Tasting Notes: Dark brown to completely opaque black, stouts always look intimidating to the average beer drinker, but can actually be fairly light on the tongue. While often smacking of roasted flavors like chocolate or coffee, stouts can actually be quite sweet and occasionally vaguely hoppy (depending on the style).
Food Pairing Suggestions: Stouts’ deep flavors are excellent dance partners with spicy and rich foods like creamy pastas, barbecue, and roasted dishes like tandoori chicken.
Ideal Glass Choices: While we always love a good tulip glass and think they go great with stouts, the English tulip pint is also a solid choice.
*Please note: This geek info does not include imperial stouts, which are described below.
Black as midnight in the Irish countryside on a moonless, cloudy night while wearing sunglasses, stouts are to beer what a fine French roast coffee is to tea. Dark, powerful, pungent brews, stouts’ aroma and appearance often belie a smooth drinkability that typically puts at least one stout near the top of any beer connoisseur’s favorite brews list.
Almost everyone thinks of Guinness when they think of stout beer, but Guinness’s fine brew is nearly the Budweiser of stout beers … simple, popular, consistent, but ultimately a mild comparison to others in the field. What most don’t know is that Guinness is simply one example of one branch of stouts – Irish dry stout. Other common varieties of stouts include the sweet (or milk) stout, oatmeal stout, foreign/extra stout, American stout, and the Kraken of the genre: imperial stout.
There’s also a long, somewhat complicated, relationship between stouts and their near twin sibling porters. Porters originated in the 18th century as a blend of older, darker ales and lighter, younger ales that were favored by … porters (luggage/goods carriers) and took England by storm. Eventually, brewers started making porters as their own beers and quickly started brewing darker, stronger porters called “stout porters.” The primary difference is that stouts use roasted barley (porters rarely do) and are therefore a bit more dry roastiness and a slightly darker color. The relationship between the two is a bit more complicated than that, but the explanation will do for our purposes.
Of course, our main concern is the beer drinker’s perspective. Stouts are usually blacker, roastier, and drier than porters, which tend to be a bit lighter colored, lighter on the tongue, and sweeter (except for sweet/milk stouts, of course). To think of it another way, porters are a mild coffee to stouts’ deeper roast.
Irish (Dry) Stout
Irish stouts like Guinness and Murphy’s are the flagship of the style. Aptly named “dry”, these stouts almost always have a fairly crisp mouthfeel, despite their intense flavors. They tend to be low-alcohol and often surprisingly low-calories (Guinness only has 125 calories per 12 ounces).
Irish stouts rarely exhibit much hop character, as the few hops in the brew are usually overpowered by the striking bitter character of roasted barley. Often hinting at coffee, chocolate, or other deep dark foods, excellent stouts walk the tightrope between complexity and drinkability.
Coffee comparison: Think of dry stouts as a mild-to-medium coffee with just a bit of cream and sugar.
Some of our favorite examples: Boulevard’s Dry Stout, Guinness Draught, Murphy’s Irish Stout
As the name implies, sweet stouts are the candy of the stout “food group.” Brewers add lactose (an unfermentable milk sugar) to the brew to add sweetness and creaminess to the brew, leading to a phenomenal dessert beer that pairs with chocolatey desserts like peanut butter pairs with jelly, Fred Astaire pairs with Ginger Rogers, like rice pairs with beans, like salt pairs with pepper, like … well, you get the picture.
Coffee comparison: Sweet/milk stouts are your Dunkin’ Donuts regular coffees – decent amount of sugar, lots of cream
Some of our favorite examples: Sam Adams Cream Stout, Wachusett Milk Stout, Portsmouth Coffee Milk Stout, Left Hand Milk Stout
Probably the easiest-drinking stout in the family, this relatively modern take on stouts adds raw, baked, or malted oats to create a smooth, rich, creamy mouthfeel. Slightly sweet (but less so than a milk stout), oatmeal stouts sometimes have a slightly cookie-like flavor and silky sensation that balances the dark roasted malt flavor.
Coffee comparison: Think of a lightly sweetened, medium bodied latte and you have an oatmeal stout.
Some of our favorite examples: Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout (amazing), Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, The People’s Pint’s Our Oatmeal Stout
First brewed towards the end of the British Empire for shipment to officers across the globe, export stouts are simply stronger versions of the dry stout. Surprisingly popular in the tropics (think Jamaica, Singapore, Hong Kong), these brews were meant to pack a punch. Typically higher in alcohol and flavor, the style has largely been superseded in modern brewing by Imperial stouts.
Coffee comparison: Starbucks. Black.
Some of our favorite examples: Pretty Things’ Babayaga, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, Dogfish Head Punjabi Stout
As is the case with American IPAs, American stouts are inventive takes on the original stouts. Brewed with American hops, they typically have a more hop-forward flavor and are a bit more malty than the export stouts they’re modeled on. We’re also more likely to throw in other flavors like chicory, hazelnut, vanilla, and other non-traditional flavors, leading to highly innovative brews. Heck, there’re even oyster stouts, which taste just a bit salty, but are surprisingly good!
Coffee comparison: French roast coffee with a bit of cream.
Tasting Notes: Ultra-complex, the best imperial stouts roll across the tongue with waves of flavor, from roasted barley to chocolate or coffee to hints of hops, these beers are meant to be savored. They will often have a warming, but mild, alcohol note.
Food Pairing Suggestions: Imperial stouts overpower most main dishes, but can be an excellent compliment to a rich desserts like chocolate cakes, cheesecake, and tiramisu (trust us). Or, heck, serve it as dessert.
Ideal Glass Choices: The classic brandy snifter is a great choice to capture the intense aromas of an imperial, and goblets are also suitable. Stemmed tulip and the standard English tulip pint work well too.
The brontosaurus of the stout world, imperial stouts originated in England to be shipped to the royal courts Russia and are the original “Imperial” beer. Incredibly rich, high-alcohol, and often bitter, imperials are usually as complex as an Ikea desk and occasionally feature a slightly hoppy character that’s missing from most other stout styles. Their high alcohol is achieved by a mountain of barley, leading to a broader palette for the brewer to paint with.
When done right, imperial stouts are a delicacy. They will blow your mind with flavors and complexities. Highly alcoholic and decadent, one should sip these brews, not gulp them. Go to any beer rating web site’s top-100 list and the list will be dominated by imperial stouts.
Coffee comparison: Espresso. Rich, dark, deep espresso.
Some of our favorite examples: North Coast’s Old Rasputin, Sierra Nevada Narwhal, Clown Shoes’ Blaecorn Unidragon
Our version: Tautog Black IPA. Not quite an imperial stout, but darned close.