It’s the season of the stout, at least here in the northern US. Chilly weather and dark days just beg for a robust, malty dark beer. There are those of us out there stick with what we like regardless of season, though, and for some, the phrase “I only/don’t drink dark beer” is serious. If you love your porters, stouts and browns, how do you know what you’re getting into when selecting a six-pack or a pint at the bar? Turns out there a huge range of interpretations in each title, and it can be really hard to know how American breweries are defining well, anything. Maybe that’s what makes us such adventurous if not flaky drinkers. If you do want to get more particular, the mainly European inspiration for these dark styles can be segmented and broken down into a dozen more subcategories. Here’s a cheatsheet for buying American styles to help you determine a little more about the beer around here, for the meantime. And for those of you who are adamantly against the darkness, I’m recommending a few great starter choices, in case you decide to branch out. Because you should challenge yourself, dear beer lover. It only makes you better.
American Brown Ale
US brown ales draw inspiration from classic English browns, amping up the hop factor (unsurprisingly). This is a style that a lot of homebrewers latch onto making as it’s accessible and generally good for novice drinkers. Most versions aren’t very bitter compared to the majority of other American beers. US browns are darker and well, browner than amber ales mostly because of the use of chocolate malt. And despite their malty goodness they are typically on the drier side, though some examples are somewhat less so. Most brown ales are in the sessionable (under 5%) or easily drinkable (under 6%) range. I find a good brown ale goes great with food, especially hearty fare like stew or sausage. And, as I mentioned earlier, ambers and brown ales can be “gateway beers” to a new or hesitant drinker. I know they both were for me when I was discovering craft beer. So, where to get one? Seattle’s Schooner EXACT’s King Street Brown Ale is a good local example, and Avery Brewing’s Ellie’s Brown Ale and Big Sky Brewing‘s Moose Drool Brown Ale are more widely distributed products.
US Porters are next in line. They use a variety of darker malts, usually chocolate but often also black malt, roasted barley and/or the darkest of crystal malts. This means they are frequently darker than brown ales and have a roasty, rich malt backbone that goes beyond a brown ale’s soft corners. They are also more bitter (and far more bitter than English porters) and are usually slightly higher in alcohol. Hop flavors matter a lot in a stout or porter recipe–not all flavors go along with the rougher roast and toasty flavors, so many American brewers stick with classic European hops to give aroma and flavor to their porters, relying on the higher alpha acid American bittering hops to bump up the total bitterness at the beginning of the boil. Deschutes Black Butte Porter really must be mentioned here, as should Sierra Nevada’s Porter. For Seattle locals check out Big Time Brewery’s Coal Creek Porter!
Moving on up: stout time! Stouts and porters share a lot of space, and many an argument has occurred about names. It’s likely that the name “stout” originally came about from a naming convention surrounding strong porters in the UK: a “stout porter” would have been a robust, strong porter–indeed, much like we declare most stouts today. Part of the problem of distinguishing titles is that for American stouts, there’s a vast range of styles within, some of which take cues from European counterparts, and some that are totally new concepts. There are dry stouts, sweet stouts, oatmeal stouts, coffee stouts, chocolate stouts, milk stouts and even oyster stouts. What you can assume is that a stout is darker than a porter most of the time, though there is a limit to just how dark a beer can get. Opaque is a term thrown around when describing the appearance of stouts, to indicate that basically no light could push through a pint. Stouts are often more bitter, usually a factor that goes along with higher alcohol and/or higher sweetness levels. Some of the stouts on that spectrum finish with a lot of residual sugar left in the ale, so if you are looking for a sweet treat on a cold winter’s night, you have options. My preference is always for the drier side, and I love North Coast Brewing’s Old #38, a classic Dublin-style stout made with American tastes in mind, and Santa Rosa’s Henhouse Brewing makes a fantastic Oyster Stout.
Enough to get you started on the pathway to dark and malty enjoyment? If not, tune in next time for a further breakdown on stouty goodness, European-style. Cheers!
Beer, beer, everywhere. And how does it get from here to there? Historically, beer vessels were made out of wood by skilled craftsmen called coopers, but today the vast majority of large-format distributed beer for sale is packaged in kegs. There are however a sparse handful of mostly European breweries that still sell or store some of their beer in wooden casks. Wooden barrels continue to be widely used to age, condition, and store specialty beer, wine, and spirits by the beverage industry as a whole, but even cask-driven UK style beer and “real ales” are more frequently stored in kegs these days for cost, mobility and microbiological reasons.
So kegs are in. You know them already, from work, hobbies, or college parties (though you may not have the clearest of memories). It’s useful to know that there isn’t just one kind, size, or shape: depending on origin, contents, and customer/retailer desire, there’s a whole slew of options. If you are a bartender, homebrewer, or avid consumer, it pays to know what you’re looking at.
Most kegs are made from metal–steel, or sometimes aluminum in older products. They’re fairly lightweight and easily cleaned and sanitized to use many times. They are a reusable and thus sustainable packaging. They are designed to withstand a lot of wear and tear, but they can become dented or otherwise damaged over time, especially by delivery drivers or warehouse workers who have to move them in and out of trucks and vans.
