Perhaps it is a native racism that has conditioned Americans to prefer pale, blonde, and light beers, while conspicuously crossing to the other side of the road when they see dark beer. Dark beer is inevitably associated with bitterness, and as we know from the whole "bitter beer face" campaign of Keystone Beer awhile back, beer should not be bitter. But the bitterness in stouts is not usually capricious, it is simply there to counter the strong malt flavors that define a stout. Yes, stout has a bitter quality, but no more so than coffee. If you like coffee, you can like stout. Savor the bite and the smokiness, like a bittersweet memory.
Stouts were developed in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of dark, flavorful porters that had become the toast of English pubs in the eighteenth century. Stouts were originally stronger than porters and were first referred to as “stout porters.” This is no longer the case, and contrary to popular conception, Guinness is neither high in alcohol (4.5% ABV) nor calories (about the same as a regular American lager).
There are four major types of stouts, each of which has a different geographic association: Dry (Ireland), sweet (England), export (former British colonies and Russia), and American (U.S.). Dry stouts, most popular in Ireland but also made in England, emphasize the roasted malts that provide a coffee-like bitterness. They generally have high attenuation rates, meaning that most of the sugars in the malts are converted to alcohol, leaving a light body and a dry taste. The classic examples are Guinness, Murphy's, and Orkney's Dragonhead Stout, an English stout made in Scotland.
Sweet stouts, including milk stouts, counter the bitterness by having more unfermentable sugars in the finished product, or having added lactose, like adding sugar to coffee. Young's Double Chocolate Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, and Mackeson Triple XXX are all excellent examples. The Chocolate Bar in Decatur serves Mackeson, which is the perfect accompaniment to their chocolately indulgences. Oatmeal stouts generally have a heavier body than either dry or sweet stouts, but fall between the two in terms of sweetness. The addition of oatmeal provides extra body, creaminess, and earthy, nutty flavors.
Export stouts, including the Russian Imperial Stouts that cause swooning among certified beer geeks, are intensely bittered and high in alcohol, originally to survive long voyages, now more so to challenge the seasoned tastes of those who crave more of everything. You'll often find the traditional export stouts in the Caribbean, where European macro-lager styles normally dominate. Dragon Stout is brewed in Jamaica in the style of the export stouts that were originally imported from Britain. Most of the commonly available Russian Imperial Stouts are brewed in America, including Victory's Storm King and North Coast's Old Rasputin. Samuel Smith's makes one of the top-rated versions from the British Isles.
American-style stouts borrow from all three of these traditions, often actually adding coffee and chocolate to the beer to emphasize those flavors. Like the export stouts, they are often thicker and more potent than their British antecedents. Rogue Shakespeare Stout, Highland Black Mocha Stout, and this week's beer pick
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout, are all worthy entries in this category.
So come over to the dark side. You can handle it.Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.