No beer style is more identified with a single country than are dry stouts with Ireland. So synonymous are they that the style name often includes the word “Irish.” Though not originally from Ireland, dry stouts were nurtured and defined there, and the style owes much to Ireland’s independent and devout disposition. The deepest colored of all the modern brews, these beers are austere on the one hand, complex and gentle on the other. Quenching, creamy, and mild in strength, they are the perfect session beer anytime, anywhere.
Historically, the first specific mention of stout is from 1677, though it referred to the vigor of the beer. To ascertain stout’s pedigree relative to other beers of the time, and hence, its moniker, it is necessary to delve into the evolution of porter.
The first beers that could be considered a mass-produced product for the proletariat were brewed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England. Massive breweries with equally imposing storage capability had at their disposal the resources to manufacture and stock a lot of beers, some of which were fresh, some stale (aged). Some were strong, others less so. As all were made from the same pool of ingredients, in different ratios, there was an array of available brews. Since base malt was of variable color and fermentability, blending became an indispensable catering skill. Certain blends and names became what might today be considered rudimentary beer styles.
The origins of what became known as porter were first mentioned in 1722. Brewer Ralph Harwood produced a beer at the Bell Brewhouse in London known as “entire butt.” It was a single formulation meant to supplant the popular blended beers of the era. This required less work for the publicans and less surprise for the drinkers. Within a few years, it acquired the name “porter”; it was sometimes referred to as “butt beer,” as ironically unappealing as that may sound. And while the meaning of the porter sobriquet is a matter of debate, the significance is not. It was generally a little stronger and darker than some of the other contemporary brews.
Irish brewers also made porter and ales that resembled those of England. The origins of stout were looming.
While the first reference to stout beer in 1677 may be descriptive in nature, its loose connection to a specific style of beer comes in 1750, when note was made of “stout butt beer.” This could be interpreted as a strong porter. If the same ingredients were used to make the stout version of porter, then it would be safe to assume that this beer was in fact a little darker and more substantial, as more raw materials would be employed. Though known as stout, the beer itself little resembled the stouts of today. Brown, pale and amber malts were the primary grain components of the day, and none of those would have given a stout the signature black color with which we are now familiar. Instead, the brew was probably varying degrees of brown. About this same time, the first family of modern stout was beginning to make its presence felt in Ireland.
Guinness, by far 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. The patriarch Richard’s son, Arthur, purchased a brewery in 1756, moved to Dublin in 1759, and leased a brewery lying fallow at St. James’s Gate. This would become the famous brewery of the Guinness namesake.
Arthur was as shrewd as he was aggressive. St. James’s Gate was a respected and cherished venue, located at a coveted watershed and easily accessible to the barley-growing regions of Ireland. In keeping with the times, Guinness brewed both porter and ale. Though imported English porter was cheaper because of tariffs, Guinness weathered the storm and made brewing profitable. By 1769 he was exporting his Extra Strong Porter to England. In 1799 he abandoned regular ale brewing and concentrated on porters.
The final, and perhaps most significant, innovation contributing to the development of modern stout occurred in 1817. A kiln for roasting barley was invented that mimicked the capabilities of coffee roasters. Both malted and unmalted barley was employed immediately in the production of porter and stout. Subsequent innovations in kilning allowed the production of pale malts, which when combined with small amounts of roasted versions, produced dark beers that were of the highest quality and easy to reproduce. Brown beers became black beers, and these were undoubtedly the forerunners of today’s stouts (and porters). In 1820, Guinness changed the name of its Extra Stout Porter to simply Extra Stout.
Guinness became so powerful in the latter half of the 19th century that its brews were not only the most popular beers in England, but the brewery was the most prolific in all of Europe.
When it comes to dry stout, Guinness has some competition in its own back yard. Both Beamish and Crawford and Murphy’s make similar stouts that have a loyal following, though they are not as widely known or available. These brewers are located in Cork, in southern Ireland, very near the Irish barley-growing area. Beamish and Crawford has been in business since 1792. Murphy’s is no newcomer either, with a history dating to 1850.
The water in Cork is different from that of Dublin, a feature manifested in the different brews. All three—Guinness, Beamish and Crawford, and Murphy’s—can be found on draft, not only in Ireland but around the world, dispensed with the familiar nitrogen/carbon dioxide mix that adds immensely to the mellow, frothy presentation. The oxymoronically named “draught” cans with a nitrogen widget pour a beer that flatters the real draft rather nicely. They are also widely available.
Besides Irish dry stout, there are several recognized varieties of stout, including sweet stouts, foreign extra stouts, oatmeal stouts, and imperial stouts.
