Stout evokes images of the bitter black and mysterious ale synonymous with Ireland. The Emerald Isle may indeed be famous for the inky drink, a style the Irish brought to the forefront two centuries ago, but most stouts today are the progeny of contemporary London stout. Sitting between the lithe Irish dry on one end and the massive imperials on the other are another four styles known as export, sweet, oatmeal and American. Among those, it could be argued that American stout has done as much within the past 30 years to further the cause of craft beer as any other type.
Initially seen as edgy and one-dimensional, American stouts are a shrewd reinvention of tradition, born of the ambition and grass roots spunk that typify the country itself. Robust, satisfying and sundry even among themselves, they rely on a range of ingredients for expression, all to deft complement of that which makes a stout unique, roasted barley. Whether the focus is on hops or malt, few beer styles take liberty so seriously and employ it so creatively.
The Porter Connection
Any discourse on the roots and evolution of stout would have to include porter, as the two were essentially indistinguishable until about 200 years ago. Before then, “stout” was used to describe the strongest version of a particular brew, pale or brown. By the eighteenth century, though, England was largely the domain of a new style of beer that would become porter, first brewed in London in the early 1700s as a counterpoint to proletarian sweet brown ale and gentrified hoppy pale ale. It was more heavily hopped and stronger than brown ale, and wood-aged for full attenuation and pleasant complexity; a more palatable, truly modern beer compared to rough and ready browns. It was also designed to compete with pale ale produced by well-heeled country breweries that could afford expensive pale malt and unlimited hops.
Porter (then known as “butt beer”) grist was brown, amber and pale malt, fermented and aged in massive wooden butts. Successively-run worts made different beers that were served alone or blended. Soon enough, innovative brewers began combining worts prior to fermentation to create a single beer known as “entire butt beer”. Entire was a favorite of the Fellowship porter laborers on the River Thames, and was subsequently dubbed porter. Dublin brewers, inspired by the London porters, were taught to brew it by London’s finest. Before long, Dubliners took this tutelage and turned to innovation of their own to create a distinctly regional stout.
By the late eighteenth century, many Dublin brewers were specializing in porter, and its stronger rendering, stout porter. Essentially the same beer, stout was mashed with less water for stronger wort. Dublin heavyweight Guinness was producing extraordinary porter in the London fashion, with brown malt lending the signature flavor and color. Guinness urged their publicans to plug strong porter, Superior Porter―later called Extra Superior Porter, and finally Extra Stout.
As usual, the invention of the drum malt kiln and black “patent” malt in 1817 made an immediate impact. Guinness promptly reformulated their porters and stout to include pale and patent roasted malt only. London brewers found them inadequate, lacking the familiar depth and character, so they incorporated the new black malt, while staying true to historical formulation to create even more complex dark ales. Pale, brown and black, and often amber and crystal malt and even sugar of some variety were combined to produce these revamped beers. In essence, most of the robust stouts of today can trace their pedigree to these versions of 150 or more years ago. That simplistic opulence and engaging staying power is what has become the hook and calling card, respectively, for American stout.
Crossing the Atlantic
The microbrew movement in the United States is nothing short of miraculous, especially considering the carnage left after Prohibition. Against all odds, a few adventurous souls decided to cultivate a boutique, localized brewing industry. Indelibly influenced by their time abroad, these new brewers found ale styles the logical course of action, with a supply of hops from the northwest and an English blueprint. Stout, as it turned out, was one of the styles that they were quite familiar with, and since the outset, firmly embraced by American microbrewers.
New Albion of Sonoma, CA, America’s first micro, had a stout in its original portfolio in 1978. As brewery after brewery sprouted out of this fertile landscape during the 1980s, a new range of styles was born, including a hearty interpretation of stout that showcased the spectral virtues of malt and a uniquely aromatic hop character. To many devotees of American microbrew, Irish dry stout became a distant memory.
American stout truly is one of the more interpretive styles on the board. As art, it may be hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you experience it and it is best to appreciate its breadth and individualism. Nonetheless, there are some definitive traits that outline the style. Besides bordering on opaque, it wouldn’t be a stout without a blast of roasted barley, and it comes full force. Some brewers up the ante with a measure of black patent and chocolate malt as well.
