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An Introduction to Stout

In the vast universe of beers, stouts hold a special place. Known for their dark, rich flavors and creamy textures, stouts have captivated the hearts of beer enthusiasts around the globe. This article will serve as your guide to understanding stouts, from their origins to the various types you might encounter, and even some pairing suggestions to enhance your stout-drinking experience.

Stout was essentially considered a stronger version of a porter, leading to the term “stout porter.” Today, while porters and stouts are distinct, the lines between them can still blur, with stout signifying a depth of flavor and color that is uniquely its own.

It seems as though you see stout in one form or another more and more often these days. There are Irish stouts, oatmeal stouts, and imperial stouts. I’ve even seen stouts from Jamaica, of all places. If you’ve never tried stout before, you might wonder what the differences between all these stouts are.

After all, isn’t stout just stout? Not so much. Of all the styles of stout, each has its own flavor, aroma, and character.

The Rich History of Stout

Stout’s history is as rich and complex as the beer itself. Originating in England in the 18th century, the term “stout” was initially used to describe strong or robust beers, regardless of color. Over time, it became associated specifically with dark beers due to the popularity of porters.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness took what he’d learned about brewing in Kildare and signed a lease on a brewery in Dublin. By the turn of the next century, Guinness was selling his porter in Ireland, England, and overseas. Porter brewers, including Guinness, began brewing a darker, more roasted version of porter, which they were calling stout porter. I think you see where I’m going here.

Today, Guinness is only one of many brands and styles of stout available around the world.

Guinness: classic examples of Irish stout

Guinness is one of the classic examples of Irish stout. Today’s Irish stout is surprisingly easy to drink for such a dark ale. Irish stout is a pitch-black ale topped with a dense, well-packed off-white head. A well-made stout is remarkably full of flavor. You start off with a silky, sweet mouthfeel with chocolate flavors. It then moves on to flavors of dark, roasted grains, presenting itself like espresso. Then comes a bitter finish, as much from roasted grains as hops, followed by a dry, minerally finish.

Different Types of Stout

Today’s stouts come in several varieties, each offering a unique flavor profile and experience. Here are a few of the most popular types:

  • Irish Stout: Best exemplified by the iconic Guinness, Irish dry stouts are known for their dark color, roasted malt flavors, and dry finish. They often have a coffee-like bitterness and a surprisingly light body, making them highly drinkable.
  • Milk Stout: Also known as sweet stout, milk stouts contain lactose, a sugar that yeast cannot ferment, adding sweetness and a fuller body to the beer. Milk stouts often have hints of chocolate and coffee, balanced by the smooth, creamy sweetness.
  • Imperial Stout: Originally brewed in England for export to the Russian Imperial Court, these stouts are bold and high in alcohol. They offer complex flavors of dark fruit, chocolate, and coffee, with a warmth from the alcohol content that makes them perfect for sipping on a cold night.
  • Oatmeal Stout: By adding oatmeal to the mash, brewers create a stout that’s smooth and slightly sweet with a fuller body. Oatmeal stouts often have a balance of sweetness and bitterness, with a velvety texture that’s truly satisfying.

Pairing Stouts with Food

Adding oatmeal or lactose (milk sugar) to your stout gives you two really interesting variations on Irish stout. Sweet stout, once called milk stout, is made with milk sugar, which yeast isn’t able to ferment. Sweet stout tends to be lower in alcohol than Irish. The added sweetness reduces the bitterness of hops and roasted grains normally found in Irish stout. In oatmeal stout, a portion of oatmeal is added to give the ale added body and a distinctively silky mouthfeel. Look for an ale with flavors of nuttiness and cocoa in addition to stout’s usual flavors.

It may be hard to imagine, but Irish stout has a bigger, worse brother that has even greater flavor and complexity. Imperial stout was brewed during the reign of Russia’s Catharine the Great. Imperial stout usually comes in at 8-10% abv. As a result, this stout is more complex than Irish stout. In addition to stout’s more common flavor profiles, you can expect an alcoholic warmth and flavors of caramelized dark fruits. You may also be interested to know a well-made imperial stout will age for years, growing ever more complex, balanced, and delicious.

One final note on stout before we part ways. There are many foods simply made to be paired up with a good stout. Stout’s roasted character and soft, mineral profile are a perfect match with the briny flavor of oysters on the half shell. Stout seems to cut through the oyster’s flavor and magnify it. Stout seems to pair up nicely with a variety of seafood, including mussels, lobster, and calamari.

If you’re not in the mood for seafood, try ham. Stout’s dry intensity draws out ham’s saltiness and marries its flavors. Corned beef and pastrami marry up with stout for the same reason. Many people love to enjoy a nice pint of stout with a Reuben sandwich. Stouts, in general, are great with red meat. Steak, roast beef, and stew all have delicious, roasted flavors that can really stand up to a good stout.

And this brings us to dessert. Stout provides flavors of chocolate and roasted coffee that make it the perfect match for anything chocolaty. Whatever you choose, make sure the stout has a bit of bite to cut through the dessert. Otherwise, all you get is wave after wave of chocolate, with nothing to distinguish one from the other. Imperial stouts are perfect when the dessert is more intensely chocolate. The key to stout and chocolate is using stout’s bitter finish to cut through chocolate’s sweetness.

Brewing Your Own Stout

For homebrewers, stouts offer a rewarding challenge. The key to a good stout is the quality of the malt. Look for roasted malts, which will give your stout its characteristic dark color and deep, rich flavors. Experimenting with different malts and adjuncts like oatmeal or lactose can help you find the perfect balance for your palate.

While stouts are often associated with colder months, their variety makes them suitable for any season. A lighter, dry stout can be refreshing on a summer evening, while a hearty imperial stout is the perfect antidote to winter’s chill.

Whatever the weather, there’s a stout to match.

Stout is more than just a beer; it’s a journey into the heart of brewing tradition. Its variety and complexity offer something for everyone, from the beer novice to the seasoned connoisseur. So, next time you’re exploring the world of beer, don’t hesitate to dive into the dark, inviting world of stouts. You may just find your new favorite brew.


John Crafton

Written by

John Crafton

John Crafton, a seasoned beer reviewer with a decade's experience, is celebrated for his refined taste and extensive knowledge of brewing. His passion for craft beer has led him across the globe, tasting and reviewing a diverse array of brews. John's writing simplifies the complex beer world, catering to both newcomers and connoisseurs.