Myth-Busting: Stout Beers - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Myth-Busting: Stout Beers

stout beers articleSomewhere in the world every second of every day, a bartender grabs a pint glass with one hand, tilting it at a 45-degree angle as he flips open a Guinness tap with the other. When the glass is three-quarters full, he turns off the tap and lets the stout settle. After he tops it off, leaving a creamy thick layer of foam on top, he delivers it to a customer who may well consider this a perfect pint, and Guinness the only stout in the universe.

But 10 years ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan, one small brewery decided to challenge that thinking. “Craft brewing had been declared dead in the New York Times,” recalls Larry Bell, founder of Bell’s Brewery. “I saw a lot of my competitors make a run for lighter beers. I said, ‘That’s not why I got into this.’ So to reinforce our commitment to full-flavored beer, we decided to do the 10 Stouts of November.”

This feast of 10 very different stouts all served in the same month made a statement about the brewery, and about stout itself. It was also, as Bell admits, “a logistical nightmare,” and these days, his brewery produces a more modest four to six stouts each winter. Even so, those dark beers can be a hard sell to American beer-drinkers, who know little more about stouts than the long-held myths surrounding this beer style. Because while defining stout might seem simple, since two characteristics unite them all—dark color and roasty flavor—understanding stouts turns out to be another matter. “I’ve heard, ‘That’s the sludge left in the bottom of the barrel after the beer is made,’ ” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. “It’s funny, usually with stereotypes, there’s some tiny grain of truth that starts things, but people tell me they know dark beer is strong, and I have to say, ‘There was no connection, ever, between those two things.’ ”

Randy Mosher, a Chicago-based beer expert and author of the upcoming book Tasting Beer, says he’s always perplexed by the fear of dark beers like stouts. “It’s funny that the same people will line up in the morning for Starbucks coffee—even though that’s the exact same flavors,” he says. “It’s a similar process, the whole dark-roasting thing.”

But when people do overcome their fear of stout, they often find they love it. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be at a beer dinner and pour a big, intense stout for a little old lady and think, ‘Uh oh, is she gonna like this?’ ” says Oliver. “And she says, ‘This is the beer I’ve been looking for my whole life!’ ”

Myth #1: Stouts were born dark

The word “stout” did not originally refer to a dark beer. In the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language (four years before Arthur Guinness began brewing in Dublin, Ireland), Samuel Johnson called “stout” simply a slang name for strong beer, and well into the 18th century many brewery portfolios included both a pale stout and brown stout.

So why did stout turn to the dark side? Look to the brewers of porter, which emerged in the 18th century as the first industrially produced beer. (Porter was also popular with home brewers in America, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.) Breweries in England, and later other countries, added to their range by offering a stronger beer called “stout porter,” a beefed-up porter that soon would simply be called “stout.”

Porters were universally dark, and stout porters were made to identical recipes, but with less water, leaving them stronger. Beer historian and stout lover Ron Pattinson offers an example: “In the first half of the 19th century, [British brewery] Whitbread used exactly the same ingredients in all their porters and stouts. The only thing that varied was the amount of water.”

No surprise, then, that the difference between porter and stout sometimes remains hard to spot, particularly when comparing the boldest representatives of either style. For instance, Flying Dog Brewery’s Gonzo Imperial Porter won a gold medal as the best American-style imperial stout in the prestigious World Beer Cup last April, which defines the category in part as “black to very black” and having a “rich malty flavor and aroma … balanced with assertive hopping and fruity-ester characteristics.”

“We entered it where we thought it met the [competition] guidelines,” Flying Dog head brewer Matt Brophy said immediately after the awards ceremony. “We weren’t thinking about style descriptions when we brewed (and named) it.

