Hiding in the Middle: The Tradition of Foreign Export Stout

Whether African, Caribbean, or Belgian, foreign export stouts occupy the oft-overlooked middle ground between the smooth lows of dry Irish stout and the highs of alcoholic exuberance.

Drew Beechum Jan 19, 2020 - 12 min read

Hiding in the Middle: The Tradition of Foreign Export Stout Primary Image

These days, it seems we are not much for subtlety. Whether it’s politics, religion, beer, haze, or clarity, we are deeply, deeply divided into our various tribes. The more extreme we can make it, the more attention it grabs. The middle is never a very hyped position. Lots of beers in the middle fail to garner meme-level attention. This time out, let’s look at a style range that catches a lot of attention—stout—and let’s look at what’s hidden in its wake.

A Little History

Among the older cohorts of beer fanatics, quite a few credit the stout with grabbing their senses and shoving them into a pint of something different. Not that long ago, you’d hear reverent tales of visiting St. James’s Gate for a hallowed proper pint of Guinness. But these days, there’s a difficulty in talking about stout. As with IPA, the stout is wrapped in a beery haze of history filled with tall tales, marketing, and urban legend.

The basic shape of the “true” history falls within these general margins. British brewers created a style of dark beer that became insanely popular—porter. Stout arose as a term to describe a strong porter—how strong depended upon the time and brewer. Over time, the porter got dropped, the term stout stayed, and—like the modern proliferation of soda flavors—stout sub-styles exploded and morphed over time.

The original strong porter slowly drifted to what we recognize today as the Irish Dry Stout, the quintessential pub beer, and the beer that got many of us older beer people into beer. As with other U.K. beer styles, the drift to lower gravities occurred due to market forces and governmental influence. Reading through the brew logs provided by Ron Pattison at his blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, you’ll see radical shifts in gravity due to increased factory-safety concerns, taxation changes, and wartime.

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While the style to be labeled Irish Dry went south on the gravities, not everything did. There’s the obvious outlier—the Russian imperial stout. It has much myth, fame, and legend around it. As with many export beers (a wide class of beers around the world), it did have an increased strength, but in general, the more modern versions were nowhere near the super-souped-up versions we’ve seen in the States.

With U.S. craft breweries, there was a trend for “American” stouts that fell along the 5–8 percent ABV range, but those seem to have mostly died out in favor of the American mega-stout trend that was really kicked into orbit by Three Floyds’ Dark Lord (Munster, Indiana), FiftyFifty’s Eclipse (Truckee, California), and others. The even-more-modern trend of pastry stouts, as exemplified by Angry Chair Brewing (Tampa, Florida), takes the whole thing even further with more outrageous flavor additions than you find in a Halloween-candy bucket.

But in a world dominated by these extremes—the lows of a “proper” modern stout and the highs of alcoholic exuberance—what happened to the middle? Remember, the original stouts were named stout for a reason! Even the original American craft stouts were about 6 percent ABV, a far cry from Guinness’s 4.2 percent ABV.

Foreign Export Stout

The middle stout was always a historical consideration, but one largely left out of the Western market. We’ve missed most of the remaining middle ground of stout because it’s located in unexpected places, such as Jamaica and Nigeria. That’s where the foreign/export/foreign export stout and the related style tropical stout continue.

These stouts exist as the less obnoxious cousins of the imperial stout. They are the big warm “premium” hug to the regular Irish dry stout without being the death of all things. And, as with all things stout, the foreign-export story still mostly flows through the brewing vats of Guinness.

In the early 1800s, British brewers had endless, very brewing-adverse markets to expand to. So, much like the legend of IPA (brew it bigger, add more hops, more booze, repeat the legend until it becomes fact), the West Indies Porter was born.

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Just because your troops were away from home didn’t mean they didn’t need that reminder of king and country. On the surface, the story checks out—as British forces spread to warmer climes, they needed beer, and brewers were more than happy to supply it. Porter was the dominant style of the time, and it enjoyed aging anyway, so naturally stronger versions would work as well.

Why are we still talking about an old product from an old empire? It turns out that if you keep telling people a thing is a premium and desirable product, it leaves a dent, a hole in society that must continue to be filled. So even though the empire has receded, its impact still changes the people left in a place.

Surprisingly, the modern foreign stout still exists as a large percentage of the sales of Guinness. Guinness, the brewery, is responsible for a seemingly endless number of variants of stout (as well as other flavors). They and their parent company, Diageo, have affiliate breweries around Africa and Asia responsible for brewing strong stouts.

