Stout is a dark beer made using roasted malt or roasted barley, hops, water and yeast. Stouts were traditionally the generic term for the strongest or stoutest porters, typically 7% or 8%, produced by a brewery. There are a number of variations including Baltic porter, dry stout and imperial stout. Because of the huge popularity of porters, brewers made them in a variety of strengths. The beers with higher gravities were called “Stout Porters”, so the history and development of stout and porter are intertwined, and the term stout has since become firmly associated with dark beer, rather than just strong beer.
There is an alternative theory, however—one that suggests that porter (or at least the practice of calling a beer ‘porter’) came to Britain from the Netherlands, where a beer known as ‘poorter’ was being consumed as early as the 14th century. Trading links between London and Dutch ports were certainly well-established, and there could well have been some cross-pollination, though further evidence that there is a direct connection is required. In either instance, though, it seems that porter and poorter were both considered ideal beers for the working classes, so it seems they are welcome to claim the name together.
Porters, a dark ale favoured among London’s working classes, was first developed in the early 1700s. Street and river porters provided an eager market for this new, energizing beer. The word “stout”, after the fourteenth century, had taken on as one of its meanings “strong”, and was used as such to describe strong beers, such as the Porter. “Stout” as in stout porter, was the strong, dark brew London’s brewers developed and the dark beer that gave us what we think of today as the typical stout style.
The first known use of the word stout for beer was in a document dated 1677 found in the Egerton Manuscript, the sense being that a stout beer was a strong beer not a dark beer. The name porter was first used in 1721 to describe a dark brown beer that had been made with roasted malts. Porter originated in London in the early 1720s. The style quickly became popular in the city: it had a strong flavour, took longer to spoil than other beers, increased in alcohol content with age, was significantly cheaper than other beers, and was not easily affected by heat. Within a few decades, porter breweries in London had grown “beyond any previously known scale”. Large volumes were exported to Ireland, where it was later (1776) brewed also. In the 19th century, the beer gained its customary black colour through the use of black patent malt, and became stronger in flavour.
“Imperial porter” came before “imperial stout” and the earliest noted use of “Imperial” to describe a beer comes from the Caledonian Mercury of February 1821, when a coffeehouse in Edinburgh was advertising “Edinburgh Ales, London Double Brown Stout and Imperial Porter, well worth the attention of Families”.
The most regal of stouts was created after a trip to England from Catherine the great. Enraptured by the luxurious nature of stout, she demanded that this beer be sent to her at the Russian Court. During the first shipments across the seas the beer had spoiled due to its low alcohol content and hopping rates. Feeling the pressure from the Russian Court the brewers of London raised the alcohol content to 10.5 percent for the preservative effects needed for the long voyage, thus creating the style known as Imperial Russian Stout.
Stout at that stage still meant only “strong” and it could be related to any kind of beer, as long as it was strong: in the UK it was possible to find “stout pale ale”, for example. Later, stout was eventually to be associated only with porter, becoming a synonym of dark beer. Because of the huge popularity of porters, brewers made them in a variety of strengths. The beers with higher gravities were called “Stout Porters”. There is still division and debate on whether stouts should be a separate style from porter. Usually the only deciding factor is strength.
Guinness are famous for their Dry or Irish Stout. In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on an obsolete brewery with just a handful of years under his belt as a brewer. At the time Ireland was under English rule, and imported English beers were taxed far less heavily than local Irish beers. Guinness held out until the tax laws were changed, giving him a fair chance at both the Irish market and the overseas trade. Guinness then acquired a skilled porter brewer from London and by 1780 was exporting Guinness Export Porter to as far away as the Caribbean.
In 1817, Daniel Wheeler created his patented roasting machine that allowed complete control of roasting malts and barley to create the distinct high roast of the beers to come. Capitalizing on this new invention Guinness started using the uniquely high roasted malts in their beers to create the famous espresso-like character that sets their beers apart. While Guinness was highly successful, it soon gathered competition from Beamish, Crawford, and most notably Murphy’s. The slogan “Guinness is good for you” was thought up after market research in the 1920s suggested that people felt better after a pint, and post-operative patients, blood donors, pregnant women and nursing mothers in England were advised to drink Guinness.
Guinness’s Stout had a distinct flavor, which perhaps helped the Stout moniker to catch on as a distinct beer from the English Porter beers of the day. A big contributor to the flavor distinction came from the use of unmalted roasted barley used astutely by Guinness instead of malt, which was taxed by England. The roasted barley lent to Guinness’s very dark color and dry, somewhat charred, character compared to the English Porter.
