almost defines itself: a stout made with up to 20 percent oats. Along with classic stout, oatmeal stout, in particular, became popular in England in the late 1800s due to the perception that it was nourishing and healthy.
Like the other stout styles, oatmeal stout is jet black with a tan or brown head. The oats in the beer help with head retention so the head on this beer should be thick, creamy and long-lasting. The aroma has a roasted character sometimes reminiscent of coffee with cream or a chocolaty mocha. Some versions of oatmeal stout will even have a light oatmeal or nutty aroma. The hop aroma and flavor is faint to undetectable, and the sweetness of this beer is somewhere between a sweet stout and a dry stout. Despite the roasted nature of this beer, oatmeal stout is only moderately bitter. This is a rich, complex full-flavored stout. Alcohol by volume is moderate as well, typically ranging anywhere between 4.2 to 5.9 percent.
Oatmeal Stouts to Try: Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, Goose Island Oatmeal Stout, and Firestone-Walker Velvet Merlin.
Imperial stout was brewed in London in the late 1700s, for export to Russia and the Baltic states. History seems to indicate that the first imperial stout was brewed specifically for the Russian Imperial court of Czarina Catherine the Great, thus the name of the beer style. Even in those days, imperial stout was a high-gravity and high-alcohol beer ranging from 7.5 percent to 10.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Imperial stout is very rich, malty, sweet and complex. The aroma and flavor profiles start at what you might expect from a stout and expand in all directions from there. Imperial stouts can be described as toffee-like, burnt, barleywine-like and port-like, with notes of bittersweet chocolate, fresh ground coffee, espresso, prunes, plums, raisins, currants and more. Imperial stout should have warmth from the alcohol but it shouldn’t be solvent or hot. It’s usually moderately sweet with a moderate amount of hop bitterness and flavor. The alcohol by volume is typically very high at 8 to 12 percent.
Imperial Stouts to Try: North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, Great Divide Yeti, and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.
Why is there a differentiation between American stout and other stout styles? The answer can be summed up in one word: hops. This version of stout shares many attributes with the other styles: roasted, malty, chocolate, and/or coffee notes are common. Sweetness falls in the low-to-moderate range but the bitterness and hop aroma is the differentiator. Both the hop bitterness and aroma can be moderate to high, which can bring out a dry roasted flavor and citrus aromas. American stouts should not, however, be as hoppy as a black ale or an IPA. Alcohol by volume varies at 5 to 7 percent.
American-Style Stouts to Try: Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Sierra Nevada Stout, and Avery Out of Bounds Stout.
Just like they do with other beer styles, many breweries get creative when crafting a stout. Some stouts are made with fruit such as cherries or raspberries; the fruit nicely balances the sweet, roasty characteristics of the stout. Another variation is to take an imperial stout and age it in barrels, such as bourbon or cabernet barrels. Stout works well as a barrel-aged beer because its strong flavors can stand up to the intense flavors from the barrel, which creates a nice balance between the two. Other versions take inspiration from words used to describe stout, like chocolate or espresso, and add those as ingredients. Finally, another seemingly crazy variation is the oyster stout, which is literally made with oysters in the boil, which adds an ever so slightly salty or briny flavor and can be quite fantastic to experience.
Thursday, November 3, 2011 marks the inaugural International Stout Day. It will be a day of enjoying, celebrating and sharing your experiences with stout. If you want to get out there and explore the various styles of stout beer, then Stout Day is wonderful perfect opportunity. Check it out and see if there’s a Stout Day event near you.
Now that you’re armed with all of this knowledge about stout, get out there and try something new. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite stouts in the comments section below.
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about specific stout styles and brews? Check out the stout reviews on Beer 47 and enjoy Stout Day!
Dave Jensen is based out of San Francisco and is the primary writer and photographer for Beer 47, a blog focused on craft beer, beer events, brewery tours, cooking with beer, and home brewing. By day, Dave continues his work in the beer world as a software developer and founder of BrewOps.