Today we also have plastic kegs as an option. Some, like those made by EcoDRAFT in Belgium can come with a replaceable internal plastic liner for reuse. Others, like PUBKEGS and those made by KeyKeg are entirely disposable vessels. These are great options for breweries sending their product a long distance (overseas, perhaps) where reclaiming their keg would be difficult or costly. Keg loss is a real financial challenge for breweries of all sizes. Kegs are expensive to replace, and it’s common to lose quite a number over a year’s time due to negligent distributors, theft, unreturned renters, confused drivers or general wear and tear. This is why you pay a hefty deposit when buying a keg of beer from a bar or brewery. While throwing away a keg is certainly less sustainable than reusing one, KeyKeg says their product is fully recyclable and made from 30% recycled plastics. The lighter weight of the plastic vessel also means a lighter load for transport, which can help increase efficient fuel use. There are certainly benefits.
Measurement units depend on measurement system for kegs, but here in the US we commonly call sizes by their portion of an American barrel, which is 31 gallons. Fun fact: a UK barrel is 36 gallons, but luckily they more frequently use liters to describe their fluid volume containers. Here’s a quick cheat-sheet for typical sizing you might find here in the US:
Some establishments might sell or rent even smaller formats, but they are far less common. Soda kegs, called Cornelius or “corny” kegs are widely used by homebrewers. These kegs were originally used for soda by major soft drink producers and fell into disuse with more available plastics (durable bags for syrups, usually).
For foreign/European kegs, see the following:
Coupler and Type
If the different sizes and shapes weren’t enough, there are also an array of couplers or connections atop kegs. This determines how you connect your “in” and “out” lines–gas in to push the liquid to the out line, to the tap and into your glass. Most American beer brands package their product in kegs with Sankey couplers, and there is a corresponding European Sankey version that is slightly different. Corney kegs typically have two distinct lines to connect in a ball-lock type set-up. And there are further though more rare types: German sliders, mostly used on certain German beer kegs, and old-school American golden gate style couplers, a somewhat more complicated arrangement originally used on pre-prohibition wooden vessels. Golden gates were gradually phased out in the mid-seventies, an act lead predominantly by Anheuser Bush in an east-to-west sweep of the US. As a result, some older West Coast breweries held onto their original parts far longer, some even to this day. Anchor Steam Brewing in San Francisco notably still uses the old-school couplers and they have become a defining choice for the brewery.
When renting a keg, the brewery or bottle shop should easily set you up with the correct coupler, but if you work at a bar with a variety of beers on tap or have a kegerator to set up at home, don’t assume you know which coupler you’ll need–there are many lists online that can help you out, like this one.
So! Ready to go out and grab a keg for your next event? Feeling more confident on the topic of couplers and connections? I wish you happy drinking, fellow beer-loving friends!
Finally, there’s the last bit: how beer gets from package to lips. We’ve already talked about packaging and storage, two important areas that can determine beer quality. How beer is served at bars, taprooms, venues and your own home can really matter. You may think it inconsequential, but again, the devil is in the details here.
Glassware cleanliness is an obvious potential problem. Bars (or homes kitchens) that use fragrance-heavy soaps or strong sanitizing chemicals like bleach to keep glasses clean and safe can introduce a number of other flavors into whatever is poured into them–not just beer, but water, milk, anything. Ideally bars will sanitize their glassware in a high-temperature dishwasher with no chemicals necessary. Home drinkers should purchase unscented dish soap and inspect glasses before drinking. Glasses should also ideally get sprayed out briefly with water before filling in both bars and at home–ideally with nonchlorinated water, but clean tap water will do as well. If you’re concerned at home, give your glass a quick sniff. You’ll be able to tell if it’s in need of attention.
More likely a culprit in bars at least are dirty lines between kegs and taps. If these lines aren’t cleaned regularly, any number of undesirable things can build up in the distance between beer and pint: yeast accumulation, mold, bacteria or something called beer stone. You are likely familiar with the buildup of material on your showerhead or faucets. Beer stone is a similar idea. Calcium and oxalic acids present in beer can create deposits on surfaces, making sanitizing difficult and potentially entirely clogging beer lines. Beer stone can also come from other processes or equipment–inside kegs or even fermentation tanks, though breweries typically do regular maintenance to minimize beer stone.
You’ll easily recognize dirty lines in extreme situations if they’re allowed to create a space for mold and bacterial buildup, but beer stone can also just contribute a moderate harshness to the background of a beer that will often be overlooked or lumped into the IBUs by novice or less perceptive drinkers. Some drinkers even report gastrointestinal distress after drinking from dirty lines–whether it’s a result of specific bacteria or other yeast-related buildup, it isn’t clear. This doesn’t happen to everyone–some people are more sensitive than others, but it is a real possibility. When in doubt, inquire with the bartender or manager about how frequently they clean or change their lines. Some distributor agreements account for regular line maintenance, but it might not be for all taps. Many beer-centered establishments rotate through brands quickly and clean their lines between each–this is ideal, but not always feasible. If it’s a wine or spirits-focused bar that does not sell a lot of beer, you might better off skipping that pint.
Again, you can contact breweries if you’re worried that service establishments are serving their beer poorly, or you can visit breweries instead. Or drink at home, where you can control more aspects of your service. You might find that your senses are at their best there anyway.