THIS TIME OF YEAR brings forth thoughts of deep, dark pints of rich, creamy pints of plain, as Irish poet Flann O’Brien wrote. The classic dry Irish stout category, best exemplified by Guinness, is known around the globe. In its earliest form, stout simply connoted a stronger than average beer, even applying to light colored and pale beers. As the style further developed in Britain and Ireland, stout became known as a stronger version of brown porter. Despite the imposing appearance, opaque and dark with a sizable, sustained creamy head, modern versions remain the exact opposite of heavy beers. With a light to medium body, dry Irish stouts have a light carbonation when served from the bottle.
When drawn from a nitrogen tap system, the beers take on an airy, creamy consistency. The use of the word “dry” to describe the style is fitting as this low alcohol beer imparts a distinct yet reserved bitterness from the roasted barley, with occasional coffee and dark chocolate notes. As with almost any other style, Americanized versions tend to be hoppier and often bear closer resemblance to the porter style.
While the dry Irish variety remains the most popular dark beer style on the planet, the stout category broadly covers a wide range of aromas, flavors, and characters. Ranging from sweet and milky to big, bold, and bitter, stouts cover a lot of ground. Let’s explore a few popular local versions from a wide variety of styles.
IPSWICH OATMEAL STOUT
Mercury Brewing Company
A long time classic that does not get the love and praise that it deserves, this menacingly black offering from Boston’s North Shore is capped by a light tan head with very little color at the edges. Mercury’s take on the style is unusually hoppy with big earthy and mineral notes from Pacific Northwest hops. The unexpected hop aromas add depth to a fairly standard array of dark roasted coffee notes and light espresso hints resulting in an earthy, clean experience. Surprisingly full-bodied, Ipswich Oatmeal Stout boasts great flavor, often tilting toward burnt roasted strength instead of lighter creamy touches. The roasted malt flavor starts slow, then transitions into a touch of raisin malt sweetness, but then kicks into a long, pronounced and never-ending burnt bitterness. A great, drinkable beer for winter or spring months. ipswichalebrewery.com
Otter Creek Brewing Company
Another offering in the Oatmeal Stout category, this beer from stalwart Otter Creek pours jet black in hue, with very little light around the edges. A brisk pour offers a small, highly carbonated head of tan foam that gives off mild notes of coffee, chocolate, biscuits, and a touch of caramel, with slight notes of smoke. The flavor follows suit with fresh ground coffee, chocolate biscuits, and a mild but continuing creaminess finished off with a quick but assertive bolt of bitterness. Medium-bodied and very mild on the palate, the beer is dry but enticing throughout the drinking experience. ottercreekbrewing.com
WHILE A GREAT DEAL of the stout world exists in the dry Irish side of things, where mild roasted notes mix with hints of bitterness and a general lack of sweetness, there is another side to stout that is more willing to explore the interplay of sugar and cream. These styles, including Sweet Stout, Milk Stout, and Foreign or Export styles, tend to offer amateur historians and drinkers a rare glimpse at what traditional British stouts tasted like a century ago. Milk and Sweet Stouts can be difficult to find, with Milk Stouts fully giving in to the lighter, creamier side of the roasted stout world and Sweet Stouts being a bit too cloying for the dry modern beer palate. But when done well, these beers avoid being a cloying, unbalanced mess. Instead, they smartly balance deeply roasted grains, with cream coffee and milk to dark chocolate aromas, and a moderate level of sweetness to create a creatively and agreeably dissonant beverage. Some gain their high residual sweetness from unconverted sugars left in the beer and in the case of Milk Stouts, the addition of lactose, an unfermentable ingredient also known as milk sugar. Sometimes called Cream Stout, the flavor of these styles often focus on a downy, milky flavor reminiscent of sweetened coffee or espresso.
SAMUAL ADAMS CREAM STOUT
Boston Beer Company
One of the first American attempts at this sweeter end of stout was, unsurprisingly, created by the Boston Beer Company nearly twenty-five years ago. The Samuel Adams Cream Stout was originally a nitro beer project, one that failed in that early respect but gained traction with a small but dedicated niche of beer geeks. It remains a niche product today but one that is worth seeking out and certainly to be enjoyed when found as a surprise on a bar or restaurant menu. Brewed in the traditional English sweet stout style, the Cream Stout pours with a deep, opaque black hue and a substantial and inviting off-tan colored head. The aromas smell deeply of chocolate, caramel, touches of coffee, and slight hints of sweetness and cream. The flavor continues with kicks of chocolate, coffee, and cream, over a medium body, balanced by mild hints of bitterness from English Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops. A very pleasant and long-standing version of an often overlooked style. samueladams.com
BOSTON IRISH STOUT
Harpoon’s answer to the seemingly ever-present Guinness dry Irish Stout, the Boston Irish Stout remains a local alternative to more mass produced versions of the classic style. Deep black in hue with few hints of light at the edges and a decent sized dollop of foam from the often-employed nitrogen pour, this stout smells of mild roasted malts, with hints of chocolate, coffee, and bits of cream. Balanced by Willamette hops, the mixutre of six malts lends the flavor a surprisingly robust bolt of roasted malt flavor, with quick hits of sweetness and chocolate and bitterness for balance, ending in a typically dry fashion. Low to medium carbonation levels do not detract from the flavor. harpoonbrewery.com
Berkshire Brewing Company
South Deerfieldd, Massachusetts
This long-standing classic from the solid Berkshire Brewing Company may not be likely to turn the heads of many beer geeks but that it is both to their discredit and loss as it is a beauty. Recently rebranded from Imperial Stout to The Russian, along with a much needed update to the packaging, Berkshire’s imperial stout pours jet black in hue with a well-balanced head of light tan foam. The aromas mix with dark chocolate and coffee hints, bits of cream and fruit, and thorough roasted notes. Carbonation levels are medium and provide some bite and balance. The flavor mimics the aroma, with some additional hints of anise and complex roasted malts. A bit on the lighter side in comparison to many overwhelming Russian Imperial Stouts, this version is both economical and a steal for consumers. berkshirebrewingcompany.com