Stout – there’s much more to it than just Guinness, says Chris Hall
“May your Guardian Angel be at your side to pick ya up off the floor, and hand ya another cold stout from the store” – Anonymous
As regular readers of this magazine will know, stout has its roots in the ‘other’ dark beer style: porter. Porter had swiftly become the nation’s favourite beer style during the industrial revolution, and, just as quickly, had fallen out of favour with the perfection of pale ale. Milder versions of porter became known as ‘milds’, and the stronger, or stouter, versions became known simply as stouts.
Stout as an adjective originally meant ‘proud’ or ‘brave’, but eventually it was used to describe things that were physically strong as well. Modern stouts and porters vary in strength, but traditionally a stout was stronger and darker than a regular porter. In the world of beer, this a contentious issue, and one that if argued and explored too thoroughly, gets in the way of enjoying of the beer. So let us leave these tedious arguments behind, and concentrate on what stout was then, and is today.
British brewers generally made sweeter, stronger stouts, but these varieties became dwarfed by the other dominant style: the dry stout perfected by Arthur Guinness. Dry stout, also known as Irish stout (that’s leann dubh for you Irish language fans), which is generally lighter in alcohol content, with coffee-like characteristics, black as sin and comes with a thick, creamy head. Guinness is most people’s idea of what a stout is, and it’s certainly a good entry point to the style. However, some of the best stouts are the weirdest, and like porter, stout is known for having slightly eclectic ingredients.
Milk stout, for example, is made using added lactose, a sugar which yeast is unable to ferment into alcohol. As a result, it becomes a sweeter, thicker, creamier liquid, and also had a reputation as a health food or energy drink. Mackeson’s still make a milk stout to this day, although there are more rarer examples, typically as seasonal beers from microbreweries.
Whilst milk stout does not actually involve pouring milk into the beer, oyster stout is made pretty much exactly the way you suspect. Or rather, it should be. Dublin’s Porterhouse Brewing Co. – which also has a fine pub in London, reviewed by the Gentleman Drinker here – brews an oyster stout that boldly claims it is not suitable for vegetarians. Traditionally, oysters were used in the brewing process, although the shellfish connection goes deeper than that. When stout was becoming popular, oysters were far more common, and were generally the pub snack of choice for the masses. It just so happened that the creamy yet sharp nature of stout paired perfectly with oysters, so much so that it was even a favourite of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It is far less common to find oyster stouts that are actually made with oysters these days. Many brewers simply follow Marston’s example of making a stout that is brewed to be paired with oysters, however those that do include oyster are definitely worth a try. Expect a subtle saltiness that intrigues without becoming overpowering.
For those that like their stout creamy and silky smooth, oatmeal stout is the way to go. Whilst the mere mention of oatmeal may create the image of something cloggy and thick, oatmeal stout is anything but. The small amount used bring out the light, suppable qualities of stout. The association with porridge added to stout’s nourishing, strength-giving credentials. By the mid-20th century however, they had fallen out of fashion, what with rationing and all, and it wasn’t until when Samuel Smith’s decided to revive the style in the 1970s that brewers became interested in oatmeal stouts again. Samuel Smith’s version became the template, and is worth seeking out, if only to understand what oatmeal stout is.
Like with porter, there are chocolate stouts and coffee stouts, though these do not necessarily contain their respective ingredients. Rather, the flavour of chocolate or coffee can be created with the use of particular malts that have been roasted as dark as possible. Modern brewers are more likely to consider using adjuncts like actual amounts of chocolate and ground coffee in their beer, and some American craft brewers take it one step further, blending milk stout and coffee stout together to make ‘Coffee and Cream Stout’, sometimes even adding mint and chocolate as well.
Aside from dry stout, the most common stout to find these days is Imperial stout. This longer-aged, higher-strength version was originally brewed in London for export to the Russian nobility. Peter the Great spent time in England during his youth, and fell in love with Burton ale and English porter and stout. The Baltic shipping of beer was almost as lucrative as the enterprise of shipping IPA to India. I’m not saying that Russians drink a lot or anything, but they would not accept an export stout of less than 9% ABV. Imperial stout enjoys a popular following in the Baltics to this day, and is increasingly popular with avant-garde brewers in the UK, given its potential
for huge flavours and high strength. BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Tokyo* are experimentally-made Imperial stouts.
Also, be sure to check out Bristol Beer Factory’s upcoming 12 Stouts of Christmas for some classic examples of stout, plus more creative reinventions of the style. We have a wide range of stouts reviewed here at Rum & Reviews, and we hope they encourage you to try something different and darker next time you find yourself at the bar.