What is concerning is that by the mid 1980’s, a survey by What’s Brewing found just 29 brewers in the UK and Channel Islands still making stout, most of them milk stouts.
Types of stout
Stouts have several variations:
Dry or Irish stout
In Ireland, stout brewers have historically made drier, more robust stouts than their English counterparts. Irish stout or dry stout (in Irish, leann dubh, “black beer”) is very dark or rich in colour and it often has a “roasted” or coffee-like taste. The most famous example is Guinness followed by Murphy’s and Beamish. There are also some smaller breweries producing stout. The alcoholic content and “dry” flavour of a dry or Irish stout are both characterised as light, although it varies from country to country.
Imperial stout, also known as Russian imperial stout or imperial Russian stout, is a strong dark beer or stout in the style that was brewed in the 18th century by Thrale’s brewery in London, England for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia. In 1781 the brewery changed hands and the beer became known as Barclay Perkins Imperial Brown Stout. When the brewery was taken over by Courage the beer was renamed Courage Russian Imperial Stout (RIS). It has a high alcohol content, usually over 9% abv.
A version of Imperial Stout which originated in the Baltic region, usually cool fermented. Imperial Stouts exported from Britain in the 18th century were popular in the Baltic region, and were produced locally using local ingredients and brewing traditions. Baltic Porter is a specialty of many Polish breweries.
As we have heard, there is a great deal of disagreement in the brewing world on the origin of porter and stout. Historically, there are very little differences between stout and porter, though as now know, there has been a tendency for breweries to differentiate the strengths of their dark beers with the words “extra”, “double” and “stout”. The term stout was initially used to indicate a stronger porter than other porters issued by an individual brewery. Though not consistent, this is the usage that was most commonly employed. Porters do not exist as a separate beer style any more.
Milk stout (also called sweet stout or cream stout) is a stout containing lactose, a sugar derived from milk. Because lactose is unfermentable by beer yeast, it adds sweetness, body, and calories to the finished beer. Milk stout was claimed to be nutritious, and was given to nursing mothers.In the period just after the Second World War when rationing was in place, the British government required brewers to remove the word “milk” from labels and adverts, and any imagery associated with milk. These “Nourishing” and sweet “milk” stouts only became popular in Great Britain in the years following the First World War, though their popularity declined towards the end of the 20th century.
Oatmeal stout is a stout with a proportion of oats, normally a maximum of 30%, added during the brewing process. Even though a larger proportion of oats in beer can lead to a bitter or astringent taste, during the medieval period in Europe, oats were a common ingredient in ale, and proportions up to 35% were standard. Despite some areas of Europe, such as Norway, still clinging to the use of oats in brewing until the early part of the 20th century, the practice had largely died out by the 16th century, so much so that in 1513 Tudor sailors refused to drink oat beer offered to them because of the bitter flavour. There was a revival of interest in using oats during the end of the 19th century, when (supposedly) restorative, nourishing and invalid beers were popular, because of the association of porridge with health. In the 20th century many oatmeal stouts contained only a minimal amount of oats. For example, in 1936 Barclay Perkins Oatmeal Stout used only 0.5% oats. Many breweries were still brewing oatmeal stouts in the 1950s, but when Michael Jackson mentioned the defunct “Oat Malt Stout” in his 1977 book The World Guide to Beer, oatmeal stout was no longer being made anywhere. Charles Finkel, founder of Merchant du Vin, was curious enough to commission Samuel Smith to produce a version. Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout then became the template for other breweries’ versions.
Oatmeal stouts do not usually taste specifically of oats. The smoothness of oatmeal stouts comes from the high content of proteins, lipids (includes fats and waxes), and gums imparted by the use of oats. The gums increase the viscosity and body adding to the sense of smoothness.
Oatmeal stout beer is one of the more sweeter and smoother of the stouts. Oats had rarely been used in brewing because of their sticky and gummy nature, but had been introduced because of their availability when regular grains ran short. In small proportions oats gave beers a smooth, almost oily character that rounded out sweet stouts.
Chocolate stout is a name brewers sometimes give to certain stouts having a noticeable dark chocolate flavour through the use of darker, more aromatic malt; particularly chocolate malt—a malt that has been roasted or kilned until it acquires a chocolate colour. Sometimes, as with Muskoka Brewery’s Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, and Rogue Brewery’s Chocolate Stout, the beers are also brewed with a small amount of chocolate or chocolate flavouring.
Dark roasted malts, such as black patent malt (the darkest roast), can lend a bitter coffee flavour to dark beer. Some brewers like to further emphasize the coffee flavour and add ground coffee.