Myth #2: Stouts are stronger because they’re dark

“If you don’t get over the preconception that ‘black’ means ‘strong,’ then you are always going be afraid of a beer with color,” says Todd Ashman, brewmaster at FiftyFifty Brewing in Truckee, California. In truth, a beer’s color has nothing to do with its alcohol content. Porters and, thus, stouts first took their color from a combination of highly roasted brown malt and amber malt—in England, brown malt from Hertfordshire became relatively inexpensive after newly carved shipping canals made it easy to transport. That brown malt, also known as “snap,” provided a charred quality. Today, stout’s signature roasty flavors and dark color come instead from unmalted barley that is roasted much like coffee beans are.

Differences in alcohol content, meanwhile, derive more from the amount of pale malt in the brew. That amount can vary greatly in dark beers, just as in many paler ones—by the mid-19th century, brewers in Ireland made dark porters and stouts using as much as 97 percent pale malt. Even so, plenty of stouts are relatively mild-mannered. For instance, at 4.1 percent alcohol by volume, Guinness is basically the same strength as what Americans call “three-two beer” (3.2 percent by weight, or 4 percent by volume). Compare that to Corona Extra’s 4.6 percent ABV or Budweiser’s 5 percent.

It is true, though, that stout’s strong flavors can handle a heavy alcohol content without becoming unbalanced, and some stouts rank among strongest beers brewed anywhere—for example, Dogfish Head World Wide Stout checks in at 18 percent ABV. But since their beginning, stouts’ individual strengths have ranged broadly. And that range has only widened. “Probably the lightest beer I ever had was a stout,” says Oliver. “It was smoked, it was from Denmark, it was probably 2.5 percent alcohol, and it was dark.”

Myth #3: Stouts drink like a meal

With an average 150 calories per 12-ounce bottle, any beer can add a notch to your belt. But light-beer drinkers likely don’t realize that Guinness Draught contains only one more calorie per ounce than Miller Lite, and many other stouts aren’t much heavier.

Still, there is a certain amount of history behind the belief that stouts are always heavy and filling. The original porter was a working man’s drink, often brewed to leave plenty of residual sugars to boost the energy of its drinkers. “These beers would have been somewhat strong but would have had more carbohydrates than we’re used to today, so they would have been fairly nutritious,” says Mosher. Furthermore, he adds, at the end of the 19th century, a specific variety of sweet stout—filled with unfermentable lactic sugars that rendered the brew low-alcohol and high-sugar—was marketed as “invalid stout” and thought to be especially nutritious. “Those were pretty well gone after World War II, but for some reason the idea that stout is heavy lingers on.”

Breweries themselves helped perpetuate this myth: Before the health-conscious learned to fear calories and advertising watchdogs wielded much power, breweries routinely promoted the supposedly healthy, nutritious qualities of stout—in essence, framing it as liquid food. Most famous was the “Guinness is Good for You” campaign that began in the 1920s, but historical records contain multiple examples of Victorian brewers promoting the restorative nature of stouts to everybody from nursing mothers to the infirm. At the turn of the century, oatmeal stout and milk stout were also touted for their filling, healthful properties. It was the discovery of such advertising that piqued the curiosity of a beer importer and led to the revival of oatmeal stout.

Myth #4: All stouts are Irish

Certainly, stouts are entwined with Ireland’s national identity, and the beer style stayed popular in that nation long after it had fallen from fashion pretty much everywhere else. There’s even a specific style called Irish stout—that’s what Guinness Draught is—and stout has a special place in Irish history, though just how special is open to debate.

Some claim that Ireland’s love of the dark beer goes back to an attempt to avoid English taxation by using unmalted (rather than taxable malted) barley. But English beer historian Martyn Cornell, author of the e-book Amber, Gold and Black: the Story of Britain’s Great Beers, disputes that common belief, pointing out that unmalted barley was actually illegal in both England and Ireland until about 1880. He suggests a different reason why stouts thrived on the Emerald Isle: During World War I, the United Kingdom forced English brewers to make their beers weaker in an effort to conserve grain. “Much lighter restrictions were imposed by the U.K. government on Irish brewers, in part because the government was afraid of stirring up trouble among Irish drinkers,” he adds. “After the First World War, more and more English brewers started to drop porters and stouts from their ranges, except for the increasingly popular sweet  ‘milk stouts,’ leaving the Irish stout brewers, especially Guinness, who still had a big home market, to step even more into the breach in the English market.”

