Stouts are complicated.
I’m not talking about the seemingly endless (and equally pointless) debate over the differences between stout and porter. I’m also not talking about the myriad combinations of baking-aisle adjuncts that can be added to a recipe. No, I’m talking about stouts themselves: Even with just grain, water, yeast, and hops, they are complicated flavor machines that push beer to its limits.
First, consider the many varieties of stout, and how they run the gamut from low to ultra-high ABV, sweet to acridly dry, light on the palate to thick and chewy, and malt bombs to hop-forward American varieties.
Second, its signature grist component—chocolate malt—is itself a complicated class of ingredients that can contribute a surprising range of flavors. To make the stout life even more complicated, it has a lot of interdependent and impactful flavor and mouthfeel components that all reward some attention.
Yes, my friends, stouts are complicated.
For all these reasons, adjusting a stout is challenging—it’s a beer that lives in its own complex ecosystem. To properly brew and tinker with one, we must know what we want, how to get it, and how any changes are going to impact other flavors. That’s our focus here: how to tinker with a beer that seems to have all the flavors of beer on display without toppling the whole roasty house of cards.
So, let’s take a gander at our Stout Control Panel and see what happens when we start playing with the buttons, levers, and dials.
Broadly, stouts are “roasty” beers. A close reading of the style guidelines might suggest that that’s the only real differentiation between stout and porter—and that’s tenuous and debatable because there are obviously very roasty porters, just as there are stouts that are not especially roast-forward.
Things get more complicated once you start untangling the many stouts because having “roasty” in common isn’t much of a common bond in this set of beers. Stouts can be sorted within their category by several features, all of which have recipe and process implications. These features include:
Roast character: This is the most complicated one, and that’s unfortunate because “roast” is the only real toehold across all these styles, besides their dark color. The level and complexity of roast varies. You’ll need to choose the right chocolate malt for your roast flavor target, and you’ll need to choose other ingredients that won’t muddy up that flavor.
Sweetness: When a category includes beers with descriptors such as “bone dry” and a subcategory known as “sweet stout,” you know you’re in for a ride. Notably, “roasty” isn’t synonymous with “dry.”
Strength: Stouts have an incredibly wide range in ABV, from a dry Irish-style stout in the low-3s up to an imperial stout in the double digits. The overlapping styles stretch across the whole spectrum.
Hops: In aroma and flavor as well as bitterness, the hop presence in stouts will vary. Naturally, the American stout leads the charge here, but other styles call for hops, too, while in still others they’re absent or fleeting.
So, what we’re really saying here is this: You should begin by defining your stout and doing so in specific terms. Identify a style, and then make deliberate choices about where in that style you’d like to end up. Identify your target and aim for it through the dark, roasty fog.
There’s no one profile for a good stout—there are many—but that also means that we can run into issues in several different areas.
Roast, in Context
Starting with the most obvious ingredient and its signature contribution, let’s talk roast flavor: which grains, how much, and how other ingredients/factors might affect it.
First, we usually want balance, so “how much?” is an important question. Whatever the style of stout, there’s a handy rule of thumb I call the “One-to-One Rule of Stouts.” Simply put, whatever your ABV target, that’s the percentage of the grist that should comprise chocolate malts. (Thus, if you want to brew a 5 percent ABV oatmeal stout, start out with a grist that includes 5 percent chocolate malts.) This rule breaks down a little at the extremes—a low-ABV dry stout or an imperial monster might require a different approach—but for the bevy of midrange stouts, it’s a great starting place.
At Imprint Beer in Hatfield, Pennsylvania—where they have a wide-ranging stout program—brewer and cofounder Ryan Diehl shares this “start low” mindset: “We use a small amount of roasted barley—1 to 2 percent—no black patent, and then get some nice smooth roast from chocolate wheat and chocolate malt. We can always add a few ounces of coffee beans or cacao nibs later, but it’s a lot harder to reduce roast than [to] increase it.”
Next up: grain selection. Conventional wisdom holds that chocolate malts are roasty and drying, but that’s oversimplified. First, there’s the physical grain itself: If it has a husk, it will impart more of those burnt/dry flavors, but huskless grains are much mellower—think chocolate rye, Carafa Special, etc. Then there’s the kilning level: a higher-Lovibond malt (say, 450+ °L) will provide a sharp-but-simple flavor, while those on the lower end (250–300 °L) will be more complex. Consider which type fits best in your chosen style or target flavor profile.
At Beachwood Brewing in Long Beach, California—their American stout, Kilgore, has won a few medals at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup—brewmaster Julian Shrago says he keeps it simple: “American stout leans fairly heavy on roasted barley, and [that] is often the only roasted malt we use—6 to 8 percent of the grist is a good range.”
Finally, think about what else is in your beer, and how it will evolve.
If you’re using a specialty ingredient such as coffee, oak, or cacao, you’re adding flavors that likely amplify the impression of roast in the beer. Likewise, the bitterness from hops and the bitterness from roast can seem to amplify each other.
On the other end of spectrum, a good stout tends to use the full range of grains, with base, toasted, and caramel malts all making appearances. You might not see a lot of high-Lovibond crystal malts adding those dark fruit flavors, but filling in the palate in a stout usually requires darn near everything else. Accentuating roast by using something like Briess Extra Special Roast, with its lovely campfire-like flavor, is a great choice for a foreign extra stout. Meanwhile, a toasty Munich malt can mellow out the roast in a midrange oatmeal stout.
There’s one more ubiquitous ingredient in your beer: time. It’s not just hop bitterness that fades over time; roast character does, too. If you are planning to age your beer at all, be sure to factor in this shift. That also applies to time on wood: Many brewers who age their stouts in barrels begin with a beer that can taste rough at the start, but it’s designed to round out and mellow with time in the barrel.
The bottom line: Flavors in a stout don’t exist in a vacuum, and hitting the right type and volume of roast flavor is a core component of great stout.
Sweetness: Balancing the Roast
Sweetness is an important dial on our control panel. Occasionally it is a lead actor—as with sweet, tropical, or dessert stouts—but it’s always at least a supporting cast member, so knowing how to adjust it is important. Because of stout’s big flavor profile, this isn’t a place where you can count on using a slightly higher mash temperature and/or less-attenuating yeast to save you. This calls for more active measures.
Consider, also, that adding sweetness is as much about what isn’t there as it is about what is there. You can start by reducing bittering hops, choosing chocolate malts on the paler end of the spectrum, and/or using dehusked varieties. That will leave room in the flavor profile for the sweetness contributors to have their impact.
To add sweetness directly, consider bumping up the ABV or adding some lactose—it’s often underappreciated that alcohol is sweet, and obviously, adding an unfermentable sugar to the mix will help. At Imprint, Diehl recommends a touch of vanilla in most stouts, as it enhances other flavors and (in this case) can create a dessert-like impression.
Grist might be the most obvious lever to pull here. For example, besides opting for paler chocolate malts, those 80° and 120° L crystal malts will add dextrins and malty flavors, and they can also contribute nice raisin and pit-fruit notes. That fruit character in itself is another way to suggest sweetness.
This is where yeast can help, too, because fruit esters can have a similar effect. A fun, active yeast such as Ringwood can be a great choice because it has the potential to kick off some wild fruity flavors (and its propensity to create diacetyl can be an asset, too, adding a sense of richness to a stout—if that’s your thing).
Good news: Reducing the sweetness is as simple as increasing it. Choose some high-Lovibond chocolate malts, bump up the IBUs, use a high-attenuation yeast, and you should have no issues.
Mouthfeel matters in all beers, but it especially matters in stouts.
Avoiding astringency is the key challenge because our husky chocolate malts create conditions that prime that sensation on our palates. My advice: Keep cool. I don’t mean “stay calm”—I mean, literally, keep your chocolate malts cool. Cold-steeping your roasted grains separately, instead of mashing with the rest of the grist, or adding cold-steeped liquid directly to the finished wort post-boil can be useful ways to avoid the kinds of tannin extraction that contribute to astringency.
Also keep an eye on pH. That means both in the mash (where 5.2 is a good target to avoid astringency while softening the mouthfeel) and in your post-mash water additions (i.e., sparging or topping up), especially if you have highly alkaline tap water.
Speaking of water, this is an area where a bit of chemistry is helpful. The chloride-sulfate ratio is a common water metric to predict the softness (or lack thereof) of a beer’s mouthfeel; a healthy two- or three-to-one ratio of chloride to sulfate (I like 90:30 ppm) creates a softer feel. A higher dose of calcium than is necessary for yeast health can help, too (i.e., 60 to 90 ppm may be more beneficial than 40 to 50 ppm). Rounding off those sharper, acidic ingredients can prevent your stout from feeling too raspy in the mouth.
Then there’s body, and here once again we have plenty of conventional and controllable tools at our disposal. Lactose is a simple way to add body as well as sweetness—but if you don’t want that additional sweetness, you can add maltodextrin powder instead. A healthy charge of flaked oats or wheat will add proteins that both soften the palate and increase the sense of heft. Many pro brewers, including both Diehl and Shrago, recommend experimenting with chocolate and/or crystal rye, which can impart a richer viscosity to your finished stouts as well as some interesting flavor depth.
And the Rest
We haven’t mentioned hops, but that’s a simple one: Add to your taste or aim for classic examples of your style. If you’re adding them for flavor, go for varieties that will shine through the rich flavors of your stout. Here, you need not stick to Noble varieties—it’s no accident that lots of stouts lean on hops that are heavy in citrus-imparting oils and resiny myrcene.
Less simple is the trend toward adding … well, everything to a stout. Dessert-forward adjunct stouts are popular these days. I remain agnostic on the virtues of this practice. There are outstanding examples of “kitchen-sink” stouts, with every special/adjunct ingredient under the sun in evidence—while others are a chaotic mess.
Here is the one piece of advice I will confidently impart about adjuncts: Use only what you need. The four primary brewing ingredients are quite capable of adding a huge range of flavors to your beers, from toast and coffee to blackberry and banana to marshmallow and nuts and more. If you can get it from grain, yeast, hops, or water, try that first: It will nearly always be easier to control and yield a more integrated flavor.
Employing Your Stout Control Panel
If ever there was a family of beers that invited us to tinker—and gave us a wide playing field on which to do so—it’s stouts.
By conscientiously manipulating ABV, roast level, supporting flavors, sweetness, body, mouthfeel, and more, we can create some of the most interesting beers of our brewing lives—even before we consider the use of adjuncts.
When it comes to the “craft” of craft brewing, what more could we ask? Spin up those dials and create!