Black Is the New Black

A guide to stout styles

Dave Carpenter May 23, 2015 - 9 min read

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From Doc Martens’ 1460 boots and Chuck Taylor sneakers to the KitchenAid mixer and Barcelona chair, some things are simply timeless. Excellent ideas exude a sense of style that transcends fleeting fashions. And I can think of no better example of a style with staying power than stout.

While today’s stout is as likely to be a powerful, barrel-aged snifter of elixir as it is the familiar pint of plain, a well-crafted stout is equally at home in the twenty-first century as its predecessors were in the Georgian and Victorian eras. A complex ale that’s as enduring as it is versatile, stout’s origins may be opaque, but its enduring popularity is brilliantly clear.

Peer beneath the ebony exterior, and you’ll discover why, from Kilkenny to Kansas City, there’s never been a better time for a black celebration.

Fifty Shades of Black

Stout’s (and porter’s) origins are as dark as the ales themselves. What is clear, however, is that stout and porter are difficult to differentiate today, especially with brewers imperializing everything under the sun. One brewer’s double porter might easily outweigh every stout in his or her entire portfolio.


Were nomenclature entirely up to me, I would suggest that modern stout often, but not always, achieves a bitter coffee-like character from a generous quantity of roasted barley, while today’s craft porters rely more heavily on dark caramel and chocolate malts to yield a deep chocolate-like flavor. I like to think of porter and stout as occupying a single continuum that spans a space between, if you will permit a coffee analogy, light filter coffee (brown porter) and a heavily roasted ristretto (imperial stout). Again, this is more art than science.

The upshot of having such a poorly defined style is that it can mean lots of things to lots of people. And stout does so with abandon. Here, then, is a survey of stout’s many personae as they exist today.

Irish Stout

Irish stout, also called dry stout, must surely be one of the world’s most misunderstood styles of beer. Despite its persistent reputation as a meal in a glass, Irish stout is one of the lightest beer styles you’ll ever encounter. At 4.2 percent ABV and 125 calories per 12-ounce serving, Guinness Draught is, in fact, in the same nutritional league as Bud Light, which clocks in at 4.2 percent ABV and 110 calories. Remember this fact the next time someone claims that dark beer is too heavy.

Irish stout is also among the most approachable members of the stout family. With little to no caramel malt and a healthy dose of roasted barley, this is the style that morning coffee addicts are most likely to switch to in the afternoon. And it’s the fuel for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland, the Irish diaspora, and all of us who claim Irish heritage despite clear genealogical evidence to the contrary. Dry stout is frequently dispensed through a nitrogen faucet, resulting in those famous cascading bubbles and a dense white head resting atop a jet-black body. Even those who don’t normally drink beer have to stop and watch.


Sweet (Milk) Stout

Perhaps counter-intuitively to all but brewers, sweetening a beer requires more than simply adding sugar. Doing so results in the yeast simply metabolizing said sugar and increasing the alcohol content of the beer.

However, yeast cannot ferment lactose, the sugar found in milk. So, a brewer who doses a beer with lactose can create a sweeter final product, and lactose seems to work particularly well with stout. Sometimes called milk stout or cream stout because of the dairy-derived sugar, sweet stout is an excellent crossover stout for those who claim not to like dark beer. Smooth and rich, it can easily stand in for a milkshake.

Chocolate Stout

Chocolate stouts once contained no chocolate whatsoever. The name derives from the use of chocolate malt, which is a deeply roasted malt that lends a bittersweet chocolate flavor. Nonetheless, modern brewers now frequently include actual chocolate in their chocolate stouts. Regardless of the specific formulation, a chocolate stout should display an identifiable bittersweet chocolate personality that is distinct from the usual coffee.

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Oatmeal Stout

Oatmeal stout is an especially comforting variation on the stout theme, the closest thing you’ll find to a hug in a glass. Because oats have more protein than malted barley, inclusion of up to 25 percent oats in the mash produces a smooth, silky body. Oats also add some sweetness, which also contributes to this style’s understandably broad appeal. For a historical look at oatmeal (oat malt) stouts and a recipe, see “A Brief History of Oatmeal Stout.”

Foreign Extra Stout

Historically brewed to a high strength to survive long journeys by ship (sound familiar, hop heads?), foreign extra stout is a heftier, roastier, more alcoholic version of Irish stout. In a historical quirk that parallels the odd proliferation of Austrian beer styles in Mexico, you’ll find foreign extra stouts doing particularly well in the tropics. From Jamaica to Nigeria, foreign extra stout thumbs its nose at the notion that a tropical climate automatically calls for yellow beer.

In fact, if you’ve only ever tasted Guinness Draught, then do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout the next time you’re in your favorite bottle or liquor store. At 7.5 percent ABV, it’s a different experience altogether and not one you’re likely to forget.

American Stout

As with most American styles of European ancestry, American stouts are usually more outspoken than the originals. Look for a greater hops presence than is likely to be found in British versions, though this isn’t necessarily the case. American stouts typically start at 5 percent ABV and can climb to 8 percent or more, and keep in mind that the line between American stout, foreign extra stout, and imperial stout is not so much a line as an erratic blur.


Russian Imperial Stout

Newcomers to craft beer often believe that stout implicitly means thick, heavy, alcoholic, and calorific. And while this needn’t necessarily be true, Russian imperial stout will do us no favors in dispelling such myths. Russian imperial stout (RIS) is the zymurgical equivalent of a black hole: Light can’t penetrate its onyx depths, and once you’ve succumbed, there’s no escaping its pull.

Originally brewed in London as a high-octane export to the Baltic states, imperial stout found particular favor in the Russian imperial court of Catherine the Great, which is where the name comes from. And it is from RIS that modern craft brewers co-opted the term imperial to mean anything that’s big and boozy. Russian imperial stout lends itself to endless experimentation, and you’ll find specimens that are barrel-aged, coffee-infused, brewed with rye, and countless other variations.

Black Goes with Everything

Because stout is such a loosely defined category, brewers take carte blanche (carte noire?) to improvise. The many none-of-the-above interpretations out there include oyster stout (yes, it includes real oysters or oysters shells, and it is wonderful), coffee stout, barrel-aged stout, and any number of other tweaks and adjustments to the formula.

And with so many riffs on a common theme, stout may well be the ultimate pairing beer. You can find the perfect stout to accompany everything from backyard barbecue to chocolate truffles. Irish stout, for example, is nothing short of sublime with freshly steamed mussels, but it also holds its own against a rack of ribs or mole poblano. In The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver notes that “stouts are an absolutely perfect match for chocolate desserts,” an assertion that, despite Oliver’s own use of italics, remains an understatement.

Stout may frustrate those who insist on taxonomy, but it is precisely that defiance to classification that makes it so versatile and enjoyable. The _mode du jour _may come and go. But black never goes out of style.