The most distinguishing characteristic of a dry stout is the black, essentially opaque appearance. When held up to the light, it should reveal some red or ruby highlights, but for all intents and purposes, it is a black beer. There should be no surprise that this deep color comes from the liberal use of roasted barley, generally an unmalted barleycorn. It is a powerful additive indeed. Usually, 10 percent or less of the total grist is comprised of roast. This is quite enough to give not only the deep color, but also the assertive flavor reminiscent of dark roast coffee.
The roasted barley is kilned at upwards of 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not a one-dimensional flavor, however. As the temperature of the roaster is raised, the malt slowly passes through a continuum of temperature and a concomitant series of chemical reactions that create some complexity. Bitter chocolate notes are common in stouts. The bitter edge of the roasted barley contributes a drying sensation also.
The foundation of a stout, especially in Ireland, is a robust, maritime malting barley, comprising roughly 65 to 90 percent of the grist. The remainder of the grist is responsible for the subtleties that provide the extra dimension, depth and uniqueness to what might seem to be an otherwise singularly dominated beer. Guinness uses 25 percent flaked barley to achieve its soft, creamy character. Beamish employs a bit of wheat for the same effect, with a little chocolate malt for added depth. Murphy’s uses only chocolate malt in addition to roast and pale. Other formulations might include some caramel or black malt, especially outside of Ireland.
The perceived dryness of the stout is further enhanced by a relatively elevated hop bitterness. Dry stouts are generally in the range of 4 to 4.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) but have hop rates with IBU ratings in the high 30s to low 40s. This is roughly in the same range as pilsner or pale ale. An assortment of hops is used in Irish stout, with the English varieties of Kent Goldings, Target, and Challenger getting the most attention. The strong flavors of the roasted barley on top of the bitterness of the hops act in complementary rather than additive fashion. The result is an almost inexplicable smoothness. A light but firm body adds to the drinkability, as dry stouts carry enough residual character to further soften the edges. The notion that dark beers are both strong and heavy is pure poppycock, as becomes apparent as one examines the character of these luscious beers.
Stouts brewed in England tend to be higher in gravity than their Irish counterparts and would more often be classified as something other than a dry stout. One reason for this is a more liberal use of caramel and chocolate malts and adjuncts such as oatmeal or chocolate. Dry stouts can be found in England, though more often in brewpubs. Guinness itself has many formulations, primarily for export markets, that stray significantly in some cases from its dry Dublin version. Those are topics for another column.
The microbrewers of the United States take great liberty with their stout recipes, often referring to them simply as stout. It would be odd to visit a brewpub and not find a stout on the menu. Many of them would be hard to classify, and they usually are a touch more strapping than those brewed in Ireland though their gravity and bitterness balance are in keeping with the Irish parameters. Many of them are truly opaque. Three of the more commonly available brands that fit the profile are Sierra Nevada Stout, North Coast Old 38, and Mendocino Black Hawk Stout. There are hundreds of others. Decide for yourself where they fit.
Dry stouts are as sociable as any drink, beer or otherwise. The pub culture of Ireland is testament to that. Historically considered a healthful drink, dry stouts nourish the mind and the soul, and sustain camaraderie.
Guinness StoutABV: 4.2
Tasting Notes: Considered the benchmark by most, Guinness draft graces taverns around the world. The tight, frothy brown cap covers a soft, somewhat tart, roasted aroma. The hops are more noticeable in this stout than the others. Its mellow creaminess invites drink after drink, pint after pint.
Beamish StoutABV: 4.2
Tasting Notes: Established in 1792 in Cork as brewers of porters, on a site that has a brewing history that dates to the 1600s. A lingering frothy tan crown adorns this stout. The head lingers forever, thanks to the wheat component of the recipe. The aroma is decidedly roasty, with a hint of chocolate. A bit of chocolate garnishes the otherwise crisp, rich flavor. The hops and roasted barley linger on the palate for some time. Fairly assertive overall.
Murphy’s StoutABV: 4.0
Tasting Notes: Properly known as the Lady’s Well Brewery in Cork, Ireland. The four Murphy brothers established the brewery in 1856, and they have been using the same recipe since then. Soft, quite dry, and feathery, it is very smooth and has a nice bracing roast finish. Some chocolate malt adds to the character, both in the aroma and flavor. The mellowest of the Irish stouts.
Mad River Steelhead Extra StoutABV: 6.0
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Blue Lake, CA, in Humboldt County, it pushes the dry stout envelope to the limit. It pours with a stiff, long-lasting brown head and burly, roasted chocolate aroma. As black as midnight. Assertive on the palate, with a robust roasted flavor and subtle chocolate background. The hop character is laid back. Nice full-bodied palate. This is an excellent dessert beer or nightcap.