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When you think of stout beers, you likely think of thick, dark and almost creamy brews, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Some stouts are like that, but not all of them. The stout beer, which has been around for nearly 400 years, is defined not by color, texture or even alcohol content, but rather its strong taste. The aptly named stouts have some of the strongest tastes in beer thanks to their special ingredients.
Let’s take a look back at the history of the stout beer as well as what makes it special, so we can get a better understanding of this popular, yet sometimes misunderstood brew. We’ll also take a look at some of the most popular variations and “sub-genres” of stouts so you can find something new to try.
What Makes It So Stout?
So, if a stout isn’t just a dark beer, what is it? As mentioned earlier, stouts are defined by their robust and rounded flavors. They get these flavors primarily from the roasted ingredients that are used in their brewing. By roasting the malts or barley in the brewing process, stouts get their trademark full, almost coffee-like flavor.
That’s it. Color, cloudiness, flavor notes, texture, dryness, ABV, none of these things are factored into the stout definition. Indeed, many stouts have varying characteristics in all of these fields. There are strongly alcoholic yet dry stouts, as well as lower ABV stouts that are still very hoppy. You may be familiar with Guinness, the undisputed most popular stout, but the stout family is much more diverse than most people know.
Where Did Stouts Come From?
The first record of someone using the term “stout” to describe a beer goes back to 1677. This document described stout beers as being defined by their strength and not because they were dark. It is likely that stout beers had been brewed for decades before this mention, as stout was already a colloquial term turned official label.
Strong or “stout” beers were beers that were brewed with intense flavors because the drink would last longer without spoiling. Also, the roasted malts used in their brewing were cheaper when they first started out. The strong brew gained popularity in the U.K. with poor urban laborers who toiled on the rivers and roads. These people were called “porters,” sound familiar?
Porter beers and stout beers rose to popularity together, and for a time they were indistinguishable. Indeed Guinness, the poster child for stouts, was labeled as “Extra Superior Porter” up until 1840. The “stout porter” beer was a very popular stout, and since porters are usually quite dark, stouts have also come to be associated with darker colors.
From their humble origins in the English waterways, stouts grew in popularity and spread across Europe, then to the Americas. They never reached widespread popularity like weaker, more drinkable beers did, with the exception of Guinness. However, stouts have experienced a resurgence and rise to the mainstream in the age of the microbrew.
The Many Faces of Stout Beer
Like many other kinds of beers, stouts diverged as they spread, and many diverse brews have been concocted over the past few centuries. The rich and dark stouts may be the face of the stout beer, but there are so many more out there that are worth a drink.
Also known as cream stout or sweet stout, milk stouts get their name from the lactose, a sugar derived from milk. This lactose was traditionally obtained as a byproduct of cheese and added to the brewing process.
The lactose gives the brew a viscous feel and of course a sweetness from the sugars. It also gives the beer drinker energy, as it is loaded with carbs (sugars). In fact, historically milk stouts were given to nursing mothers and people with health problems as it was believed to restore vigor.
One of the most famous and oldest milk stouts is Mackeson’s. Their time-honored claim was that “each pint contains the energizing carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk.” It was deemed so nutritious, that during World War II, it was drunk widely in the face of rationing,
Today, if you are looking to try a milk stout, give the classic Mackeson’s a try. Or, you could try The Duck Rabbit milk stout. It’s delicate balance of sweetness and roasted malt flavors are highly coveted by beer enthusiasts.
The oatmeal stout is made, predictably, with oats. Today, brewers add up to 30% oats to their oatmeal stout brews, but in the past, brewers have used even higher proportions. Higher than 30%, however, produces a bitter and astringent taste not popular with modern pallets.
Oatmeal stouts are some of the smoothest beers around. This smoothness is from all of the lipids, proteins, and gums derived from the oats during the brewing process. They add viscosity and body, combining to make a smooth drink that goes down easy.
Despite the name, oatmeal stouts do not usually taste like oatmeal. They can be quite diverse and only are classified as the oatmeal variety if oats were used in their brewing. The only thing they have in common with the drinking is their silky feel.
If you are looking to give an oatmeal stout a try, look for Hill Farmstead Earl oatmeal stout. This beer is made with flaked oats, English roasted malts, American hops, and organic Guatemalan coffee. It is very dark and not all that sweet.
This is the most popular stout in the world, simply because it can count Guinness among its number. The Irish stout, also known as the dry stout, is characterized by its unsweetened and dry taste. Unlike English and American stouts, no lactose or oats are added, and the result is a more “standard” stout.
Irish stouts have become the default template for stouts everywhere because of their lack of extras and fancy brewing techniques. Often Irish or dry stouts are simply marketed as stouts. These standard stouts have smooth, roasted flavors and low levels of carbonation. To counter the lack of bubbly, they are usually served on a nitro system to give it that creamy texture.
Of course, if you want to try an Irish stout you could always grab a Guinness from just about anywhere beer is sold. Alternatively, you could try Murphy’s or Beamish, other Irish stouts of renown. These relatively lighter and less sweet beers are highly seasonable for serious drinking endeavors.
There is a bit of controversy when it comes to porters and stouts. Many in the brewing world do not agree on naming conventions and categorization when it comes to these two. It is believed that porters were invented first, but as the different types branched out, the stout category was created, and porters became a niche in the beer family it helped create.
Porters are characterized by roasted malt barley (or “brown malt”) and dark colors. They are also well hopped, which adds to their strong flavors. The porter is what many people think of when they hear the term “stout beer,” much to the dismay of porter beer purists.
If you want to try a complex porter with a bouquet of flavors, look no further than the Morning Wood Imperial Bacon Maple Porter. That name is a lot to unpack, but imagine a mix of smoky, salty, and roasted flavors aged for months in bourbon barrels. This beer is an experience.
Russian Imperial Stout
So named because it was widely loved by the Russian Imperial court in the 18th century. Brewers made this style of stout especially for Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great. If one of the greatest European rulers of all time loved your beer, then you are probably onto something special.
Russian Imperial stouts, sometimes shortened to Imperial stouts, are exceptionally strong and dark beers. What did you expect from the Russians? It should go without saying that the alcohol content of Imperial stouts is generally higher than their other stout cousins. A heavy beer for heavy drinkers.
To get a more unique Imperial stout experience, you could try the Lava Smoked Imperial Stout. Brewed in Iceland of all places, it has hints of smoke, bitter chocolate, and even dark licorice without going too heavy on any of the flavors.
Chocolate Stout and Oyster Stout
These stouts are not characterized so much by a style, but by a single added ingredient. In these cases, they are dark chocolate and actual oysters respectively. The dark chocolate fits right in with dark colors, strong roasted flavors, and smooth textures. But, oysters? Really?
Yes, really. Actual oysters are added to the brewing process making them, as some brewers enjoy informing customers, unsuitable for consumption by vegetarians. Long ago, stouts were served in taverns that served the mollusks along with it. The two became so intertwined that brewers decided to skip a step and throw the oysters right in.
For a unique but not too oystery flavor, try the Belgian Scheldebrouwerij Oesterstout. It uses shells instead of whole oysters. If you want to try a beer that combines peanut butter and chocolate flavors (and who wouldn’t), give Spring House Big Gruesome Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout a try.