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!