Beer Guide - Stout

An Introduction To Stout

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The first thing to come to mind when you think of the word "stout" is the colour black. Thanks to a certain Dublin based brewery stout is short hand for "the black stuff" – preferably served cold with a shamrock drawn in the head. However wind back a few hundred years and the word stout was be applied to any strong beer - pale or dark - and since beer was generally stronger in those days, a stout beer was one that was 8 or 9% alcohol. However over time the idea of a stout porter beer became popular enough that stout came to be solely used to describe very dark coloured ales made with heavily roasted malts.

As beers got weaker in the first half of the 20th century stouts dropped to 4 or 5% abv and so are now no longer strong beers at all. This led to brewers adding terms like “Extra”, “Double” or “Triple” to the names of their stouts to distinguish the versions that still were strong. However what stouts and porters have retained is their dark colour and roasted, almost burnt flavours. There is a view that says that the only difference between a stout and a porter these days is what the brewer decides to call the finished product, but what this section shows is there are distinct characteristics to the different styles.

In the late 19th and early 20th century stout was advertised as having health giving properties. It was prescribed by doctors to women who had just given birth and many people were offered a small glass of stout after they had given blood because of it's high iron content. The occasional research report these days still claims stout is more healthy than other beers - but the blood donor vans are unlikely to be pulling pints again anytime soon. However stout is proving very healthy for the finances of Irish publicans the world over with an Irish theme bar pulling pints of the black stuff being a ubiquitous feature of every major city.


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Typically beers are named based on their taste (Bitter), colour (Pale Ale) or place of origin (Pilsner). Porters are different as they are named after the 18th century London street market workers who drank the much of the beer. Thus in a parallel universe somewhere people might be ordering pints of miner, steelworker or hairdresser. Originally the beers were dark brown in colour and had been aged at the brewery for up to 18 months rather than being dispatched as soon as brewing had finished. This gave them a potent flavour. Over time brown malts were replaced with a mix of pale and dark malts as brewing processes were refined. This gave the beer it's black colour or dark ruby colour.

These days Porters share the roasted coffee flavours of Stouts but are much hoppier beers. Fullers London Porter typifies the maltier end of the style with an oak aged burnt peat smoke flavour whilst Sam Smith's Taddy Porter has a far hoppier taste, with a creamy mouthfeel and a taste of cereal in the finish. The Porters from the Hobson's and Hopshackle breweries have chocolate and damson flavours respectively. Williams Bros even add root ginger to their Midnight Sun Porter which gives a spicy whisky note.

Porter is principally a British style of beer, but the are a number of good European examples such as Carlsberg's Carl's Porter and Carnegie Stark Porter. The latter survived Swedish prohibition laws by being sold solely from pharmacists on prescription. Some of these beers are called Baltic Porters and are much stronger than regular Porters. Many of these Baltic Porters are now actually dark lagers rather than ales, keeping their original names even when brewing methods changed. Early American Porters substituted things as varied as corn and liquorice in place of expensive barley, however the modern American Porters generally stick to traditional ingredients.

Five To Try -
1. Hopshackle Historic Porter
2. Hobsons Postman's Knock
3. Wells Bombardier Dark Satanic Mills
4. Samuel Smith Taddy Porter
5. Fullers London Porter

Dry or Irish Stout

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Dry stouts emerged as a way of brewers attempting to squeeze more out of the popularity of London Porters. These beers tended to be creamier and to have a heavier feel to them than porters. The Guinness brewery had the most success, particularly during the periods of rationing in England during the World Wars, and this is why the style is often called Irish Stout. The typical strength these days is about 4 or 5%. This strength gained popularity in the 1950s when the Irish government encouraged brewers to make beers that wouldn't compromise people's ability to work.

The roasted malts used in stouts mean that the dominant flavours are coffee and chocolate. The mainstream Irish Stouts usually temper the bitter flavours with a creaminess that is often achieved by injecting the beers with nitrogen. This forms smaller bubbles than carbon dioxide and so it makes the beer feel smoother and slightly more acidic. The famous widget in cans of Guinness was a method of getting this nitrogen into a beer you could take home. Heavily chilling the beers also takes the edge off the bitterness. There is usually little in the way of hoppiness in the beers, but Murphys has a hint of citrus to it's acidity. There may even be some soured beer mixed in there too.

Some of the microbrewed stouts play up the bitterness, no more so than the Dark Star Expresso stout that even has coffee beans mixed in to give you a full roasted hit. Other stouts such as the Waen Blackberry Stout have a fruitiness to them to add variation to the bitterness. For a richer flavour some brewers mix in some port, such as the O'Hanlons Port Stout, which has a velvety smoothness. There is nothing to stop you blending your own by ordering a shot of port alongside your pint of stout, however it does make the head look a rather unappealing colour.

