Stout — it’s not just for breakfast anymore.
Did that get your attention? I hope so, because I’m trying to make a point.
In all honesty, even though some people refer to Guinness and its ilk as “mother’s milk,” I wouldn’t recommend pouring it into a bowl of Froot Loops. Not before 9 a.m., at least. Maybe try it a little later, in a mug, with a cheese danish or a bear claw. Definitely a doughnut.
Seriously, though, few people I know take stout seriously — or even drink it — and for all the wrong reasons. For one thing, because it is midnight-dark in color people assume it’s heavy and formidable. But it’s surprisingly neither. Quite the opposite, in fact — stouts are often very light in texture and refreshing. Also, the complex roasted malt and grainy aromas can be a turn-off. I know people who habitually down large mugs of dark, oily, bitterly aromatic coffee yet will make funny squinty faces when I offer them a sip of stout.
Nevertheless, I realize there are many styles of beer, including stout, that, like coffee, are an acquired taste; in fact, the complex roasty-toasty flavors in stout are akin to those in coffee. I also know that no matter how hard you try you can’t convince everyone to like such things. But I’m pretty stubborn. So the other night, on the eve of the Ides of March, we held an impromptu, slightly inauspicious stout tasting with a few friends in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Two of the tasters — we’ll call them “Stacey” and “Carlos” to protect their reputations — had never tried stout and were admittedly “afraid of the dark” but willing to give it a try.
Aside from changing the minds of some naysayers, my main goal for the evening was to sample some native offerings I hadn’t had previously. The Irish gave the world its taste for stout, around the turn of the 19th century, and have contributed much to maintaining its popularity and appeal (for instance, check out the fabulous collection of “My Goodness” posters here). But over the past two decades or so, American microbreweries have done their part in shaping and perfecting the flavor and reputation of stout.
So, since we colonists have a knack for putting a new spin on Old World traditions — like the notion of “the wearing of the green” in celebration of the Irish national holiday — I figured I’d see what American brewers were cooking up these days under the label of stout. I picked a fairly representative selection of American stout types and flavors, popped the tops, and embarked on a leprechaun’s voyage of discovery.
(In case you are interested, Baltimore Sun columnist Rob Kasper did a nice job of covering “the big four of Irish stouts”: Beamish, Guinness, Murphy’s, and O’Hara’s. I agree with his assessments and his choice of Murphy’s as “best” of the bunch, though my personal favorite is Beamish, which is a light and refreshing alternative to Guinness world domination. You can read his article here.)
Otter Mon, Jamaican-style Stout, Otter Creek Brewing. To be honest, with such a name I expected something spicy, like Jamaican jerk sauce. Instead, the Caribbean influence on this dark, creamy stout is an overwhelming sweetness that comes from raw sugar cane that’s added during the brewing process. That additive also creates a strong, appeasing rum-like flavor and aroma. Amy noted a slight hint of vinegar in the glass that I thought was more citrusy and hoppy. We all agreed it was smooth, with virtually no aftertaste. I could imagine pairing it with dessert, like baba au rhum.
Big Bear, Black Stout, Bear Republic Brewing. Carlos said that this one had the best initial smell but it didn’t deliver on taste. I concurred about the odor, noting it was candy-sweet, like a liquid Hershey’s bar. However, I thought it did deliver on the tongue, though the sweetness was masked a bit by a big, rich, roasted malt flavor, and an equally strong and pleasant caramel aftertaste. Also, as the name implies, this beer is big in terms of alcohol content (8.1%), compared to more traditional stouts (Guinness gets tipplish at 4-5%). It was my favorite of the lot and drank so much like a chocolate stout I couldn’t bear it.
Nor’easter Ale Oatmeal Stout, Legacy Brewing Co. The initial aroma of this “robust” stout is sweet and earthy, almost like tobacco. And we had anticipated that the “oatmeal” in the name would impart something nutty and grainy in the flavors. But it was dry on the palate, with a woody overtone that never seemed to diminish, even after several sips. Not surprising, with such a strong aftertaste it was a very unpopular pour.
Old Rasputin, Russian Imperial Stout, North Coast Brewing Co. The story behind the Russian Imperial style of stout involves Catherine the Great, her desire for strong beers, long nights, and a horse (just kidding). And this is indeed a full-bodied beer that would warm your gulag (9% alcohol), with an intriguing, slightly citrusy aroma, almost like Chardonnay, with hints of vanilla and anise. The finish is a strong roast coffee that raised a few eyebrows. It may have been an ambitious entree for the newbies. I also opened the Imperial Stout from Samuel Adams, mainly out of curiosity to see how the big name brew compared. The Sam was thicker and more treacly than Old Rasputin and much darker. Drier, too, with an earthy aroma like that of a beefy Cabernet. Not as stuffy, but not as enjoyable, either.
Fuel Cafe, Coffee Flavored Stout, Lakefront Brewery Inc. The label proclaims this Milwaukee-based stout is “brewed with coffee” from the locally famous Fuel Cafe. But that just seems like overkill: if coffee serves as the core flavor in stout, why add to it? And there was an unmistakable Chock full o’ Nuts, fresh-roast aroma upon first pouring. Luckily, though, that quickly fades and blends in with the overall malt sweetness to make for a very likable beer. It was drier and a little more acidic than some of the others, with a pleasing, slightly hoppy finish. Good to the last drop.
Old Leghumper, Robust Porter, Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. The stout style reportedly began life as a porter, so it seemed that this beer, billed as “robust,” would make for good comparison. Lighter in color (an almost auburn beauty) and slightly sweeter than the stouts, with licorice highlights, it definitely fell between the two styles: more complex than a regular porter, though not quite stout enough to be a stout. Great for quenching an after-work thirst or as a warm-up to some stouter drinking.
Unfortunately, there were no converts at the end of the evening. But that wasn’t surprising since none of the other testers are coffee drinkers and likely were turned off by stout for the same reasons — they don’t like the smoky, roasted flavors of either drink. And those who are fans agreed that the Yankee stouts were certainly interesting and tasty, and we would choose some of them again. But sometimes, when you want a Guinness, my goodness, grab a Guinness.
As always, let me know what you think of my choices. What’s your favorite American stout? Or do you think stout beer-making should be left to the Irish?