Most people who take the plunge into the “dark side” of beer exploration are surprised to find out that stouts are neither heavy nor terribly strong. Quite the opposite is true in fact: many great stouts are complex and low in alcohol, with beautiful roundness and a touch of roastiness. The dry versions are appetizing and quenching; the sweeter styles are silky and well rounded, perfect for an evening of food and drink.
No beer style is more intertwined with a single country than dry stouts are with Ireland. The country’s brewing culture has been traced back about five millennia. But it is the past 300 hundred years, and the well-known brewing revolution in England, that directly influenced the craft and commerce of Ireland.
Guinness, the most famous brewing family in Ireland and, arguably, the world, had been brewing beer in County Kildaire since the first half of the 18th century. In 1759, the heir, Arthur Guinness, moved to Dublin and leased a brewery at St. James Gate. This would become the famous brewery that carries their name.
Arthur was as shrewd as he was aggressive. St. James’ Gate was located at a coveted water source and accessible to the barley-growing regions of Ireland. Guinness brewed both ale and porter, the style that was gaining in popularity in England. By 1769 he was exporting his porter to England and in 1799 he abandoned regular ale brewing to concentrate entirely on porters.
Guinness made porters of different strengths, with the word “stout” used to mean the stronger of the beers. In 1820, Guinness changed the name of their Extra Stout Porter to simply Extra Stout, marking a break from the older porter style.
The popularity of porter and stout switched in the 20th century, with stout becoming more coveted. Irish breweries were helped inadvertently by World War I: the British limited malt roasting during the war, but there was no such constraint in Ireland, making the Irish dry versions available throughout the British Isles.
The most distinguishing characteristic of a dry stout is the black, essentially opaque appearance. This deep color comes from the use of roasted barley, an unmalted barleycorn. It is a powerful ingredient; used in small amounts it gives stout not only the deep color, but also the assertive flavor of bitter chocolate and espresso. The roasted barley also contributes a drying sensation.
The presentation of a “traditional” pint of stout has changed over the past 40 years. Before then, Irish stout was dispensed from a cask by gravity or beer engine, or later via CO2 pressure. The invention, by Guinness, of a draft system that uses a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide filled the glass with a wholly different beer than before. It has become the standard method and is as familiar as the beer itself. This eventually led to the invention of the nitrogen “widget,” a device found in canned stouts that delivers the same effect.
The reduced carbon dioxide softens the texture, but the effect of the nitrogen is even more pronounced. It produces tinier bubbles that churn and rise slowly to surface in a tight, creamy layer of tan goodness that marks each sip and lasts to the end of the pint. This gives stout its creamy texture.
Irish dry stout is low in alcohol—lower than mainstream light American lagers—which makes it perfect for a long evening of socializing.
Some stouts brewed in England and America are sweeter or stronger than Irish dry stout. Brewers may add milk sugar (lactose) for sweetness, or brew with a small amount of oatmeal, an ingredient that adds complexity, silkiness and a touch of sweetness. Other brewers enhance the chocolate and coffee notes in stout with the addition of real chocolate or coffee!
The strongest beers in the stout family—the “stoutest” stouts—are the Russian imperial stouts. These potent, inky beers are named for their popularity in the Russian court of Catherine the Great. With intense flavors of espresso, dark chocolate and licorice, and alcohol content in the range of many wines, these are beers for quiet sipping.