The ABV of these coffee flavoured stouts will vary from under 4% to over 8%. Most examples will be dry and bitter, though others add milk sugar to create a sweet stout which may then be given a name such as Coffee & Cream Stout or just Coffee Cream Stout. Other flavours such as mint or chocolate may also be added in various combinations.
Oysters have had a long association with stout. When stouts were emerging in the 18th century, oysters were a commonplace food often served in public houses and taverns. By the 20th century, oyster beds were in decline, and stout had given way to pale ale.
The first known use of oysters as part of the brewing process of stout seems to be confusing. Some say it was in 1929 in New Zealand, others say the first known brewery to use oysters as part of the brewing process of stout was in 1938 by the Hammerton Brewery in London, UK. This brewery was re-established in 2014 and is once again brewing an Oyster Stout.
Modern oyster stouts may be made with a handful of oysters in the barrel, hence the claim of one establishment, the Porterhouse Brewery in Dublin, that their award-winning Oyster Stout was not suitable for vegetarians. Others, such as Marston’s Oyster Stout, use the name with the implication that the beer would be suitable for drinking with oysters.
1. American-Style Stout
Low to medium malt sweetness with hints of caramel, chocolate and/or roasted coffee give it a big roasted malt aroma and flavor, sometimes bordering burnt coffee. The sweetness helps balance the bitterness of the roasted grains and hops. The majority of the character that defines American Stout comes from the specialty malts. Try Rogue Chocolate Stout, Deschutes Brewery Obsidian Stout or Sixpoint Diesel Stout. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 4.5-7% (5.7-8.8%)
Bitterness (IBU) 35-60
2. American-Style Imperial Stout
A derivative of the Russian Imperial Stout, this full-bodied style is robust and higher in alcohol content. The bitterness is moderate to very high. It has a very notable malt character, and lends itself to strong flavor additions like chocolate and coffee. Many of these are barrel aged in bourbon or whiskey barrels. Try Deschutes The Abyss, The Lost Abbey’s Serpent’s Stout or Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 5.5-9.5% (7-12%) Bitterness (IBU) 50-80
3. British-Style Imperial Stout
Copper to very dark brown, this high alcohol content style has a rich, malty flavor, usually noting toffee or caramel. Hop aroma can be subtle to moderately hop-floral, -citrus or -herbal. The high alcohol content is evident in this type of stout, especially in the finish. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 5.5-9.5% (7-12%) Bitterness (IBU) 45-65
4. Sweet Stout (Milk/Cream Stouts)
This English style of stout has a mild roasted grain aroma, often with coffee and/or chocolate notes. Hop bitterness is moderate (lower than in dry stout). Historically, they are known as “Milk” or “Cream” stouts, as the full body of this beer was originally borne from incorporating milk/unfermented sugar before bottle. The classic surviving example of milk stout is Mackeson’s, who claimed that “each pint contains the energizing carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk”. Chocolate, malt sweetness and caramel are dominant flavor profiles. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 2.5-5% (3-6%) Bitterness (IBU) 15-25
5. Oatmeal Stout
This style is a smoooooooth number. A medium to full bodied style, the sweetness of this beer makes it a good companion with desserts and hearty, meaty meals. With complexities of roast, coffee, cream, and sweet malt, the oats make the mouthfeel soft and silky. Oatmeal stout was first recognized for its nutritional value and was popular in England with nursing mothers and athletes. Oatmeal Stout fell into relative obscurity in the mid-20th century, until about 1980. Try Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, Anderson Valley Brewing Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout or Firestone Walker Brewing Velvet Merlin. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.0-4.8% (3.8-6%)
Bitterness (IBU) 20-40
6. Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout
Through the use of roasted barley, this classic style has the signature dry-roasted character. Dark black in color and one of the more drinkable styles, they tend to have a lighter body. Great examples of this iconic style are classic Guinness Draught, Moylan’s Dry Irish Stout, Ommegang Stout, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Victory Irish Stout. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.2-4.2% (3.8-5%)
Bitterness (IBU) 30-40
7. Foreign (Export)-Style Stout: TBD
Foreign-style stouts have an initial malt sweetness and caramel flavor with a distinctive dry-roasted bitterness in the finish. It’s a special style of stout that is similar to a Dry Stout in that they have a malty sweetness and notes of caramel, but it’s higher in alcohol with a very pronounced roasted character. There’s no hop profile here. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is an exceptional example of this style. Creamy body, molasses dominate with roasted malts & chocolate flavor, this is a delicious stout. Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 4.5-7.5% (5.7-9.3%) Bitterness (IBU) 30-60
Myth #1: Stouts were born dark
The word “stout” did not originally refer to a dark beer. In the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language (four years before Arthur Guinness began brewing in Dublin, Ireland), Samuel Johnson called “stout” simply a slang name for strong beer, and well into the 18th century many brewery portfolios included both a pale stout and brown stout.
