Between the death rattle of winter and St. Patrick's Day, March is the month for stouts. Rich imperial stouts sooth away those final snow storms, and Guinness practically runs in the streets of any town feeling the teeniest bit Irish. While it's an ideal cold-weather companion, the darkest of dark beer shouldn't be doomed to languish exclusively during the dreariest time of year.
"Stouts should be enjoyed summer, winter, spring, and fall," says Bells Brewery director of operations John Mallett. His Michigan brewery turns out roughly 15 stouts annually, including the coffee-infused Java Stout, the sweet Double Cream Stout, and the bourbon-barrel-aged Black Note Stout.
"Stout" Only In Name
The obsidian ale might appear out of place when the weather warms, but the beer's color is a product of the barley used and bears no actual indication of strength or thickness, says Mallett. The world's most popular stout, Guinness Draught, is a reasonable 4.2 percent alcohol and 125 calories for a bottle, making it lighter in body than almost all pilsners and pale ales.
The "stout" name did originally mark it as a stronger brew. But this was back in the early 18th century, when it was the headier substyle of the English porter—a beer that was wildly popular at the time in London. These stout ancestors relied on brown malt for their color and flavor, but the result would likely resemble a very dark brown ale by taste today. The roasted flavor we associate with stouts was developed in 1817 (per the patent date) when a technique similar to roasting coffee beans in a drum over heat created what was call black patent malt. This grain offered brewers a more cost efficient ingredient for making dark beer, while also infusing the style with deeper, darker flavors.
Few (if any) beers survived from what was the stouts' Stone Age, but you can see a shadow of it in Guinness. An 1821 recipe from the Dublin brewery for "Extra Superior Porter" evolved into today's Guinness Extra Stout and Guinness Draught, says Guinness archivist Eibhlin Colgan. The creamy nitrogenation we know the Draught for, however, came later in 1959, created .
Today's Dark Brew
Along the way to our modern beer aisle, the dark styles diverged as stouts became increasingly popular. Today's stouts, also spurred by craft beer's boom, bring a sharper, deeper roast to your pint glass than a porter. And yes, most are indeed thicker than a Guinness, but Mallett says that's because the style offers a canvas for the fullest expression of malted barley you can get in a beer. "You can develop a rich, nuanced roasted and caramel character with coffee and chocolate."
Those flavors largely come from a brewer's mix of dark roasted barleys, and if they taste similar to coffee and chocolate, it's because the grains are similarly roasted in high-temperature drums, says Mallett.
The majority of the barley used in a stout, however, is the same pale malt used in blonde ales and IPAs. Commonly called base malt, it provides easy-to-ferment sugars that heavily roasted barley lacks. It's also unnecessary to pack a stout recipe with more than 15 percent of the barley as a dark roast, says Brandon Jacobs, brewery manager at Great Divide Brewing, known for its line of Yeti imperial stouts.
"A very small percentage can have a big impact on the color of the beer, and the flavor of these malts is pretty intense, too," adds Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing. "Using too much dark malt can result in a bitter, astringent character that isn't always that pleasant to drink."
There's also an unseen element of caramel malt used to round out a stout's flavor, says Jacobs. Like the name implies, the starch of the barley has been converted to sugar and then caramelized. "This leaves more sugar in a beer. Without it, you'd have a thin mouthfeel and more tar or ashtray flavors."
Beyond the Barley
Many brewers, including Jacobs and Kosmicki, like to add a similarly small portion of oats to their stouts. "Oats are more noticeable in the mouthfeel than it is in the flavor," Kosmicki says. "They thicken up the body and add a nice silky or oily texture." It's the main reason why so many brewers have Oatmeal stouts.
And Kosmicki would know best. His brewery's Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and it's more obtainable sibling Breakfast Stout, both use oats—as does Founders' excellent but underrated 4.5 percent alcohol Nitro Oatmeal Stout.
Guinness has had a monopoly on nitrogenated stouts for decades, with craft brewers like Founders only adding the smaller, softer bubbles in recent years. The appeal of the creamy feel is obvious, but it works especially well because of the dark grains, says Mallett.
Heavily roasted barley brings acidity to the beer, which piles onto the acidity of CO2 and can overpower a beer, he explains. "But when you have great rich creamy smooth mouthfeel from a nitro product, then that really plays nicely with chocolate essence."
Some mistake the flatter, smoother feel of nitrogen for strength and weight, says Todd Usry, president and brewmaster of Breckenridge Brewery. His Colorado operation produced a nitro Irish stout in collaboration with Belfast's Boundary Brewing.
"You remove the bloat from CO2 and replace it with smaller nitrogen bubbles, then it's a beer built surprisingly for speed," says Breckenridge sales director George O'Neill.
That's a far cry from the big, heavy stouts most associate with the style, but it speaks to the stouts versatility. It is, after all, a beer defined by its color, says Mallett. "You can make stout with a fairly low dark grain flavor contribution, but get it dark visually. Or you can go for a completely rich, sweet malty bomb."
It's along that spectrum that you can find a stout for any season. From a fast-draining beer to enjoy in your backyard (or during a marathon St. Patrick's Day celebration), to a bourbon-barrel-aged imperial coffee stout when weathering a blizzard, there's a stout for every occasion.