Dark ales are no competition to the IPA craze here in the US, but they are of deep-rooted significance in connecting our craft beer revolution to British predecessors and their long-developed styles. While much of large-scale breweries in the US have taken direct cues from Germanic brewing, homebrewers and small craft breweries especially in the 1980s and ‘90’s focused on a wider set of examples, looking to expand away from the ubiquitous American light lager. At that time, much of the grain and hops available for homebrewers and small breweries was from the UK. Why? Although the US produces the majority of the world’s hops and a huge amount of its barley, there wasn’t much of a market for selling small quantities at that time, thus they were not always easy to obtain. In 1971, the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA) was launched in the UK and focused on maintaining and protecting traditional brewing methods there. This twin focus on small-scale brewing with a sense of place likely attracted the attention of some ambitious early craft brewers in the US. In fact, many craft breweries around the US use yeast originally selected from English breweries. As far as styles, the pale, the IPA, the brown, and even the amber ale would not exist here as they do if not for using our UK forefathers and foremothers’ experiences. And of course, our style spotlight today: stouts and porters!
American Stouts Recap
We’ve already taken a brief look at American dark ales and noted that unsurprisingly, Americans do it bigger. More hops, more alcohol, more emphasis on bold roasted flavors. Many breweries and consumers in the US also have become intrigued with “imperial” versions of many styles–eg., even larger bolder versions. In recent years, the US has been exploring with gusto a range of barrel-aging programs for stouts and porters that bring a whole new level of complicated flavors from wood and spirits. It’s fascinating, often highly delicious, and introduces a lot of food-pairing possibilities.
English Stouts and Porters
It’s difficult to paint a picture of “true” English ales at this time in history. With hundreds of years of unique brewing practice differing significantly around the small island, various types of serving practices and a long tradition of brewing for export, English ales are undeniably quite different in contemporary times than their earlier makes. For example, I refer to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)’s assessment that today’s English Brown ale is not the historical version. Its identity was reinvented for producing packaged beers (bottles, specifically). There simply is no way to package and export a true replication of a cask-conditioned, cask-engine served ale in bottles. It’s a different product entirely. And while some breweries haven’t strayed too far from their original techniques and recipe formulation, most have embraced a whole range of new technology, malts and better lab analyses. So when tasting packaged, exported English ales, keep in mind that you are, as always, tasting a contemporary product and not something frozen in time or stuck in a land of history. For instance, an authentic English porter at one time would have included some character from brettanomyces due to the aging process, and may have also been colored with burnt sugar or molasses, which isn’t typically the case today. Essentially, the style has been continuously developing throughout time and is a living concept.
That said, today’s English porters do stand out from other versions. Their malt profile is typically more focused on caramel and biscuity flavors, many of which can come from signature English base malts like Maris Otter and higher levels of Caramel malts. They keep it moderate in hoppiness, topping out in alcohol around 4% ABV. The style wasn’t always highly popular–it waned after WWI and actually has experienced a revitalization alongside the American craft beer scene from the 1970’s onward.
English stouts leaned historically toward the sweet side. Many were originally brewed with unfermentable milk sugars (lactose) to leave a sweeter product. Milk stouts at that time were also marketed to new mothers, invalids and the elderly as “nourishing beers.” Hey, why not? Oats were sometimes added to many stouts as a “healthy” addition, making for a lovely nuttiness and a full mouthfeel. This tactic probably originated in Scotland and utilized a larger amount of oats in the malt-bill there, unsurprisingly. Oat stouts remained popular in the UK between WWI and WWII and were generously exported to the US at the beginning of the craft beer explosion, leading to the popularization and development of the American Oatmeal Stout.
While English stouts tended historically to the less bitter and more sugary side, Ireland’s stouts hold a long tradition of drier, very roasty-flavored profiles. Ireland was answering the call for London’s popularization of the style in their own making beginning in the late 1700’s, partly by local tastes and also by water chemistry (which interacts with the malt and hops during the brewing process to heighten or minimize different levels of bitterness among other flavors). Ireland was also first in line to use black patent malt in their stouts, leading to a very dark, pronounced roasted flavor. And more differences played out as malting technology developed over time. While English browns and porters continued using older brown malt, Irish brewers took roasted barley under wing. You need no introduction to the style’s most prominent stout (Guinness), but other interpretations and brands exist (and have) since the 18th century.
Many of the Irish stouts you’ve consumed as exported products are actually in a different category, the Extra Stout, a close-to-black, hoppier, roasty and slightly higher alcohol version that’s actually closer in relation to many American Stouts. It’s likely that any stout you’d consume in Ireland would be far lighter in body and alcohol than ones on this side of the ocean, however, some close to half the ABV as US versions. Meaning, the perfect beer for a culture that drinks a lot, or the perfect accompaniment to say, Irish whisky.
It’s important to remember the multiplicity of versions and innovations within styles, however, and that style guidelines are just that–guides. Beer industry professionals have a responsibility to convey the basics to consumers, though, because understanding history and style inspiration make for a more knowledgeable and receptive drinker.