Stouts: A History and Examination of Dark Beer

(Photo: Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery)

(Photo: Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery)

This February, Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery and it’s various Boulder and Denver outposts will usher in the 20th  anniversary Stout Month, a 28 day celebration wherein the majority of Mountain Sun’s taps turn to the dark side, spew forth from their faucets the black, frothy elixir known as stout beer.  It is a time to revel in the intermingling of roasted malts, chocolate nibs, doses of coffee, and all the other archetypical aromas and flavors associated with the style.  But, while stouts have proven popular in the taproom, for some the murky libation remains enigmatic, unapproachable.  It’s shadowy, it’s mysterious, and, to the novice beer drinker, quite intimidating.  To shed light on the subject, to reveal stouts for the joyful, belly-filling drinks they are, I present to you a brief history of the beer along with a dissection of each sub-style.  The more you know about what’s in your glass, the more you can appreciate it.

When speaking on the history of stouts, one cannot omit the story of their progenitor: porters.  The English-born porter beer, so named for their supposed popularity among professional porters and other manual laborers, is considered an engineered beer.  That is to say, it was created to please the broadest range of customers.  Typically, a beer style is created on the whim of the brewer and, once said beer comes into being, people catch on, start to drink it, and realize this is the beer they’ve been waiting for (even if they never realized they were waiting for it); nobody asked John Q. Public if he wanted an IPA, a hoppy pint was shoved into his hand, he took a sip, and gave it his approval.  The porter took the opposite approach; brewers examined pub-goers, determined the flavors drinkers most enjoyed, and tweaked and refined their recipes until they had a guaranteed smash-hit.

The original porters were actually three-part blends, conjectured to be one part ale, one part beer, and one part two-penny.  Keep in mind beer vocabulary has changed since the 1700’s; today we know ale as a type of beer whereas the Brits of old considered ale to be similar to beer but less hoppedTwopenny, meanwhile, was a strong pale ale that typically cost—you guessed it—two cents.  Like kids at the soda fountain pouring Coke, Sprite, root beer, and everything else into one cup, pub-goers, too, would order their beer “suicide-style” and the resulting mixture was known as three threads, a dialect of “three thirds.”  The concoction was also known as an entire or an entire butt (hey, quit laughing!) because it required the barkeep to run through the pub’s entire lineup of casks otherwise known as butts.

Historians squabble over the details, but many credit Shoreditch brewer Ralph Harwood for being the first to streamline the process, to put all the ingredients in one cask so the barkeep would have to pull but one tap (obituaries of the era actually credit James Harwood with the invention, Ralph’s business partner).  Different brewers played with the ratios, came up with their own versions and, before long, the dark, chocolate-y, caramel-y, nutty, toffee-like porter became its own recipe, not just a blending, and blue collar workers of the Industrial Revolution welcomed it with open, soot-covered arms.

Although porters were designed for the working-man—those who turned wrenches, wielded sledgehammers, and went home smudged with coal—it turned out that, sometimes, after an especially tough day at the factory, the callous-handed toilers of Greater London wanted an even burlier drink.  Brewers needed to appease the thirsty, laboring masses with a heartier brew so they took their porter recipes and ramped them up.  Voila, the stout porter was born (the name was later shortened to simply “stout”).

For years, a stout was simply a stronger version of porter and the two names were essentially synonymous as were the brewing techniques.  However, as time passed, the styles diverged, took their own evolutionary path and, while stouts and porters can still be described as fraternal twins, they’ve differentiated enough to warrant being their own, unique styles.  Now, a stout doesn’t necessarily have a higher ABV than a porter (though they often do) and stouts boast a thicker, creamier mouthfeel and a more pronounced roasted malt flavor.  That’s the broad strokes but, in truth, stout beers are more nuanced.  There’s no such thing as simply “stout” because the style is composed of several sub-styles.  Here’s a breakdown of all the different types of stout so that you may be an informed consumer when you belly up to the bar.

Sweet Stout

ABV: 4 to 6%

IBU: 20 to 40

Some of the first stouts were British sweet stouts which can also be called milk stouts or cream stouts (except in the U.K. where it is no longer legally permitted to designate beers as such) due to the presence of lactose which imparts a sweetness to the aroma and flavor as well as a full-bodied mouthfeel.  Roasted malts are usually present but tempered by the lactose—like sweetened espresso or milk chocolate.  Hop bitterness is low to moderate.  These beers might be described as dessert-like.

Local Examples [GABF: Great American Beer Festival, WBC: World Beer Cup]

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Oatmeal Stout

ABV: 4.2 to 5.9%

IBU: 25 to 40

Oatmeal stouts, like sweet stouts, also feature a full-bodied mouthfeel but, instead of lactose, it is the eponymous grain that provides the heft.  The oatmeal can also give the beer a slick, silky, or oily texture and, while still remaining fairly sweet, oatmeal stouts usually have a more obvious roasted character than sweet stouts.  The oatmeal may convey some nutty or earthy flavors, too.

Local Examples

Distributed in Colorado

 

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Irish Dry Stout

ABV: 4 to 5%

IBU: 30 to 45

British brewers weren’t the only one’s hopping aboard the stout train, their Irish colleagues also got in on the trend.  The story of Irish dry stouts begins with Daniel Wheeler who, in 1817, invented and patented a machine for roasting malts.  With this newfangled contraption, brewers who were previously forced to use a mixture of pale malt and brown malt (a process which yielded low profit margins) to brew the dark beers the public so craved could now use almost nothing but pale malt, run it through the machine, and produce a dark, highly roasted grain: black patent malt.