Guinness and similar stouts were also perfectly suited to Ireland’s cold, damp climate, says Oliver. “If you were in the pub with your family, you didn’t have to heat your home,” he says. “So Guinness was great, because you could stay for hours, have four or five beers, and they were light enough that you could drink them and still get up in the morning to go to work.”

When famine forced the Irish to flee their homeland for more prosperous shores, they brought their beer with them. In places like America, where German-influenced lagers and pilsners had long held sway over the market, dark beer quickly became associated with this new immigrant group—and Guinness and other Irish stouts were often the most common stouts available.

Today, Guinness still dominates the dark-beer market in the U.S., and to many beer drinkers Guinness is synonymous with “stout.” “In most places, if you have an even halfway-decent beer list, you’ll have Guinness,” says Oliver. “But there are quite a few bars and restaurants that have limited beer lists. And they have Guinness, so they say, ‘Well, we have Guinness, and that covers stout.’ But it kind of doesn’t.”

In fact, stouts are now being produced everywhere from Sri Lanka to Finland, with everything from sorghum to oatmeal.

Myth #5: Stouts are stuck in the past

By the 1980s, about the time America’s new wave of small-batch brewers looked to England for inspiration, a survey found fewer than three dozen stouts being produced there. Almost all of those beers were low-alcohol sweet stouts, neither particularly roasty nor strong, and stout seemed in danger of disappearing or becoming dismissed as an old-fashioned “ladies” drink.

That didn’t happen, in part because of an even more endangered (in fact, almost extinct) brew: oatmeal stout, well-known at the end of the 19th century, but soon overshadowed by milk stout. Importer Charles Finkel of Merchant du Vin in Washington State and English brewery Samuel Smith combined to revive the style in the 1980s, specifically to sell in the United States. Finkel became intrigued when he found old labels for oatmeal beers promoting their health-improving qualities. He asked the late Michael Jackson, the world’s leading beer authority, what they might have tasted like.

“He didn’t know. He’d never tasted one, obviously,” says Finkel, who now operates Pike Brewing in Seattle. Jackson made a few guesses, so Finkel could provide the brewer at Samuel Smith with a description of what he thought would make a proper-tasting oatmeal stout. The end result turned into what’s now a benchmark for this “traditional” style, one modern-day brewers have embraced and built upon. They aren’t afraid to mix styles (like Stoudt’s Fat Dog from Pennsylvania, an oatmeal stout brewed to imperial stout strength) or to add ingredients not previously associated with stout (such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from England, made with real dark chocolate).

Although Bell’s no longer offers 10 stouts each November, the Michigan brewery continues to expand its stout portfolio. In 2008 that included a smoked stout; a cherry stout aged in bourbon barrels; and a blend of double cream stout and “Expedition” stout, also aged in bourbon barrels. The brewery regularly bottles five stouts—modest only by its own standards—and during the course of a year brews several others available only on draught.

These days, plenty of brewers have embraced stouts, though they acknowledge it’s still a challenging style to sell to the public. “Most people don’t grasp how many different types of stout there are, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to correct the public misconceptions because we’re still focused on getting craft beer explained,” says FiftyFifty’s Ashman, who brewed one of the first commercial bourbon barrel-aged beers while at Flossmoor Station in Illinois and, thus, helped kick off interest in the genre. He started with an imperial stout at the base because he was confident it would stand up to whatever the barrels added. “Stout provides a backdrop,” he says. “It’s very intense, very resilient. You can add all these things, flavor and character, and that resiliency remains.”

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