Simeon Joffe | Beerology: Cozy up this winter with rich, roasty stout

Every year on Dec. 25, my family and I go across the road to our neighbor's house for her traditional Christmas Day party, which usually ends in a casual themed tasting. We had ciders one year, Belgian beers another and one year I brought over homemade vermouth. This year? Stout.

Stout, after all, is a really good choice for winter, the dark roasty stout, is warming and comforting. Unlike the refreshing lighter beers drunk in summer, you won't be guzzling these. You don't need a six-pack, a bottle might even suffice. You'll likely end up, so happy, with the dark comfort of stout and a warm fire, that you won't even be yearning for the mud of spring or the humidity of summer, but will be happy and cozy in the glow of winter.

For most people, stout means Guinness, the king of stouts, and the exemplar of the Dry Irish Stout.

Back 250 years ago in England and Ireland, stout was not a type of beer, so much as a descriptive. It was the term for a strong beer, high in alcohol. Some were pale, some dark. For example, before there was stout, there was stout porter. Porter is a dark ale, and the stronger version of these dark beers enjoyed by porters on the dock and elsewhere would have been designated stout porter, to distinguish it from those lighter bodies porters that had less alcohol.

Porter as a stand-alone style of beer lasted for some time, but eventually all but died out. It has been recently revived as a medium strength dark ale, lighter than a stout and drier and darker than a nut brown ale. Slowly, stout stopped just meaning the strong version of whichever beer and came to designate a type of beer, or more exactly, types of beer.

In fact, there are several styles of stouts. There are strong highly alcoholic styles, sweet stouts and dry stouts. So, what do they all have in common? What makes a stout a stout? They are all dark dense brews, using ale yeast, with a roasted flavor.

Using the ale yeast, of course, means that stouts are ales. Like all ales, they are fermented at higher temperatures than lagers; because of this, they ferment more quickly, have more secondary fermentation flavors associated and do not need to be aged long before they are bottled. But the thing that makes stout a stout is the roasted flavor, which comes from the choice of malt used.

Malt 101

Barley is the primary grain used to make modern beer, and malted barley (malt) is the main ingredient in beer. Malting is the process of sprouting grain, allowing in the sprouting the modification of the grain (biochemical reactions inside the grain that allows for enzyme activation and cell wall break down) and then knocking off the sprouts and kilning the grain. The kilning is central for creating different types of malt and therefor, different types of beer. Pilsner malt is kilned to the point of reducing the moisture content enough to stop the germination processes, but colors the malt very little. More kilning, longer and at higher temperatures, will create darker roasts. A very dark malt, black malt, is central for stouts, especially dry Irish stouts. This malt offers up little in the away of grain or "malt" flavor, but imparts a roasted almost coffee like quality. Not burnt, and not acrid, but roasted. Chocolate malt, one step down from black malt, has rounder maltier flavor, and might also be included in stout, as might Karamalz, which gives body to a beer. The proportion of these malts will determine much of the flavor profile and style, for example the classic dry Irish stout, imperial stout, coffee stout, milk stout and oatmeal stout.

Try some

Here are a few of the stouts that we tried and liked.

- Allagash Black, an unorthodox "Belgian Stout." That's not really a thing, but it was good and roasty, with a light sour snap at the end.

- Maine Beer Company Mean Old Tom, aged with vanilla bean. The vanilla bean worried me, but the beer was really nice and rich and roasty.

- Founders Breakfast Stout. Brewed with coffee and chocolate, which was noticeable, but not extreme.

- Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout is also really good, their chocolate stout was way off.

- The Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout is a big bad boy, some of us liked it, some thought it was too alcoholic.

- Finally, the Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout 2017 was an unique and apparently age-worthy brew. It is thick as all get out and meant to be sipped, as one might port or even whiskey. It did go really well with Stilton cheese. It is expensive and is a 12.9% alcohol by volume. A real trip.

I also recommend Murphy's and Beamish, hard-to-find good dry Irish stouts.


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