Style profile: Stouts, powerful and pungent, aren’t for the faint of heart

Black as midnight in the Irish countryside on a moonless, cloudy night while you’re wearing sunglasses, stouts are to beer what a fine French roast coffee is to tea. Dark, powerful and pungent, the aroma and appearance of stouts often belie a smooth drinkability that typically puts at least one stout near the top of any beer connoisseur’s favorite brews list.

Almost everyone thinks of Guinness when they think of stout beer, but Guinness’s fine brew is nearly the Budweiser of stouts … simple, popular, consistent, but ultimately mild in comparison to others in the field. What most don’t know is that Guinness is simply one example of one branch of stouts — Irish dry stout. Other common varieties of stouts include the sweet (or milk) stout, oatmeal stout, foreign/extra stout, American stout, and the Kraken of the genre: imperial stout.

Of course, our main concern is the beer drinker’s perspective. Stouts are usually blacker, roastier, and drier than porters, which tend to be a bit lighter colored, lighter on the tongue, and sweeter (except for sweet/milk stouts, of course). To think of it another way, porters are a mild coffee to stouts’ deeper roast.

Irish (Dry) Stout

Irish stouts like Guinness and Murphy’s are the flagship of the style. Aptly named “dry,” these stouts almost always have a fairly crisp mouthfeel, despite their strong flavors. They tend to be low-alcohol and often surprisingly low in calories (Guinness only has 125 calories per 12 ounces).

Irish stouts rarely exhibit much hop character, as the few hops in the brew are usually overpowered by the striking, bitter character of roasted barley. Often hinting at coffee, chocolate, or other deep, dark foods, excellent stouts walk the tightrope between complexity and drinkability.

Coffee comparison: Think of dry stouts as a mild-to-medium coffee with just a bit of cream and sugar.

Some of my favorite examples: Boulevard’s Dry Stout, Guinness Draught, Murphy’s Irish Stout.

Sweet/Milk Stout

As the name implies, sweet stouts are the candy of the stout “food group.” Brewers add lactose (an unfermentable milk sugar) to the brew to add sweetness and creaminess to the brew, leading to a phenomenal dessert beer that pairs with chocolaty desserts like peanut butter pairs with jelly, Fred Astaire pairs with Ginger Rogers, rice pairs with beans, salt pairs with pepper, like … well, you get the picture.

Coffee comparison: Sweet/milk stouts are your Dunkin’ Donuts regular coffees — decent amount of sugar, lots of cream.

Some of my favorite examples: Left Hand Milk Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Wachusett Milk Stout, Portsmouth Coffee Milk Stout.

Oatmeal Stout

Probably the easiest-drinking stout in the family, this relatively modern take on stouts adds raw, baked, or malted oats to create a smooth, rich, creamy mouthfeel. Slightly sweet (but less so than a milk stout), oatmeal stouts sometimes have a slightly cookie-like flavor and silky sensation that balances the dark roasted malt flavor.

Coffee comparison: Think of a lightly sweetened, medium bodied latte and you have an oatmeal stout.

Some of my favorite examples: Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout (amazing), Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, The People’s Pint’s Our Oatmeal Stout.

Foreign/Export Stout

First brewed towards the end of the British Empire for shipment to officers across the globe, export stouts are simply stronger versions of the dry stout. Surprisingly popular in the tropics (think Jamaica, Singapore, Hong Kong), these brews were meant to pack a punch. Typically higher in alcohol and flavor, the style has largely been superseded in modern brewing by Imperial stouts.

Coffee comparison: Starbucks. Black.

Some of my favorite examples: Pretty Things’ Babayaga, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, Dogfish Head Punjabi Stout.

American Stout

As is the case with American IPAs, American stouts are inventive takes on the original stouts. Brewed with American hops, they typically have a more hop-forward flavor and are a bit more malty than the export stouts they’re modeled after. We’re also more likely to throw in other flavors like chicory, hazelnut, vanilla, and other non-traditional tastes, leading to highly innovative brews. Heck, there’re even oyster stouts, which taste just a bit salty, but are surprisingly good!

Coffee comparison: French roast coffee with a bit of cream.

Some of my favorite examples: Goodfellow’s “The Townsman” American Stout, Shipyard’s Smashed Blueberry (really), Sierra Nevada Stout.

Imperial Stout

The brontosaurus of the stout world, imperial stouts originated in England to be shipped to the royal courts in Russia and are the original “Imperial” beer. Incredibly rich, high in alcohol and often bitter, imperials are usually as complex as an IKEA desk and occasionally feature a slightly hoppy character that’s missing from most other stout styles. Their high alcohol is achieved by a mountain of barley, leading to a broader palette for the brewer to paint with.

When done right, imperial stouts are a delicacy. They will blow your mind with flavors and complexities. Highly alcoholic and decadent, one should sip these brews, not gulp them. Go to any beer rating web site’s top-100 list and the list will be dominated by imperial stouts.

Coffee comparison: Espresso. Rich, dark, deep espresso.

Some of my favorite examples: North Coast’s Old Rasputin, Sierra Nevada Narwhal, Clown Shoes’ Blaecorn Unidragon, Founders’ Breakfast Stout.

Originally published on January 2, 2014

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Posted January 2, 2014 by natescape in category Columns, Style Profile

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