So why did stout turn to the dark side? Look to the brewers of porter, which emerged in the 18th century as the first industrially produced beer. (Porter was also popular with home brewers in America, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.) Breweries in England, and later other countries, added to their range by offering a stronger beer called “stout porter,” a beefed-up porter that soon would simply be called “stout.”
Porters were universally dark, and stout porters were made to identical recipes, but with less water, leaving them stronger. Beer historian and stout lover Ron Pattinson offers an example: “In the first half of the 19th century, [British brewery] Whitbread used exactly the same ingredients in all their porters and stouts. The only thing that varied was the amount of water.”
No surprise, then, that the difference between porter and stout sometimes remains hard to spot, particularly when comparing the boldest representatives of either style. For instance, Flying Dog Brewery’s Gonzo Imperial Porter won a gold medal as the best American-style imperial stout in the prestigious World Beer Cup last April, which defines the category in part as “black to very black” and having a “rich malty flavor and aroma … balanced with assertive hopping and fruity-ester characteristics.”
“We entered it where we thought it met the [competition] guidelines,” Flying Dog head brewer Matt Brophy said immediately after the awards ceremony. “We weren’t thinking about style descriptions when we brewed (and named) it.”
Myth #2: Stouts are stronger because they’re dark
In truth, a beer’s color has nothing to do with its alcohol content. Porters and, thus, stouts first took their color from a combination of highly roasted brown malt and amber malt—in England, brown malt from Hertfordshire became relatively inexpensive after newly carved shipping canals made it easy to transport. That brown malt, also known as “snap,” provided a charred quality. Today, stout’s signature roasty flavors and dark color come instead from unmalted barley that is roasted much like coffee beans are.
Differences in alcohol content, meanwhile, derive more from the amount of pale malt in the brew. That amount can vary greatly in dark beers, just as in many paler ones—by the mid-19th century, brewers in Ireland made dark porters and stouts using as much as 97 percent pale malt. Even so, plenty of stouts are relatively mild-mannered. For instance, at 4.1 percent alcohol by volume, Guinness is basically the same strength as what Americans call “three-two beer” (3.2 percent by weight, or 4 percent by volume). Compare that to Corona Extra’s 4.6 percent ABV or Budweiser’s 5 percent.
It is true, though, that stout’s strong flavors can handle a heavy alcohol content without becoming unbalanced, and some stouts rank among strongest beers brewed anywhere—for example, Dogfish Head World Wide Stout checks in at 18 percent ABV. But since their beginning, stouts’ individual strengths have ranged broadly. And that range has only widened. “Probably the lightest beer I ever had was a stout,” says Oliver. “It was smoked, it was from Denmark, it was probably 2.5 percent alcohol, and it was dark.”
Myth #3: Stouts drink like a meal
With an average 150 calories per 12-ounce bottle, any beer can add a notch to your belt. But light-beer drinkers likely don’t realize that Guinness Draught contains only one more calorie per ounce than Miller Lite, and many other stouts aren’t much heavier.
Still, there is a certain amount of history behind the belief that stouts are always heavy and filling. The original porter was a working man’s drink, often brewed to leave plenty of residual sugars to boost the energy of its drinkers. “These beers would have been somewhat strong but would have had more carbohydrates than we’re used to today, so they would have been fairly nutritious,” says Mosher. Furthermore, he adds, at the end of the 19th century, a specific variety of sweet stout—filled with unfermentable lactic sugars that rendered the brew low-alcohol and high-sugar—was marketed as “invalid stout” and thought to be especially nutritious. “Those were pretty well gone after World War II, but for some reason the idea that stout is heavy lingers on.”
Breweries themselves helped perpetuate this myth: Before the health-conscious learned to fear calories and advertising watchdogs wielded much power, breweries routinely promoted the supposedly healthy, nutritious qualities of stout—in essence, framing it as liquid food. Most famous was the “Guinness is Good for You” campaign that began in the 1920s, but historical records contain multiple examples of Victorian brewers promoting the restorative nature of stouts to everybody from nursing mothers to the infirm. At the turn of the century, oatmeal stout and milk stout were also touted for their filling, healthful properties. It was the discovery of such advertising that piqued the curiosity of a beer importer and led to the revival of oatmeal stout.
