By ERIC ASIMOV
PEOPLE get stuck on the word stout. It confuses, the way it connotes size and fleshiness. And the color, too — inky, impenetrable black — suggests mass and power. As a result, many people think stout is a formidable blockbuster of an ale, heavy and alcoholic, just the way they assume darker roasts of coffee have more caffeine than lighter roasts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Stout in its classic form is one of the lighter ales, paradoxically full-bodied yet delicate. For years, my go-to midday brew was draft Guinness Stout, a once-rare beer that has become easier and easier to find in New York in the years since the city’s beer consciousness was raised. Aside from the enticing flavors of roasted barley and coffee, a properly pulled pint is low in alcohol, around 4 percent, fractionally less even than Bud Light. It’s probably wishful thinking, but I like to think a midday stout aids the digestion. I know it improves the imagination.
Where 20 years ago I might have scoured the city looking for the few places that served draft Guinness (the canned and bottled versions never achieve the same lightness of texture), nowadays fine stout is everywhere, courtesy of the craft beer revolution. As they have with so many other genres of ale, American brewers have seized on the myriad styles of stout and made them their own. At a shop with a good selection of beers, one might easily see Irish stout, English stout, oatmeal stout, extra stout, milk stout, cream stout, chocolate stout, Russian imperial stout, even blueberry or vanilla stout.
These styles may vary greatly in their flavors, and they may range from dry to quite sweet. Some require an added element, like lactose for the milk and cream stouts, or oatmeal for the oatmeal stouts. Other flavors like coffee or chocolate may be achieved by roasting barley, though occasionally coffee or chocolate may actually be added. Yet they all retain the combination of full-body richness, lightness of texture and relatively low alcohol that is characteristic of stout. All, that is, except Russian imperial stout, the anti-stout, embodying so much that stout is not. Imperial stout was brewed especially, the story goes, to appeal to Russian royalty. It is high in alcohol, massive, powerful and sometimes powerfully sweet.
Look where imperial stout got the czars. The classic stouts are what fascinate me, so when it came time for the tasting panel to survey the beer scene again, we decided to sample dry American stouts. Our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, had quite a bit of leeway, so we ended up with a group of beers that included conventional stouts, oatmeal stouts, milk and cream stouts and even a Canadian stout. In the end, we tasted 19 bottles of what we’ll agree to call North American stout. Florence Fabricant and I were joined for the tasting by Tony Forder, a publisher and editor of Ale Street News, a consumer publication, and Richard Scholz, an owner of Bierkraft in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
It’s not always easy to know what you’re getting without careful examination of the label. Bernie also included two beers that strayed awfully far into the imperial realm. One, the Double Stout (should have been a dead giveaway, no?) from Green Flash Brewing in San Diego, was so sweet we couldn’t judge it in the context of the rest of the beers. The other, Big Bear Black Stout from Bear Republic Brewing in Healdsburg, Calif., seemed more of a hybrid — bigger and a bit sweet, but complex, balanced and delicious. It was our No. 7 beer, though we might have ranked it higher had we not been focusing on lighter stouts.
The Big Bear was 8.1 percent alcohol, and the Green Flash 8.8 percent. All the rest were 4.5 percent to 6 percent regardless of style, which did vary. Some of the stouts were brisk and dry, with malt flavors and a savory edge to them that I loved. Others had a light sweetness to them — the oatmeal stouts and even more so the milk and cream stouts.
Not surprisingly, some of the stouts had a pronounced aroma of pine and grapefruit — a sign of American hops. You most likely would not find such distinct hop aromas in Old World stouts, which rely on more restrained English hops, but it was a pleasant addition. All the beers we liked best were well-balanced, with characteristic aromas of roasted malt.
Tony, perhaps emboldened by the fact that we weren’t in Dublin, said he preferred most of these New World brews to “watery Guinness.” Richard, with a nod possibly toward Tony’s British heritage, suggested that Americans prefer English stout, with its fuller, rounder character, over the lighter, dryer Irish style.
Either way, our No. 1 beer, Black Hawk Stout from Mendocino Brewing, which has breweries on both coasts, evoked visions of classic Irish stouts. It was light and dry, yes, but graceful and deliciously refreshing, too. I could see it easily becoming my new midday or ballgame tipple. Would somebody please get Yankee Stadium on the phone?
It’s a good thing Bernie threw in that Canadian beer, because the St. Ambroise oatmeal stout, from McAuslan Brewing in Montreal, was No. 2 on our list of North American stouts. It was bigger and richer than the Black Hawk, with the smoothness and slight sweetness that come from adding oatmeal to the malted barley.
Personally, I very much like the oatmeal stout style. Samuel Smith’s from Britain is the classic example. Two other oatmeal stouts made our Top 10. Arcadia’s Starboard oatmeal stout, from Michigan, was savory with an unusual yet pleasing bitterness from hops that strayed from the classic style, while Barney Flats oatmeal stout from Anderson Valley Brewing also had a savory quality, but didn’t seem as complete as the Starboard.
We particularly liked two others, which epitomized stout’s ability to balance full-bodied richness with a light texture. Both Steelhead Extra Stout from Mad River Brewing in northern California and Out of Bounds Stout from Avery in Colorado offered the extra dimension of fruitcake aromas and flavors as well as the more typical roasted malt.
A word about milk and cream stouts. Historically, these were said to be rather feeble stouts, made palatable for the ill and infirm by the addition of lactose. One version, Mother’s Milk from Keegan Ales of Kingston, N.Y., made our list at No. 10, though it was a tad sweet. I personally am a fan of a British cream stout made by St. Peter’s. You have to admire a genre versatile enough to nurture the ill and appease emperors.