The black patent malt (or similarly roasted malts) gives Irish dry stouts their unique, burnt flavor which makes for a sharp, bittersweet chocolate/black coffee-like beer.  Many times, unaccustomed beer drinkers complain they don’t like stouts because they’re too heavy but, thanks to the popularity of Guinness’ flagship ale, the general public’s definition of “stout” is usually aligned with the Irish dry type.  Funny enough, Irish dry stouts actually feature the lightest mouthfeels of the stout family; thus, those who think “stouts” are too heavy would probably have their minds blown if they tried any other variety.  As the name implies, Irish dry stouts are dry.

Local Examples

Distributed in Colorado

 

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American Stout

ABV: 5 to 7%

IBU: 35 to 75

Rule of thumb: when a traditional beer style is “Americanized,” it usually means it’s brewed with generous amounts of American hops.  It’s true for the American IPA, it’s true for the American pale ale, it’s true for the American brown ale, and it’s true for the American stout: though other differences may exist, in a nutshell, they’re all just hopped-up versions of their Old World counterparts.  American stouts feature approximately the same amount of fullness as a sweet or oatmeal stout (a touch of creaminess isn’t unusual, either), the robust roast of an Irish dry, but set themselves apart with the addition of resinous, bitter American hops.

Local Examples

Distributed in Colorado

 

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Foreign Extra Stout

ABV: 5.5 to 8%

IBU: 30 to 70

Foreign extra stouts—originally brewed strong so as to survive lengthy voyages to overseas markets—are nebulous, hard to define.  Part of the problem is there are two sub-sub-styles within the sub-style: tropical stouts and export stouts.  Tropical stouts, which were shipped to warm-weather destinations, tend to be sweet, low in roast, but higher in alcohol than most other stouts.  Export stouts are more like Irish dry stouts—big on roast, dry, but, like their tropical equivalents, fairly strong.  Foreign extra stouts split hairs: they have flavors similar to an Irish dry or sweet stout (depending on if we’re talking about an export or a tropical) but with a higher ABV, but they’re not quite as alcoholic as a Russian imperial stout (see next section).  Likewise, their flavors might be akin to American stouts—except they don’t have quite the hop bite.  They are full-bodied and usually accompanied by a mild warming sensation of alcohol.

Local Examples

Distributed in Colorado

 

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Russian Imperial Stout (RIS)

ABV: 8 to 12%

IBU: 50 to 90

The first RIS was brewed in England and shipped to the imperial court of Czarist Russia, hence the demonymic appellation.  RISs are very high in alcohol, often imparting a noticeable burn in the drinker’s throat, and they’re exceptionally thick—you can practically chew an RIS—but velvety.  Bitterness can be moderate to aggressive and the roasted malts are very apparent, giving the beer a scorched flavor.  American and English brewers alike have latched on to this style, reviving the imperialistic ale of the past for the democratic present.  American brewers, being the adventurous sort that they are, typically load their RISs with hops and extreme roasted malts while English brewers, being a bit more conservative, focus their efforts on malt complexity.

Unintended side-effect of the RIS: it ushered in the era of “imperial” beers.  The RIS was literally imperial, having been brewed for the monarchs of Russia, but, nowadays, consumers can buy imperial IPAs, imperial red ales, imperial Pilsners, imperial Oktoberfests, imperial pumpkin ales,…etc. because, in modern day vernacular, “imperial” refers not to the authoritarian government drinking the beer but rather to high alcohol content.

Local Examples

Distributed in Colorado

 

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Specialty Stout

ABV: N/A

IBU: N/A

I use the term “specialty stout” to refer to any beer that fits one of the above styles, but with a twist.  Many stouts have naturally-occurring chocolate or coffee flavors, but what if actual chocolate or actual coffee is used in the brewing process?  Personally, I’d call that a specialty stout.  A stout brewed with Belgian yeast, chili peppers, cinnamon, or bull testicles?  Again, due to the big swing from tradition, I prefer to put these experimental, genre-defying stouts in their own category.  Of course, with the innovativeness that pervades the American craft brewing industry, we may one day see a whole new sub-style emerge from one of these off-shoots.

Local Examples

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American and foreign, sweet and oatmeal, Russian imperial and Irish dry: stouts are more than just dark beer.  They’re as varied as any other beer with flavors ranging from the decadently sweet and chocolate-y to the fiercely burnt and astringent, from the mildly boozy to the alcoholic bombs, and from Europe to North America.  It doesn’t matter which stout you drink during Stout Month, it just matters that you drink stout and, with such diversity within the style, the black brew offers something for every palate.  Go to Mountain Sun, another brewery, a bar, or a liquor store, find a stout that speaks to you and let its core-warming aura wash over you, heating your insides and fortifying you like the English drudges of yore because that’s what Stout Month is all about: the simple pleasure of imbibing dark beer.

About Chris Bruns


Chris Bruns is a self-professed beer geek living in Denver. Chris spends much of his time brewing beer at home with friends and family, attempting to visit every brewery in Colorado, attending special beer events and festivals, purchasing and assessing the latest releases from local breweries, and blogging about his adventures in the world of craft beer. He is also the Denver Craft Beer Examiner on Examiner.com. Contact Chris by e-mail at chrisdbruns@gmail.com or through his blog at www.beerincolorado.blogspot.com.