Winter Stouts to Shout About
My first encounter with stout beer came on a wintry night in a legendary New York dive known as Downtown Beirut.
It was the kind of bar where punks bumped elbows with slumming stockbrokers and the bartenders could double as bouncers. I ordered three Guinness stouts for me and my friends. The tattooed bartender began his slow pours, and, at the point where I thought he was done, shot me one of the most withering looks of my life.
“Wait,” he snarled, and then topped off each glass with a bit more beer. We watched the heads settle. “OK.”
It was the first amazing beer I’d ever had, and since then, whenever cold weather rolls in, I reach for a good stout beer. There’s something about their dark, rich maltiness and smooth, silky textures that always make me think of sitting happily near a fire in February. Though with a much friendlier bartender…
Stout beer is an English invention and was typically the name given to a brewery’s strongest porter ale. These beers were popular in the 18th century because they resisted spoilage and had strong flavor (both as a result of elevated alcohol). The style became popular with neighboring Ireland, and in 1820, Guinness began referring to its top porter as “stout porter,” paving the way for one of the world’s most famous beers.
During the 19th century, “stout” transitioned from meaning a brewery’s most powerful beer to meaning a particularly rich, dark beer that resulted from using roasted barley, which gives stout a distinct coffee and chocolate flavor. As is always the case, brewers began experimenting, which led to several styles of stout.
Irish, or dry stout, is the best-known version. Most are brewed to a relatively low-alcohol strength (even less than Budweiser) and are served (if in a pub) from a nitro system that helps add extra creaminess to the style. Some stouts come in cans that contain a small nitrogen “widget” that activates when opened to make the beer more creamy like a draft pour.
Another important style mimics the big, brooding beers so beloved by Tsarina Elizabeth’s Russian Court in the 18th century. The Russian imperial stout is brewed to a higher alcohol level and typically is a more hopped stout.
Two other notable styles are milk stouts and oatmeal stouts. Milk stouts use an unfermented, milk-derived sugar called lactose to produce a distinctly sweet and rich style.
Oatmeal stouts have faded in and out of fashion. They do not taste notably like oatmeal, but its use in brewing adds a layer of richness and produces an extra-creamy stout.
Stouts to Seek Out
Guinness Stout – Most purists would say that seeking out Guinness requires a trip to a pub in Ireland for the real thing. Guinness says that in blind taste tests, no one can tell the difference between their beer brewed in Ireland versus Guinness made elsewhere. Either way, this is a widely available benchmark for dry stout, though be forewarned that the draught stout and the extra stout are very different in texture and foaminess.
Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout – This Michigan-based microbrewery produces an outstanding line of stouts, covering most, if not all, of the major styles with seasonal releases. Their Kalamazoo stout is more widely available and a top example of an American stout.
Free State Oatmeal Stout – Lawrence’s own produces this beer year-round, though this notably sweet, rich and malty beer is at its best when the weather is cold. You can also reach for Sam Smith’s version if you want a classic English rendition.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout – Speaking of English classics, Young’s produces a widely available milk stout that is very, very chocolatey. There won’t be any Boulevard Chocolate Ale this year, so if you need your choco-beer fix, this is waiting for you.
Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout – One of the world’s great breweries produces one of the world’s great stouts. This big, bold, rich stout is made in a style meant to survive the journey from England to Imperial Russia. This has great play between dark fruit, chocolate, malt barley and hoppy flavors.