But it’s not just in Africa or the Caribbean that you see some of the old-stout meaning alive and well. There is one other place, not too far from Ireland, to find a perfect reflection of the original stout that lurked way back when. It’s Belgium.

Post World War II, Guinness created one of my quite truly favorite beers (when in proper shape). Known as John Martin Guinness, Special Export, or, now finally in the States, Antwerpen Stout, this is the ultimate stout. It is a different beer from the Extra Stout that comes in bottles in the United States. While that’s a strong stout, it lacks the sweetness and smoothness of the foreign stouts and particularly the Special Export.

It’s relatively easy to surmise how this beer came to be. Post-World War II, the Belgian brewing industry was once again in shambles, thanks to wartime confiscation and rationing. The Belgians were still operating under their World War I–era spirits prohibition, which means stronger beers were popular. Guinness was well positioned to provide a riff on their stout that was strong but less hoppy (so more malt sweetness).

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The resulting product remains today, packaged in 11-ounce bottles of amazing goodness. You pour one into a glass, and it shouts everything “stout” but also that central Belgian idea of digestibility. We’re not talking the same level of dry as the back end of a tripel, but it doesn’t finish syrupy despite the rich complexity it delivers on the front of the palate. It does seem a bit strange, but my favorite Belgian stout still remains an Irish product.

Brewing a Foreign Export Stout

On the surface, brewing a foreign export stout shouldn’t be that hard—take a stout recipe, scale it up to hit 7–8 percent ABV, ferment, and go.

But you need to take care—particular when it comes to the subject of roasted malts. Simply scaling those up—or choosing the wrong ones—can lead to very ashy flavors. And I want something roasty, not something ashy.

Malt
So let’s start with the malt. I use a lot of Maris Otter in my brewing, and that would be my start here. Alternatively, a mild malt (or oddly, a stout malt—which I haven’t had a chance to play with) is also a good base. I’ve seen some recipes use Munich, but I think that level of breadiness is too intense.

I’m usually a minimalist when it comes to crystal/caramel malts, but I think that with this style you need to lean hard into something chewy in the middle. There’s a broad spectrum of colors, but I still prefer to use medium crystal malts, such as a Simpsons Crystal Medium (60°L), instead of the darker crystal malts. The darker malts are more burnt and astringent, and I prefer to get the color from the roasted malts that I can control. I also like a touch of flaked barley to give some extra roundness.

What about amber or brown malts? Back in the day, the beers would have been heavily brewed with them. As malting techniques have changed, the nature of brown and amber malts has as well. I had a bad experience once with Crisp Brown malt, and my aversion has stuck with me ever since.

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Roasted grains come in a wide range of colors. There’s nothing stopping you from choosing to blend both Black Patent and roasted barley in your beer, but I tend to use one or the other. In the case of the stout, I’ll go for the roasted barley with an augmentation of the softer pale-chocolate malt.

If you want the classic Guinness “twang,” the easiest way to replicate it is with a bit of acidulated malt, but I prefer to leave it out.

Since we’re dealing with a big ale from traditional brewing practices, you’ll be perfectly fine to run the standard single-infusion mash. I’d shoot for the mid-150s Fahrenheit (high 60s Celsius) to try to preserve some body if possible.

Sugars are omnipresent in British and Irish brewing practices, but since we don’t have easy access to real brewers invert syrups, I tend to skip them. If you still want to use sugar, I’d go for a molasses-infused brown sugar. (I think for the “Belgian” Guinness, you want a dark candi syrup or a dark invert syrup.)

Hops
Hops are simple—use one high-alpha early charge to bump up your IBUs and maybe a light aroma charge for some character. Challenger makes for a clean bittering. Think your classics, such as Fuggle and East Kent Goldings, for aroma.

Yeast
Here’s a bit of fun. The classic Irish/English versions of stout—even the Belgian Guinness—use ale yeast, such as Wyeast 1084 Irish Ale. If you’re going for the more Caribbean vibe, such as Lion Stout (Biyagama, Sri Lanka), those appear to use lager yeast, so I’d use the workhorse of the world—Fermentis SafLager W34 /70. Ferment the ale yeast in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (high teens Celsius). I’d use the Saflager in the mid-high 50s Fahrenheit (low teens Celsius).

Water
Can’t forget the water, can we? While Dublin’s water is notoriously carbonate-heavy, it is treated for brewing and softened somewhat. I shoot for a base level of calcium, sulfate, and chloride in the 50 ppm range and a bicarbonate level of about 150 ppm. That gives you enough oomph to deal with the roast without driving a hard mineral bite. (As always—remove your chlorine and chloramine!)

And there you have it—foreign export stout. Cheers!

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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