Myth #4: All stouts are Irish
Certainly, stouts are entwined with Ireland’s national identity, and the beer style stayed popular in that nation long after it had fallen from fashion pretty much everywhere else. There’s even a specific style called Irish stout—that’s what Guinness Draught is—and stout has a special place in Irish history, though just how special is open to debate.
Some claim that Ireland’s love of the dark beer goes back to an attempt to avoid English taxation by using unmalted (rather than taxable malted) barley. But English beer historian Martyn Cornell, author of the e-book Amber, Gold and Black: the Story of Britain’s Great Beers, disputes that common belief, pointing out that unmalted barley was actually illegal in both England and Ireland until about 1880. He suggests a different reason why stouts thrived on the Emerald Isle: During World War I, the United Kingdom forced English brewers to make their beers weaker in an effort to conserve grain. “Much lighter restrictions were imposed by the U.K. government on Irish brewers, in part because the government was afraid of stirring up trouble among Irish drinkers,” he adds. “After the First World War, more and more English brewers started to drop porters and stouts from their ranges, except for the increasingly popular sweet ‘milk stouts,’ leaving the Irish stout brewers, especially Guinness, who still had a big home market, to step even more into the breach in the English market.”
Guinness and similar stouts were also perfectly suited to Ireland’s cold, damp climate, says Oliver. “If you were in the pub with your family, you didn’t have to heat your home,” he says. “So Guinness was great, because you could stay for hours, have four or five beers, and they were light enough that you could drink them and still get up in the morning to go to work.”
When famine forced the Irish to flee their homeland for more prosperous shores, they brought their beer with them. In places like America, where German-influenced lagers and pilsners had long held sway over the market, dark beer quickly became associated with this new immigrant group—and Guinness and other Irish stouts were often the most common stouts available.
Today, Guinness still dominates the dark-beer market in the U.S., and to many beer drinkers Guinness is synonymous with “stout.” “In most places, if you have an even halfway-decent beer list, you’ll have Guinness,” says Oliver. “But there are quite a few bars and restaurants that have limited beer lists. And they have Guinness, so they say, ‘Well, we have Guinness, and that covers stout.’ But it kind of doesn’t.”
In fact, stouts are now being produced everywhere from Sri Lanka to Finland, with everything from sorghum to oatmeal.
Myth #5: Stouts are stuck in the past
By the 1980s, about the time America’s new wave of small-batch brewers looked to England for inspiration, a survey found fewer than three dozen stouts being produced there. Almost all of those beers were low-alcohol sweet stouts, neither particularly roasty nor strong, and stout seemed in danger of disappearing or becoming dismissed as an old-fashioned “ladies” drink.
That didn’t happen, in part because of an even more endangered (in fact, almost extinct) brew: oatmeal stout, well-known at the end of the 19th century, but soon overshadowed by milk stout. Importer Charles Finkel of Merchant du Vin in Washington State and English brewery Samuel Smith combined to revive the style in the 1980s, specifically to sell in the United States. Finkel became intrigued when he found old labels for oatmeal beers promoting their health-improving qualities. He asked the late Michael Jackson, the world’s leading beer authority, what they might have tasted like.
“He didn’t know. He’d never tasted one, obviously,” says Finkel, who now operates Pike Brewing in Seattle. Jackson made a few guesses, so Finkel could provide the brewer at Samuel Smith with a description of what he thought would make a proper-tasting oatmeal stout. The end result turned into what’s now a benchmark for this “traditional” style, one modern-day brewers have embraced and built upon. They aren’t afraid to mix styles (like Stoudt’s Fat Dog from Pennsylvania, an oatmeal stout brewed to imperial stout strength) or to add ingredients not previously associated with stout (such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from England, made with real dark chocolate).
Although Bell’s no longer offers 10 stouts each November, the Michigan brewery continues to expand its stout portfolio. In 2008 that included a smoked stout; a cherry stout aged in bourbon barrels; and a blend of double cream stout and “Expedition” stout, also aged in bourbon barrels. The brewery regularly bottles five stouts—modest only by its own standards—and during the course of a year brews several others available only on draught.
These days, plenty of brewers have embraced stouts, though they acknowledge it’s still a challenging style to sell to the public. “Most people don’t grasp how many different types of stout there are, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to correct the public misconceptions because we’re still focused on getting craft beer explained,” says FiftyFifty’s Ashman, who brewed one of the first commercial bourbon barrel-aged beers while at Flossmoor Station in Illinois and, thus, helped kick off interest in the genre. He started with an imperial stout at the base because he was confident it would stand up to whatever the barrels added. “Stout provides a backdrop,” he says. “It’s very intense, very resilient. You can add all these things, flavor and character, and that resiliency remains.”
A STOUT A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY!