Looking at trends, you could get a very confused perspective on what the American drinker wants. On the one hand, IPA—whether aggressive and bitter or fruity and smooth—still rules the roost. On the other hand, aficionados wrap the blocks for the latest big, burly, rich sweet stout that tastes of bourbon, vanilla, and a Boston cream donut. So, you might think that we, as a group, would appreciate a rich, roasty pint with an aggressive slap of hops.
At one time, we did. What happened to us, and what can we do to restore the proud tradition of the American stout—while still being playful?
Early American brewing had its share of porters and stouts before lagers began to dominate the market, pushing out all but a few old stalwarts. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about craft American stout.
Remember, the homebrewers and microbrewers of the 1970s and 1980s were people who wanted more from beer—it didn’t need to be a dull foodstuff meant as easy pablum for the weary worker. Those were people who had found real German beer overseas while in service, who had discovered pale ales while hiking through the United Kingdom, or who maybe—like I did—came to craft beer because of Guinness.
If you were running a brewery, you knew that anyone brave enough to try your product probably knew about Guinness. So why not make one? The darkness and supposed strength of stout was—and still is—the perfect antithesis to American light lager. What better way to let the world know that you were different—that you were making something of character?
The first of those new, independent breweries was New Albion in Sonoma, California. Jack McAuliffe’s short-lived creation (1976–1982) was a ramshackle hodgepodge of equipment and an inspiration for a number of brewing trends—namely, pale ale, porter, and stout. (In a sense, that was a more diverse lineup than what you might find at some more prolific breweries today.) Those beers were a revelation, if a bit fickle in terms of quality. They set the foundation of what you could expect from a craft brewery for the next 20-plus years. And from the get-go, there was a stout.
The other trend that New Albion started was the aggressive use of distinctive hops—particularly Cluster (blueberry, catty) and the newfangled Cascade (I’m not giving you descriptors, c’mon). As many craft-brew cynics have noted wryly over the years—it’s “easy” to make beer with a ton of hops.
New Albion Stout had an important successor: Sierra Nevada Stout. That’s the beer that arguably took what McAuliffe started and cemented it on the American scene. What makes Sierra Nevada Stout doubly important—it was the very first beer Ken Grossman brewed when he fired up his own ramshackle kit.
What makes the Sierra Nevada Stout (5.8 percent ABV, 50 IBUs) special is its blueprint. It’s a mid-range beer—well above the Irish examples that might have otherwise served as models. Consider Guinness, at roughly 4.2 percent ABV. In the world of American stouts, most of the classics ride that 5.5 to 7 percent range. The style’s strength is more reminiscent of foreign export stouts see “Hiding in the Middle: The Tradition of Foreign Export Stout,” beerandbrewing.com.
However, that American stout archetype is firmly bitter, with those 50 IBUs sitting on a 1.062 OG beer. The big American Cs—Cascade, Columbus, Centennial—all play a role, blasting forth with pine and citrus. Unsurprisingly these days, you’ll see Citra and other newfangled hops in the mix. Why not incorporate Sabro’s coconut-wood flavors into a stout?
Amazingly, the bitterness finds a way to harmonize with the sharpness of dark roasted grains such as black patent and roasted barley. For that, we can give some thanks to a mix of other malts—particularly crystals or caramels—to provide a richer, sweeter note to soften things up, much like cream in coffee. More recently, a popular tactic is to use dehusked or “debittered” black malts to get color and some flavor without the harsh bite of burnt husk material. Even Sierra Nevada now uses Weyermann’s debittered Carafa in their classic Stout. Briess offers Blackprinz, which has similar qualities.
A word of warning: I don’t recommend using exclusively debittered malts. Lose too much roast bite, and you depart the realm of American stout and cross into the uncanny valley of Black IPA. You don’t want your beer to be too smooth.
Looking at water, the brewers I’ve talked to can only really agree on one point—adjust your alkalinity to get a proper mash pH. For most beer and water types, we’d be worried about acidifying our water to pull the pH down. With more acidic roasted malts, the problem is the opposite: How do we prevent the mash pH from falling too low? For dark beers, I prefer to land somewhere around 5.5–5.6. Use a good water calculator and figure out whether you have enough residual alkalinity for your stout.
If you need to adjust alkalinity, contrary to previous messaging out there, stop trying to use chalk (calcium carbonate) to add alkalinity. It’s almost impossible to get it dissolved straight into water. I prefer to use slaked lime (calcium hydroxide).
Beyond the pH issue, brewers appear divided on whether to emphasize the hop character with sulfate or boost the malt with the calcium chloride. I prefer to read the malt a bit more in an American stout, so I favor the latter.
As for fermentation characteristics, look no further than Sierra Nevada—clean, neutral, no diacetyl, few esters. That’s the American way. (If we were making stouts in the British/Irish vein, then a little diacetyl wouldn’t be a bad thing.) Here, we want a clean yeast strain such as the Chico/Cal complex (Wyeast 1056/WLP001/US-05). I also appreciate the slightly fruitier tones of Wyeast 1272 American Ale II. Regardless, find the cleanest strain you can, and everything will be fine.
Before we get to a recipe, let’s ponder what happened to this benchmark style.
Before 2010, stouts were a fundamental part of the American beer landscape. If you opened a brewery, the odds were pretty good that you had a blonde, a wheat, a pale ale, and a porter or stout. You designed your flagship lineup to offer a taste for everyone. In fact, stout was always one of the safer bets for converting people who thought they didn’t like beer. If your blonde was too “beery,” that stout had decent odds of succeeding because of its deep chocolate and coffee flavors. I converted many that way.
These days, mid-strength examples are rare as hen’s teeth. The style has been almost completely abandoned to big, lush, adjunct-laden and/or barrel-aged hype-train stouts. While an imperial stout was always a treat, it was usually special. When brewers discovered barrel-aging, then wow, not only was it a treat, but breweries discovered they could charge more, and people would still happily snap it up. The special became the regular—and then came the pastry stout, with enough intense flavors (and sales potential) to sweep away the desire of almost any non-legacy brewery to make a stout in a more classical mold.
Fortunately, those legacy breweries continue to bring their stouts to the table. If you want a classic American stout with its bite and chew and pugnaciousness, you can still seek it out. But wouldn’t it be nice to see more love thrown their way?
Some Classics to Consider for Fun and Education
Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout
(6.0% ABV, 51 IBUs)
Bell’s has always had a thing for stouts, so it’s no surprise that even with Two Hearted and variants getting all the press, they still maintain a world-class stout. Bonus: A bit of throwback brewer’s licorice adds a high note.
(6.4% ABV, 55 IBUs)
If you don’t like Obsidian Stout, I’m not sure we can be friends. Deschutes wins a lot of praise for its overall lineup and ability to keep moving as times change, but does any American brewery produce a dark-beer duo as solid as Black Butte Porter and Obsidian?
Rogue Shakespeare Stout
(5.7% ABV, 60 IBUs)
Sure, Rogue bills this as an “English Oatmeal Stout,” but given John Maier’s (now retired) proclivity toward a few extra handfuls of hops, this would never be confused for anything coming from overseas. I honestly think this is Rogue’s best beer.
Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout
(8.1% ABV, 55 IBUs)
Okay, this one is an outlier, but boy, is it a tasty one. It’s everything I expect in that crossover line from stout to imperial stout; big, chewy, and bitter as an espresso.