As the nights grow colder, and rooftop bars give way to dimly lit pubs, man quite naturally turns away from the pale ales and lagers of baseball season. Instead, he is gripped by cravings for something darker and more substantial - something that can provide sustenance throughout extended happy hours and evenings spent by the fire after frigid hours of ice fishing, skiing or just shoveling the walk. What the onset of a long winter calls for, of course, is a well-poured pint of stout.
Stout beer gets its dark color from the roasted malt and barley it's made from, and has its roots in London, where it was first brewed in the early 1700s. These beers tend to be dark as a Ponzi schemer’s soul, have a creamy texture, and offer a huge range of flavors, from sweet and chocolaty to brutally bitter.
Whether we're talking imperial stout, oatmeal stout, or even the nearly extinct oyster stout, these are not beers to be shotgunned. Stouts are made to be sipped and savored while lingering over a pint in a warm wood-paneled room near a roaring fire, making occasional references to football of either sort. And while traditionally stouts contain less alcohol than other beers, many modern stouts have upped the alcohol content - perfect for wiling away the hours.
While Guinness, an Irish stout, is by far the most popular, the brewing renaissance of the last decade hasn't left stouts behind. Literally hundreds of intriguing and incredibly tasty takes on the genre are available from liquor stores around the country. We rounded up several of these in a recent tasting. All should be available in any reasonably well-stocked shop, or online.
Guinness Draught (can) – By far the best known stout in the world and brewed since 1759 according to the company, this Irish stout is served in pubs worldwide and is immediately recognizable for its creamy head and distinct cascading pour. The foam stems from the gasses injected into by the “draught widget” that rattles around around in the specially designed cans like they were some strange form of spray paint. While Guinness is technically a stout, it’s a much lighter expression of the breed. Somewhat unpleasantly bitter on the swallow and tasting faintly of chocolate and coffee, it’s creamy, lightly carbonated, and fairly easy drinking overall. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the legend. But it’s available no matter where you live, so you’re guaranteed a decent drink regardless of the pub you pop into.
Bell's Kalamazoo Stout - A solid expression of stout, Bell’s Brewery out of Michigan has put together an excellent beer for the long nights ahead. This espresso-colored brew provides a nose full of caramel and butterscotch and a rich, creamy feel in the mouth. It’s slightly sweet up front, deepening as you swallow to a nicely bitter roasted malt and coffee aftertaste. Thicker and creamier than Guinness with slightly more carbonation, this beer gives American stouts a good name.
Bourbon County Stout - Brewed by Goose Island in Chicago, this was the surprise favorite of our tasting panel. Bourbon County Stout is aged in bourbon barrels, combining characteristics of bourbon and an incredibly tasty beer. It’s Pennzoil black as you pour, developing a thick reddish head and seeming almost syrupy in the glass. Designed to be sipped from a snifter, rather than a pint glass, the bourbon aroma hits in a big way as soon as you raise the glass to your lips. It’s an incredibly complex blend of vanilla and spice with the bourbon reminding you that, at 13 percent alcohol, this is not a beer to be taken lightly. Once you sip, those flavors are amplified, with chocolate, toffee, coffee, and caramel floating under a pleasantly bitter layer of roasted hops and spice with just enough carbonation to break up the almost chewy liquid. And speaking of spice, there’s a nice warm burn with every swallow. It’s a stout worthy of savoring in the same way a great wine or port is. Plus, according to the female members of our tasting panel, it doesn’t hurt that “chicks dig it.”
Rogue Shakespeare Stout - The biggest disappointment of the day, since Rogue Ales has brought us so many spectacular beers in the past. Smelling of coffee, hops, and an oaty undertone that, oddly enough, reminded some tasters of Malt-O-Meal, it pours a muted black, with a good half inch of dull mocha brown head. Definitely pretty in a pint glass, that impression doesn’t quite hold up when you take a mouthful. While the flavors are there, the heavy carbonation makes it tough to notice anything but the bitter, almost astringent, coffee aftertaste. There are pleasant flavors there, with a thick body and caramel and oat flavors playing off each other, but you have to work hard to find them. And good stouts, like a good bar, just aren’t about working hard.
Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout - While the name may bring to mind brutal Siberian winters and angry men with beards, this Imperial-style stout brewed by North Coast Brewing Company in California is surprisingly easy to drink. Deep roasted malts and a mix of coffee and caramel are easy to pick up as you pour the deep black brew down the side of a pint glass. The taste continues that theme, mixing a creamy texture with the perfect amount of carbonation to deliver a tasty combination of lightly bitter roasted malt, chocolate and caramel. The 9 percent alcohol content doesn’t hurt either, giving it a warming effect that’ll top off pretty much any evening.
Imperial Crème Brulee Stout - The wild card in the mix, this 22oz bottle from Southern Tier Brewing Company is like an A-Team plan - so crazy it just might work. Brewed with vanilla beans, lactose sugar, and dark caramel hops, this seasonal milk stout seems purpose-built to be sipped after a holiday meal. One of the thickest beers we tasted, it pours slowly and builds a barely off-white head that looks like the custard in crème brulee. There’s no mistaking the aroma - the brew slaps you upside the head with sweet vanilla and cream and a bit of cinnamon to keep things interesting. But don’t expect to polish off a pint. Like dessert wines, a little bit of Crème Brulee Stout goes a very long way. Tasting something like French toast, with heavy doses of vanilla, eggs, and a background bitterness that keeps it from becoming overbearing, this is one to break out when you’re too stuffed with turkey for dessert, but need something sweet to finish the night off right. Plus, you could substitute this stout in any cake or ice cream recipes calling for Guinness and have a dessert that’ll beat pretty much anything your mom could bring to the holiday table.