Like many of us in the Upper Midwest, the fall season marks a favorite time of year filled with long drives up the North Shore to see the colorful progression of changing leaves, evening hay rides through winding farm fields, and the soothing smell of spiced cider wafting through the kitchen…
Hold on…what in the hell am I talking about? This isn’t Martha Stewart Living.
Fall means football. And even better, it also means the introduction of a slew of flavorful, aromatic seasonal beers.
The cooler months are historically the high season for beer, with brewers in northern Europe traditionally bringing out the strongest and maltiest of their wares that had been safely conditioning in cool cellars and caves through the hot and humid summer, such as Oktoberfests and doppelbocks. And with the slight chill in the evening air providing portent of the months ahead, it has me turning my focus to heartier, more warming brews.
I’m of course talking about the prototypical fireside beer…the glorious stout.
Despite some peoples’ perception of stouts as undrinkable glasses of motor oil (Bennigans, everyone’s favorite “Irish” bar and restaurant, ironically used to list Guinness under the appetizer section of their menu), they can often be one of the smoothest, most drinkable beers around, exhibiting a surprising spectrum of nuance in flavor, aroma and texture amongst the category.
To talk about the history of stouts you need to also describe another closely related beer…the English porter. The name was coined in the early 1700’s by street and river porters, part of London’s blue collar working class, that preferred a darker, richer beer made with roasted malts. It wasn’t long before some versions of the beer became more broadly known as stouts, characterized by their higher alcohol content and greater bitterness and roasted qualities. Guinness started using the term stout to describe its beer in 1820, though they’d essentially been brewing the style since 1780.
Interestingly, stouts also have a long association with oysters, likely a popular food pairing in British pubs, with several versions being brewed with a handful of the shellfish in the mash or barrel. And yes, the rumors that women in northern Europe were (and apparently still are) encouraged to enjoy the occasional stout to aid in nutrition during pregnancy are, unfortunately, indeed true.
Stylistically, stouts (much like porters) can be somewhat of a catch-all term, encompassing a very wide swath of beers. But the common denominator is generally the incorporation of roasted barley which lends a dryness and roasted flavor that can be described as coffee, chocolate, or dark fruits. Some of the more commonly recognized varieties include the English stout, Irish dry stout, sweet stout, oatmeal stout, foreign extra stout, American stout, and Russian Imperial stout.
Your average Twin Cities beer lover doesn’t need to look far to find a bevy of fantastic examples at their local bar or retail outlet, with many of them brewed right here in Minnesota or Wisconsin.
The standard bearer of the style. As described earlier, not that dissimiliar to many porters, but marked by a more pronounced malt and roasted characteristic, and slightly higher alcohol content.
“Schell Stout began as our Snowstorm offering in 2006, and due to its overwhelming popularity, it entered into regular production in 2008,” explained David Berg, brewmaster at August Schell Brewing in New Ulm. “The underlying philosophy behind the recipe was one of balance. The malt chosen was all from the UK, with just enough hops to keep the beer from being cloying. It’s not a beer that assaults your tastebuds. Instead, it’s a beer that requires the drinker to think about what they’re tasting to draw out the subtle complexities.”
Irish Dry Stout
Following on the template created by the English stout, the Irish dry stout evolved after brewers in Ireland attempted to offer a creamier beer of greater body and strength, with an underlying dry, astringent finish. Today, most people know this style thanks to the ubiquitous Guinness, founded in 1759 in Dublin. Guinness is revered as one of the original mass marketers in Great Britain, reaching a pinnacle during the 1930’s and 1940’s with its iconic toucan mascot and slogans like “My Goodness My Guinness” and “Guinness for Strength.” Today, if you travel to Dublin and take a tour at their St. James Gate brewery (as I did a few years ago), they make a point in playing off the secretive “black stuff” used in their recipe, which is likely just some form of black patent malt to give Guinness its distinctive burnt, dry finish.
In addition to Guinness Draught (the stuff in cans here in America) and their recently released 250th Anniversary Stout, some locally brewed examples include Central Waters Irish Dry Stout, a seasonal release, and Furthermore’s Three Feet Deep, a beer that offers an interesting smokey nose thanks to their use of peat-smoked malt, making it very reminiscent to a nice scotch.
Sweet stouts are an English style originally gaining popularity around World War II. Historically known as “milk” or “cream” stouts, some also referred to it as “nourishing” stout, no doubt reflected in the advice of doctors in the early to mid 1900’s touting the beer’s health benefits for pregnant and nursing women. Legally, the “milk” designation is no longer permitted in England, a result of rationing during WWII when the British government required brewers to remove the word from labels or advertisements.
The name is derived from the use of lactose, or milk sugar, as a sweetener which goes unfermented in the wort, providing a silkier, creamy mouthfeel and texture. They can literally come off as sweet, or in some cases a tinge of sourness, not that unlike spoiling milk in the most extreme examples.
Minneapolis Town Hall recently had a cask of their delicious Coconut Milk Stout on draught, like smooth, liquid Almond Joy in a glass (though to my knowledge you’ll have to wait a while before it returns), or you can try Brau Brother’s Cream Stout, an offering that leans more on the lactose side of the equation.