The aggressive roast is usually tempered by some sweetness that comes from caramel or crystal malt. Munich malt is also a favorite of American brewers, and anyone who is familiar with doppelbock, dunkel, or Baltic porter knows well the chewy, pure malt quality that it brings to the party. Espresso, burnt sugar, dark caramel and bittersweet chocolate are just some of the nuances that the dark malt fusion gives to the bouquet and flavor. As busy as the bill above seems, brewers tend to employ the dark malts to 20 percent or less of the total to avoid heaviness. The remainder of the grist is, of course, base malt.
Brewers who want a truly American brew can turn to two-row base malt grown on the continent. It is malted for fermentability and soft flavor, and stays out of the way of the character malts. English pale ale malt is favored by those who want something just a little more robust. The odd addition of oats, wheat, or even rye may be used to add a bit of headiness.
Hop profile in American stout is often like that of pale ale, with representation from aromatic introduction to bitter end. Bittering levels are medium to high, adding to the gritty, burnt finish. Hop flavor and aroma are where they shine, however. Seemingly any American or English aroma variety can work. Earthy, woodsy varieties like Magnum, Willamette, Fuggles, Perle, East Kent Goldings, or Northern Brewer make an exceptional fit with the dark malt. Again, for authenticity, classic varieties like Cascade, Chinook and Centennial lend that citrus, piney aroma that is so unmistakably American.
Generally, yeast is chosen for its light ester production, another mark that American brewers have made, favored and stamped as their own contribution to ale brewing. Strength can vary from 5 to 7.0 percent ABV, give or take, making them suitable for a wide range of occasions. Given the variability among them, they are fun brews to plan a tasting with, and there should be no problem tracking down a relatively wide assortment.
At times, it is the unflappable and stable classics that get lost amidst the hubbub of barrel-aging, wild fermentation and hop bombs. And if any style can be considered a classic in the brief, exhilarating run of American craft brewing, it is stout. They are among the finest offerings of America’s most wizened and revered brewers, and found in the lineup of literally hundreds of others. In the opinion of many, including this author, this is the style that Americans do best and do most personally. And, as summer fades into fall, these vigorous and proud stouts are without peer for cooler weather fare.
Highland Brewing Black Mocha StoutABV: 5.3
Tasting Notes: Brewed in the scenic and countercultural Appalachian mecca of Asheville, NC. Black Mocha shows tints of red and a frothy, persistent brown head. Notes of toffee, molasses and coffee ride above a very light hop aroma. The mouthfeel is quite creamy, and the flavor is full of caramel and chocolate. The finish is dry and appetizing, and has a nice balance of hop and roast bitterness with light char. Black Mocha packs a lot into this easy, mellow stout.
Rogue Shakespeare StoutABV: 6
Tasting Notes: Coastal Newport, OR provides the perfect backdrop for the rugged brews and attitude of Rogue Ales. Shakespeare Stout has a busy aroma, with bittersweet chocolate, soft ester of cherry, black licorice and citrus hops. The brown head lingers defiantly. A measure of oats gives a silky mouthfeel and the flavor is dominated by dark chocolate and roast, with a stiff dose of American hops. The dry and slightly effervescent finish is big with lots of earthy roast and hop bitterness. Rogue ales are never pasteurized, nor are they shy. For twenty years Rogue has offered some of the finest ales in America.
Deschutes Obsidian StoutABV: 6.4
Tasting Notes: Located in Bend, Oregon, Deschutes has been brewing some of America’s most respected brews since 1988. Burnt toffee, chocolate and vanilla waft in the soft, well-rounded aroma. Herbal hop and light fruit notes are also present. There is a lot of American hop flavor atop bittersweet bakers chocolate and slick mouthfeel. Obsidian is opaque jet black and roast-centric. The finish is reminiscent of espresso. Obsidian is named after the nearby shiny black lava flow, and there is no more aptly named brew. Obsidian might be America’s finest stout.
Sierra Nevada StoutABV: 5.8
Tasting Notes: One of the most influential breweries in the US, Sierra Nevada has been brewing in Chico, California for nigh on 30 years. Black with garnet tints, the aroma is a delectable blend of malt, Cascade hops and reserved roast. Full-bodied and smooth, the flavor is a perfect triumvirate of malt, caramel and black malt. The stiff hop flavor and bitterness enhances the malt perfectly. The clean, robust flavor of SN Stout is the stuff of legends, and a groundbreaking classic by any measure. This is proof that perfect beer can be simply made.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.