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Stouts push the flavor envelope
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Winter is upon us, and what better way to warm chilled bones than a goblet of rich, savory stout?
The most popular style is dry stout, such as Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s. But before you rush out and reflexively grab a Guinness, be aware that creative brewers today are crafting innovative elixirs containing ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, chicory, bourbon, milk sugars, cherries, licorice, vanilla and even oysters. Stout means strong, and that is reflected in the flavor and character of these brews.
In the 1700s, British brewers presented their brews as nutritious, adding healthy-sounding ingredients and rendering low-alcohol offerings that were promoted as restorative beverages that aided digestion. In some countries, it was considered beneficial to bathe newborns in stout. The pursuit of healthy ingredients led brewers to add wholesome-sounding things such as milk sugar and oats to their stouts.
Oatmeal is known for its nutritional value, but too much of it can gelatinize the mash, harming the brewing process. Judicious use of oats imparts a silky quality and a nutty richness to the brew and can moderate the bitterness of the darkly roasted barley, the principal ingredient.
The quest for nutritional ingredients led brewers to attempt to use milk, but milk fats and proteins are not friendly to the brewing process. In 1895, an English milk producer used a digestive enzyme derived from a pancreas to separate the components of milk. It was found that lactose, the unfermentable milk sugar, produced a sweet flavor when added to beer. The product was sold as Milk Stout, implying nutrition.
For years, the English have enjoyed the delicious food match of briny oysters and bitter roasted stout because the flavors truly complement each other. In the early 1800s, because of an abundance of oysters at the confluence of the Thames and the Atlantic, this was an inexpensive meal. Over-harvesting and pollution eventually made oysters the luxury food they are today. Some brewers found that using ground oyster shells to filter the brew removed bitter components. Others added oysters as an ingredient, but too much led to a fishy-tasting stout that was not especially palatable. Marston’s of England still produces an oyster stout.
Today brewers are adding dark and bitter ingredients to kick up the richness of stout. These include various types of coffee, such as espresso and cappuccino, as well as chocolate. The latter ingredient can take the form of brewer’s chocolate, a bitter extract of cacao pods that melts in the boil, or chocolate malt, roasted in such a manner that it develops chocolate flavors. Some brewers use both ingredients.
Bourbon is noted for its vanilla nuttiness, so why not age stout in barrels that previously contained bourbon? Today breweries from bourbon’s home state of Kentucky to Colorado and Pennsylvania are aging potent stouts in used bourbon barrels. The toasty oak flavors of the barrels along with whisky flavors and tinge of alcohol are absorbed by the stout, resulting in a rich, satisfying brew.
A wide variety of stouts awaits the curious. Below are tasting notes on a few variations I found.
Gordon’s picks for flavorful stouts
*Prices and availability may vary
Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
The brewer was persuaded by the Seattle-based American importer Merchant du Vin to resurrect this style in 1980. The stout is fermented in large, cool squares made of slate, which promotes a slow and mellow maturation. The color is a dark opaque mahogany with a thick, creamy, tan head. Aromas of toast and coffee lead to a rich and silky palate of roasted malt flavors and a floral, honeyed sweetness on the finish. 4.5 percent ABV $10/4-pack
Victory Dark Intrigue
Victory brewer Jordan Sunseri filled 159 barrels that previously contained Jim Beam and Heaven Hill bourbon with their already potent Storm King Imperial Stout and let the concoction age over the summer. The result is a deep brew that has a creamy head that resembles a chocolate milkshake when poured. The brew has aromas of vanilla and cocoa, and a palate that showcases bitter chocolate flavors wrapped in bourbon-flavored richness. 9.2 percent ABV $11.50/750 ml.
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout
This creative brew uses one pound of Sebastopol’s Hardcore Coffee per barrel of beer added in stages during the brewing process. The stout has a deep black color and smells like a creamy cappuccino. On the palate it is rich and savory but still tastes like beer, just with a bit of a coffee note. There is more than enough alcohol to counteract the caffeine. 9.2 percent ABV $5/22 oz. bottle
Terrapin Moo-Hoo Milk Chocolate Stout
Cocoa nibs and shells from Olive and Sinclair Chocolate Co. as well as lactose are added to create this unconventional beverage. It has a deep, dark color and smells somewhat like chocolate milk. On the palate, it tastes more like beer — with a note of chocolate malted milk ball in the background. The brew is surprisingly refreshing and palatable. 6 percent ABV $10/4-pack.
Founders Brewing Breakfast Stout
Grand Rapids, Mich.
This brewery is run by renegades who like to eschew the bland beers preferred by the masses and push the limits of flavors. Founders was named the second-best brewery in the world by Ratebeer. This Breakfast Stout is a good example of their philosophy, using flaked oats, several types of chocolate, and Sumatra and Kona coffee. Aromas of French roast coffee and dark chocolate lead to a mocha-flavored palate, all topped off by a rocky, dark tan head. 8.3 percent ABV $11/6-pack.
Gordon Kendall’s monthly column on wine and spirits runs in Wednesday’s Extra.
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