Oatmeal stouts are an English seasonal very closely resembling sweet stouts. But unlike the sweet stout that uses lactose to provide its distinctive mouthfeel, oatmeal stouts use…well, you get the picture. Generally speaking, oats are a relatively small component of most brewers’ grain bills, maybe making up 5-15% of the total composition, as they tend to gelatinize into a gooey mess in the mash, potentially causing issues with the lautering process if not handled properly. So typically, the goal is to develop a more silky texture, with comparatively less emphasis on any “oatmeal” kind of flavor and aroma as one might expect. As a homebrewer, it’s definitely one of my favorite styles to make.
Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout from England is the classic example, easily found at many retail locations in the Twin Cities, or try Goose Island’s Oatmeal Stout, a beer that gives oatmeal and chocolate a whole new meaning.
Beer lovers in the Twin Cities have a number of locally brewed options to choose from, including Minneapolis Town Hall’s Black H20 Oatmeal Stout, Great Waters Blackwatch Oatmeal Stout, Flat Earth’s Black Helicopter, a stout brewed with Dunn Bros. coffee, and of course Summit’s Oatmeal Stout, found only on draught at area bars.
“Our Oatmeal Stout was first brewed in 2004 as a limited release beer, but quickly turned into a favorite so we decided to make it part of our regular line-up,” said Mark Stutrud, brewmaster and founder of Summit Brewing Company. “It’s poured with mixed gas (nitrogen and CO2) which gives it a tan, creamy head and smooth character. The stout is dark brown in color with notes of chocolate, coffee, and caramel. And the toasted oats give the beer a very velvety, smooth mouthfeel that sets it apart from others.”
Foreign Extra Stout
Foreign extra stouts were originally high-gravity stouts brewed for markets outside Great Britain, designed to withstand the warmer shipping temperatures that could spoil less potent beers. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is the most widely available example, which has been made since the early 1800’s.
A very closely related subcategory to foreign extras are tropical stouts, domestic versions of foreign extras brewed in warm climes such as the Caribbean. Interestingly, they are often brewed using lager yeasts, a practice more likely attributed to local brewing traditions (think how many lagers surprisingly come out of Mexico and the Caribbean) as opposed to technical consideration during fermentation. Locally available examples include Lion Stout (now in cans), a fantastic offering from Sri Lanka.
American stouts follow closely to foreign extra stouts, offering a deep roasted and burnt malt characteristic, and as one might expect, more perceptible levels of hop bitterness. Like the American craft beer industry has seen with bold and extreme styles like double IPA’s and barleywines, experimentation is also a hallmark of this style, with some brewers adding coffee, chocolate or other ingredients to differentiate their beers. Many craft brewers have also taken to aging their beers in oak casks previously used for storing bourbon or other hard liquors, imparting a unique complexity not found in most ales.
Sierra Nevada Stout and Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout are both good choices, and be sure to check out Michigan-based Dark Horse’s line of holiday stouts, which includes their fantastic Tres Blueberry Stout. Also, now that Founders distributes to the Twin Cities, be on the lookout for their Breakfast Stout, and if you’re very lucky, the highly rare Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, a bourbon-barrel aged version of the original.
Russian Imperial Stout
The big daddy of them all…the Russian Imperial stout. Brewed to very high gravity, usually approaching (and exceeding) the 22 degrees Plato range for all you homebrewers out there, and copiously hopped to balance the intense level of malt. First brewed in 1796 by Thrale’s Brewery in London for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia, the style today is widely celebrated by many notable craft brewers nationwide as the ultimate expression of brewing in its extreme.
Dark Lord, brewed by Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana, is held up as one of the shining examples of the style. However, as I can attest from personal experience, it’s extraordinarily difficult to find unless you travel to the brewery one day out of the year to get it. Bell’s Expedition Stout is another fine choice (and much easier to procure), as well as North Coast’s Old Rasputin.
Closer to home, Brau Brothers has plans to release an imperial stout later this winter, according to CEO and brewmaster Dustin Brau, with details to be announced very soon.
And of course, no discussion on imperial stouts would be complete without highlighting Surly Darkness and the brewery’s annual Darkness Day festival, a one day event in October that has gained widespread attention and reputation as one of the best craft beer convocations in the country. The event draws beer lovers from across the nation to share in the glory of what is, at least in my opinion, one of the best beers on the planet. You can also find it on draught very occasionally around the Twin Cities, if you happen to be in the right place at the right time (rumor has it there will be a cask of Darkness at the upcoming Autumn Brew Review).
“When Todd first brewed Darkness in June 2006, I wondered ‘how am I going to sell 12 barrels of this stuff’?” said Omar Ansari, founder of Surly. “We had no idea up front it would become the phenomenon that it has. The first year it was only sold in growlers and kegs, and you’d see people driving in to places like The Blue Nile ordering a couple glasses and pouring it into sealable containers. We knew then we had to do something about it. So when the laws were changed the next year to allow us to sell 750 ml bottles from the brewery, we hosted the first Darkness Day festival, and each year it’s gotten progressively larger.”