A World of Stouts for Your Weekend
The Lucky Seven Selection
Blame Guinness for declaring St. Patrick’s Weekend. Not that I’m complaining. Stouts of all stripes are among my favourite beers, after all. Guinness has also given me an excuse to bundle my occasional Saturday Six-Pack Series together with the commemoration of a saint who drove snakes out of a country that has never seen a snake. We’ll leave that to naturalists and hagiographers to debate while we tuck into a few stout beers.
Stouts, though. Not exactly a clear-cut style. Case in point: the marked proliferation of sub-styles in the 2015 edition of the BJCP Style Guidelines compared with the 2008 edition –– proof positive that style categories are anything but static. And then we have all those legends worthy of St. Patrick, guaranteed to keep self-styled beer historians debating till the wee hours. Though I’m not (yet) what I’d call a historian of beer, I know enough about the shifting sands of beer styles to say that you’re not alone if you’ve ever confused a porter with a stout. And don’t even get started with Russian Stouts. Or do. Interesting stories of icy sea journeys and opulent courts abound, along with no shortage of confusion over nomenclature. For now, I’m content to let the legends be. If nothing else, the heated debates and sedulous myth-busting make for entertaining reading.
Fine-grained differences between stouts and the family resemblance with porters aside, just what is it about stouts that keep us coming back for more, century after century? It’s worth quoting Ray Daniels, one of the more lucid writers on homebrewing caught up in an alliterative moment:
Perhaps it is the blinding blackness of the brew as it sits in the glass – a sort of barroom black hole so intense that it might absorb everything around it.
Those who finish their first glass often become converts, swearing allegiance and setting off on a sybaritic search for the perfect pint.
Twenty years after Daniels wrote those words, our love affair with stouts shows no sign of abating. Bourbon County Brand Stout, anyone? Or how about Dark Lord Day – which, incidentally, has its very own website?
For this edition of your “Lucky Seven” Saturday Six-Pack, I’m going to leave the emerald isles to their celebrations and sample what lies beyond the traditional Anglo-Irish homeland of stouts. Much as I love plenty of American stouts, enough has been written about these justifiably sought-after beers, so I’ll save a sixer of those for another day.
Regardless of which version of the history of the style you read, one element of the story stands out in all versions: Stout is an eminently international beverage, with examples from just about every continent. The stouts I talk about below are, for the most part, available in any well-stocked North American bottle shop. As for the Austrian and Czech examples? Whether you live in Los Angeles or Latvia, you’ll need to get a little closer to the source. Never a bad thing, exploring new beer regions.
Rasputin (Brouwerij de Molen, Netherlands). Why not start off with a beer that tips its hat to that infamous lover of the Russian Queen? The lightest-hued stout in this mixed pack, Rasputin is no black knight, but also no lightweight at 23º Plato and 10.4% alcohol. Translation: plenty of malt, and more than enough octane to go the distance. And like any wise master of intrigue, it hides its claws. Cocoa-dusted ganache, dark cherry, chocolate milk, and plenty of rich Ovaltine-like malt herald a palate of bitter black coffee, prune, and earthy-anise licorice. Café au lait and bourbon vanilla bean linger in the background of this medicinally bitter beer. The beer was bottled in August 2015 and carries a balsy best-by date of 2040, so I’d suggest giving this beer a few years to round out. Brouwerij de Molen has created a tidy little niche for itself with its big beers. You can also check out my extended review of their Hel & Verdoemenis Imperial Stout.
Espresso Stout (Hitachino Nest, Japan). You may be familiar with the little red owl adorning Hitachino Nest’s beer labels, but what you might not know is that this spectacularly successful brand started as a side-project of a saké kura in the Tohoku region of Japan. Kiuchi Brewery knows a thing or two about the art of fermentation, and it shows in their beers. Even if the Espresso Stout’s coffee notes are a touch too “jalapeno green” for my taste, it nonetheless delivers a satisfying cup of espresso spiked with dark chocolate, mocha, and chocolate liqueur. Black cherry and prune lurk in the depths, and an earthy herbal-spiciness evoking sassafras lends intrigue to this export-strength stout (7% ABV).
Morrigan Dry Stout (Pivovar Raven, Plzeň, Czech Republic). A stout isn’t the first beer you’d expect to come across in the town where a particularly ubiquitous beer style was born. Echoing the understated brewing tradition of western Bohemia, Raven’s Morrigan is the kind of stout that doesn’t rely on barrels or tonnes of malt to win over its admirers. As impenetrable as the Bohemian Forest at night, Morrigan offers up dark notes of earthy cocoa powder and an ever-so-slight smokiness from the roasted malts. Mocha and dark cherry brighten up the beer’s countenance, with café au lait and a touch of milk caramel adding a suggestion of sweetness to this elegantly austere, tautly balanced dry stout. One Tankard.