Five To Try -
1. Guinness Draught Stout
2. Tunnel Shadow-weaver
3. Hawkshead Brodie's Prime
4. Lancelot Telenn Du
5. Christopher Noyon (2 Caps) Noire De Slack

Imperial and Foreign Stouts

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Stouts may have begun as strong beers, but sometimes regular stouts just weren't strong enough. Imperial and Foreign Extra Stouts are the Spinal Tap of the beer world - none more black and turned up to 11. If you look at beer websites such as RateBeer or Beer Advocate you'll find imperial stouts make up a high proportion of their highest rated beers - making them a cult phenomenon too. The first Imperial Stout was brewed by Thrale's in England for the Russian court in the 18th century. The beer had to be string to stop it freezing en route. The beers were soon being brewed in Eastern Europe and Russia as well as England. Harvey's convolutedly named Imperial Extra Double Stout is brewed to an Estonia recipe is 9% abv, looks like engine oil and has a taste of roasted meat juice. Others, like the Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout, have a sweeter, fruity element to the flavours with hints of raisins or figs.

Foreign Extra Stout was a name first used by Guinness to describe a stronger, hoppier version of their extra stout that would stay fresh for longer when being shipped abroad. The Foreign Extra Stouts have a much more pronounced hop flavour than other types of stout which can bring out interesting flavours alongside the dominant roasted malts. The Ridgeway Foreign Extra Stout has apples and raisins whilst Guinness has citrus. There are also some strong stouts that ignore the Imperial or Foreign Extra terminology such as the burnt magnificence of the Belgian Ellezelloise Hercule Stout.

Imperial Stouts are sometimes aged in oak casks that have previously contained whisky - usually very peaty whisky. The Dutch Molen brewery's Heaven and Earth (Hemel & Aarde) is silky smooth with a blend of hops and smoked whisky. In Scotland Brewdog have become rather obsessed with this approach. Their potent Paradox stout is available in over 10 different versions, each aged in different whisky casks. Some versions were even frozen in order to produce concentrated clocking in at over 30% with names like Tactical Nuclear Penguin - proving that Imperial Stouts are still having to cope with sub zero temperatures.

Five To Try -
1. Ellezelloise Hercule Stout
2. Ridgeway Foreign Extra Stout
3. Harveys Imperial Extra Double Stout
4. Molen Hemel & Aarde
5. Slotsbryggeriet Imperial Stout

Oatmeal & Sweet Stouts

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In medieval times oats used to be used alongside grains of barley in the production of beer. However using too many oats can make beers too bitter and so they feel out of favour for most styles of beer. By the 1970s it was claimed no-one in the world was producing Oatmeal Stouts, despite a resurgence in the late 19th century as part of trend for nourishing beers. Samuel Smiths were then commissioned to brew an Oatmeal Stout, the result being a smooth, nutty beer with a gentle peaty coffee bitterness. The amount of oats used can vary from between 0.5% and 30% of the total malt of the beer, however they should all have a smooth feel due to waxes and gums from the oats. Black Isle do a 7% abv Hibernator Oatmeal Stout that is verging on Imperial Stout territory.

Alongside Oatmeal Stouts, Milk Stouts also experienced a resurgence in the trend for nourishing beers. These beers contain lactose which gives them a sweeter flavours. The most popular Milk Stout is Mackeson's which tastes of rice pudding and condensed milk alongside the usual bitter roasted flavours. At 3% abv Mackeson's is surprisingly full flavoured and tastes best if it's served cool rather than cold. It also work well as an ingredient in beef stews.

Oysters used to be one of the favoured foods of the working class as they were cheap and abundant. They were often sold in pubs where people found they went quite well with dark beers. Some beers that went particularly well with oysters became known as Oyster Stouts - a modern day example of this is Martin's Oyster Stout. It wasn't until the 20th century that brewers tried adding oysters as an ingredient in the beers. The Ventnor Brewery on the Isle Of Wight did a fine Oyster Stout that had the smoothness of an Oatmeal Stout. Unfortunately they closed down a few years ago. However the Mersea Island brewery are still going and will do you something similar.

Five To Try -
1. Mackeson Stout:
2. Wentworth Oatmeal Stout:
3. Golden Valley Kenyon Oatmeal Stout:
4. Goose Island Oatmeal Stout:
5. Glencoe Wild Oat Stout: