In September of 2014, there was a secret experiment going on at Starbucks. They have always been working with trying out new flavors, but this was different. They were not going for your traditional riffs on traditional coffee. There was a new demographic they had their sights on: the beer drinker. Starbucks dabbled in the liquor industry before with a coffee liqueur. It was not on the market very long, but it did deliver the rich Starbucks flavor people expected. The company that ushered in the craft coffee boom was looking to capitalize on the craft beer boom, and they knew their path in. It was not brewing Starbucks beer. It was going to brew a coffee that tasted like beer. The profile they were looking for shared many of the characteristics coffee already has; hints of bitterness mixed with rich complexity, a slight roasted flavor, and something with the same deep brown color as their core product. They were looking to make a coffee drink that tasted like a stout.
November 6 is National Stout Day, and stout is a fascinating beer. Stouts first gained popularity in the early 18th century, when it was discovered this hearty beer was a little tougher than the other ales, and had a little more kick. They were originally known as “stout porters”, since they were as dark as the porters being brewed at the time, but had a higher ABV. Eventually the “porter” was dropped and the style simply became known as stout. The question of “stout vs. porter” now causes some serious debate among the beer brewing and drinking crowd, some insisting the styles are as different as twilight and midnight, some saying that there is little difference other than a naming preference. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) notes a few general differences between the two. Porters are lighter in color, ranging from reddish brown to dark brown, where stouts are dark brown to black. Porters are usually sweeter, while the roasting of the barley for stouts can impart a bitter flavor. Porters roll crisply right over the tongue; stouts are thicker and tend to linger, using less water than their lighter counterparts.
Once you are past the “stout vs. porter” conversation, you can begin discussing the different ways stouts are brewed. It is generally agreed there are six distinct styles of stout:
- Dry Stout – Because of a little Irish brewery named Guinness, this is the most widely known style of stout, though most don’t call it dry. Most people will call it an Irish stout, again because of Guinness. There are some bitter notes in this one coming from the roasted barley and some extra hops. Guinness’ IBUs (International Bitterness Unit) sits is around 47. For comparison, Dogfishhead’s 60 Minute IPA is 60 IBUs. It is usually thinner and lighter than other stouts, making it great to drink over time. Murphy’s Irish Stout is another fine example of this style.
Sweet, or Milk, Stout – Advertisers are tricky. Trying to convince consumers of the healthy qualities of some stouts, they would add lactose, or milk sugar, to the brew to add sweetness. Milk is healthy, right? This type of chicanery caused the designation to be banned in England, but it can be used anywhere else in the world. The sugars mask the bitterness of the roasting and add some weight to the mouthfeel, leaving a rich and sweet flavor to embrace. Left Hand Brewing makes a delightful Milk Stout Nitro, and Southern Tier’s Crème Brulee Imperial Milk Stout are absolute delights to drink.
- Oatmeal Stout – If milk is a healthy addition to the brewing of stouts, why not oats? Oat is a grain, and beer needs grains. You have warm water, oats, flavor…it is like oatmeal! A hearty breakfast in a bottle! They were most popular in Scandinavia, which maintained the tradition until beer explorer Michael Jackson reintroduced the nearly extinct species. The oats added to the mash add their own version of sweetness, while adding some thickness to the beer as well. If you are looking for a local one, you are in tons of luck. Warped Wing’s 10 Ton Stout, Eudora Brewing Company’s Thunderball, Yellow Spring Brewing’s Prowler, Star City’s Old Mill Stout, and Lock 27’s Oat Rodeo are just a few local selections for you.
- American Stout – We have our own stout! American stouts shoot for the full, smooth mouthfeel of the richest stouts while adding extra hops, coffee, chocolate flavors to heighten the natural ones that emerge from the roasting process. They find their way to the higher end of the ABV scale, and are a product of brewers wanting to experiment with the traditional stout formula. The carbonation, usually not overly present in other stouts, emerges more in the American version. Dayton Brewing Company’s new Java Man Cometh would fall in this category, as would Deschutes’ Obsidian Stout and Revolution Brewing’s Rise.
- Russian Imperial Stout – This was brewed in England for the Russian court of Catherine II. Since it was brewed for a country where vodka dominates all other liquor (they put down almost five times the vodka the Unites States does), it had to be stronger than normal and built for a long journey. Most stouts pack a reasonable 6-7% ABV punch. The low end of the spectrum for Russian Imperials is 8%, heading as high as 12%. Toxic Brewing’s Black Tonic sits in this category, as does Hareless Hare’s Rabbit Hole Chocolate Stout. A personal favorite, Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Blackout Stout (our own Max Spang has some thoughts on it as well) and North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin are other well respected versions of this strong style.
Foreign Extra (Tropical) Stout – The home of the stout is a long way from the tropics. Especially in the 18th century, when ocean going wooden ship was the only way to get there. It was brewed with some extra malt, making it sweeter and sturdier to survive the month long journey across the Atlantic. It was nicknamed “Tropical” because the earliest versions of this beer went to the warmer colonies of the British Empire. They are typically a stronger version of a dry stout, but any style can be made into a Foreign Extra Stout. The most well-known of this style is the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, and most breweries dabble in this style, offering it on tap in smaller batches or seasonally. Ridgeway Brewing’s Lump of Coal is a tip top example of a seasonal foreign extra stout.
Starbucks may still be testing their coffee stout concoction for all we know. There is no need to wait for them to enjoy the hearty flavors stouts can provide. And some of them even have healthy ingredients in them (sort of)! Despite the heaviness of these beers, many of them are not much more calorie dense than light beers. Guinness has only 15 more calories per 12 oz. serving than Bud Light, and for the same ABV. Enjoy a stout or two on National Stout Day. You can drink a Founder’s Breakfast Stout or Southern Tier Mokah instead of the Starbucks, right?