By the numbers, the style of the week should probably be IPA. There was an American on Saturday, two black ones in the middle of the week, and what was essentially a sleek international blend to start it all off. But IPAs can wait – the American craft movement isn’t going to get bored of them anytime soon. Besides, there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s the stout.
Few beer styles seem quite as misunderstood as the stout. For one, they’re dark, dark, dark, which I suppose is frightening to some people. They also have a nasty reputation of intense flavors, black-out alcohol contents, and Russian lineage – all enough to send light lager drinkers running. To complicate the issue, they come in a really wide array of sub-styles that all look virtually identical.
But I’m here to clear all that up. Misinformation shouldn’t be hid behind.
Stouts first appeared in England about 400 years ago. They were chestnut brown, full-bodied, and toasty due to the large amounts of kilned “brown” malt in the mash. The thing is, kilned malt isn’t as efficient for brewing as pale malt (burning the grain destroys potentially fermentable sugars). So for centuries, brewers tinkered with the malt make-up in search of a more practical recipe. At first, stouts became lighter in color and less toasty. Then, they got darker and sweeter thanks to burnt sugar added to the mash (a practice that was largely illegal at the time).
In 1817, stouts took a big step closer in becoming what we think of them today with the invention of the roasting kiln. Roasting kilns were able to produce malt that was black but not overly smokey and burnt tasting. This allowed brewers to create dark beers by still using mostly pale, highly fermentable malt (upwards to over 90%) with just a touch of intense, black malt for color and flavor. It was efficient, tasty, and legal.
Today’s market offers an array of stouts that mimics the beer’s rich history of adaptation, ranging from ashy alcohol bombs to coffee milkshakes. Below is a quick and dirty guide to get you through.
- Stout – broad category for dark ales. Reliably roasty, but that’s pretty much it.
- Porter – the predecessor to the stout, and for the most part lower in alcohol and body. They’re named after the English port workers that took a liking to the brown ales. I’ve found porters to be a little smokier than stouts.
Baltic Porter – one of the subcategories defined by its history of being shipped from England to Russia in the 18th century. Baltic Porters are the only stout variation brewed as lagers (fermented at cooler temperatures, less aromatic) rather than ales.
- Irish Dry Stout – Best exemplified by Guinness draft. They’re low in alcohol, lighter bodied, and distinctly coffee-tasting due to the high content of roasted barley (rather than black malt)
- Irish Extra Stout – Stronger, fuller bodied, and bitterer than Irish Dry Stouts. If you’ve ever had a Guinness Extra expecting a Draft, you’ve experienced the difference.
- Milk Stout – Full bodied and low in alcohol, characterized by the addition of milk sugar. Because lactose isn’t fermentable, the drink stays very sweet and thick. Try Left Hand’s Milk Stout for a great example. It’s like a frappuccino.
Oatmeal Stout – Though barley is the best grain for fermenting, it doesn’t do much for a beer’s body. That’s where oats come in. They’re added to the mash to give these beers a rich, soft creaminess. Keeping with the body, these tend to be lower in alcohol and bitterness than other varieties.
- Imperial Stout – Another one shipped from England in the 18th century. These get their name from their popularity with the Russian Monarchy. They’re strong, full bodied, and bitter. An awesome example is North Coast’s Old Rasputin. Today, the term Imperial has been picked up by the American craft beer movement to signify any beer style that’s stronger and more intense than the original.
- Chocolate Stouts / Mocha Porters / etc. – For the most part, any coffee or chocolaty taste stouts may have are due to the roasting done to the malt. Some brewers like to kick things up a notch by also adding coffee beans, chocolate, nuts, or other flavor enhancers to the mash. A cool example is Southern Tier’s Crème Brule Imperial Stout.