Imperial Stout, (Nøgne Ø, Norway). Nøgne Ø prides itself on its uncompromising approach to quality, an approach reflected not only in its beers. The brewery’s name pays homage to the famous Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, who used the poetic term, “naked island,” to describe “the stark, barren, outcroppings that are visible in the rough seas off Norway’s southern coast.” Nøgne Ø’s rich and unctuous imperial stout forms the perfect antipode to images of steel-hued coastlines ravaged by waves. Lyric aromas of espresso, prune, molasses, dark bread, vanilla, cookie dough, walnut, and a touch of salted caramel cascade forth from this jet-black beer –– a dreamy complexity that retains its harmoniousness throughout. Chocolate notes take center stage on the moderately sweet and rounded palate. Cocoa-dusted prune mingles with milk chocolate-coated pecans; baking spice hop notes intertwine with artisanal dark bread and a smooth, understated bitterness. Note: This example was bottled in October 2012 and consumed in March 2016. File under cellar-worthy, and take Nøgne Ø’s advice regarding serving temperature (12ºC). Two Tankards.
Lion Stout (The Ceylon Brewery, Carlsberg Group, Sri Lanka). Formerly grouped under the Foreign Extra Stout category in the BJCP Style Guidelines, Tropical Stout is now a category of its own (16C, for anyone interested). If you’re new to the style, expect a sweet, fruity stout with a smooth roast character –– somewhere between a stepped-up milk stout and a restrained imperial stout. Opaque ruby-violet black with a brooding brown foam cap concealing 8.8 percent of alcohol, Lion Stout is not for the faint of heart. Fruit aromas of currants, burnt raisin, and prune combine with a vinous character not unlike a tart-cherry Chianti. Underneath it all lurks a smoky-roasty bass note that keeps company with licorice, acidic dark chocolate, and mocha. The dark chocolate and vinous acidity carries over onto the palate, balanced by creamy mocha and velvety alcohol. Rum-soaked cherries strike a pose with earthy licorice, while mild notes of roast-smoke intertwine with cocoa-dusted milk chocolate and dried currants. Surprisingly buoyant for its alcohol and malt heft, this is one dangerously drinkable beer. One Tankard.
Royal Dark (Biermanufaktur Loncium, Austria). What would a “lucky seven 6-pack” of stouts be without an entry from the lands known more for their lagers and wheat beers? Even if Austria isn’t legally bound by the Reinheitsgebot, many Austrian brewers proudly proclaim their allegiance to these strictures governing beer purity. Not a bad thing, but more often than not, adherence to the Reinheitsgebot translates into a limited selection of beer styles in Austria. Up until recently, home-grown stouts and porters were rare birds indeed. Enter Loncium, a pioneering brewery hailing from the southern province of Carinthia noted for its dramatic Alpine scenery. Loncium’s pleasant milk stout features a dusting of cocoa powder, a dollop of caramel, a touch of dark cherry, and a hint of bread crust. Scents of fresh-ground coffee, mocha, and a suggestion of smoke from the roasted malts round out the aromas. Coffee with cream gives way to baking spice and dark berry notes on the palate. Smooth, off-dry, and with the mildest bitterness, you could almost call this beer a café-au-lait stout.
Imperial Stout (Midtfyns Bryghus, Denmark). Overture: Onyx, with tinges of ruby. Waves of malt and a judicious hand with the oak. Act I: Toasted toffee, crème caramel, and smoky dark chocolate opening out onto cookie dough, bourbon vanilla bean, cocoa-spiked molasses, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and Vollkornbrot. Intermission: Full-bodied and silky –– right on the border between whole milk and light cream. Act II and aria: Black Forest cherry cake and a buttery pecan nuttiness countered by a splash of rum. Curtain call: Off-dry and fruity-jammy, with raisin and juicy prune lingering well into the sunset. Expansive and stellar. Three Tankards.
With that I say cheers! And vive la sybaritic search for la perfect pint of stout!
Ron Pattinson, “What’s the Difference between Porters and Stouts?” All About Beer (August 27, 2015).
Martyn Cornell, “Imperial Stouts: Russian or Irish?” posted on his Zytophile blog (26 June 2011).
Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1996).
For a fleeting hint at the colonial history behind stouts in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Jamaica, see Jenny Pfäfflin, “Chicagoist’s Beer of the Week: Lion Stout,” Chicagoist (July 10, 2015).
Consult the links contained in the text above for more information on the individual breweries.
Brouwerij de Molen banner: http://brouwerijdemolen.nl/beers/
Loncium brewers in the Alps: www.loncium.at
All other images: F.D. Hofer
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