In my continuing efforts to broaden my gastronomical horizons, I’ve begun delving into the wonderfully complex world of craft beers — the myriad interplay of malt, hops, yeast and the life-giving water that brings them together. For years, I had eschewed beer as too astringent without comprehending that such sharpness, contributed by hops, is deliberate on brewers’ part to temper the inherent sweetness of roasted malt (among other benefits, including preservation and aroma).
Despite this newfound insight into the intricate process of crafting a well-balanced beer, however, I find that my palate is still more inclined to enjoy sweeter brews, or at least those whose bitterness is largely subsumed by other flavours. In particular, I’ve come to appreciate stouts — robust, inky beers with pronounced “burnt” notes of toast, roasted coffee and dark chocolate — over their lighter-coloured, tarter brethren.
Many people only know of stouts through Guinness, and not without reason — the iconic tipple has been brewed for 250 years — but that’s merely scratching the surface. In fact, Guinness, as a “dry stout,” is actually considered light for its style at only about 4% ABV (alcohol by volume). Add Russian Imperial Stouts, milk stouts, chocolate stouts, oatmeal stouts, and even oyster stouts to the roster, and you begin to see the variety of flavours and potencies available to the stout enthusiast.
What I find most fascinating about the world of stouts, though, are the linguistic quirks surrounding their names — in many situations, the terminology could confuse an unwitting neophyte, as they did me before I researched the matter further. Fortunately, I’m here to give you a crash course in stout nomenclature so you can order a pint with confidence.
Russian Imperial Stout
These intensely rich brews — quite literally a stronger version of the already formidable stout — aren’t Russian at all, but were originally brewed in London for exportation to Russian czars. The first few batches sent into the tundra spoiled before arriving, however, so brewers added additional alcohol and hops (which, being acidic, have preservative qualities) to extend the beer’s life. The resulting brews, usually around 9-10% ABV, aren’t for the faint of heart, but offer complex, nearly overwhelming flavour. North Brewing Co.’s Old Rasputin is a delightful model to quaff — thick, heady, and powerful.
If you’re anything like me, you may expect a “milk stout” (also known as a “cream stout” or “sweet stout”) to have milk or cream as one of its ingredients — something akin to Bailey’s, perhaps, with stout instead of whiskey — but we’d both be wrong. Instead, milk stouts include lactose, a milk sugar unable to be broken down by the yeasts traditionally used in beer, thereby contributing additional sweetness and a creamier mouthfeel. While I haven’t yet had the pleasure of sampling one of these delicacies, I have it on good authority that Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout, available seasonally on tap at Surly Girl Saloon, is excellent.
Yet another victim of misleading terminology, chocolate stouts traditionally don’t have any actual chocolate in them — I call false advertising! — and thus may disappoint the chocoholics hoping to find ambrosia in a pint glass. Instead, chocolate stouts are made from some portion of what’s known as “chocolate malt,” which is simply malted barley kilned (dried) at higher temperatures than the lighter-coloured malts used in pale ale and porter. Because it’s roasted more intensely, however, chocolate malt gives up flavours reminiscent of burnt sugar and dark chocolate, emphasizing those qualities inherent in all stouts. To be fair, some beers — such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout — do use a small amount of real chocolate in their brewing process.
Oatmeal Stout and Oyster Stout
These are fairly straightforward, albeit unusual (at least in the case of the latter). Oatmeal stouts, in addition to malted barley, also contain a good amount of oats — these increase the smoothness, if not the true sweetness, of the resulting brew. (I’m told that Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout is very fine.) Oyster stouts, in some cases, actually do involve real oysters in the barrel used to age the beer, but may simply refer to the once-common practice of drinking stouts while eating the mollusks.
Stouts are, as you can see, curious but complex and satisfying beasts, and worthy of our respect. If you’re not a fan of acerbic beer, pick up a pint of Guinness sometime — being careful not to disturb the impressive foamy head — and savor its dry sweetness. Once you think you’re ready, graduate to a good Russian Imperial Stout (which is also wonderful poured over vanilla ice cream), finish your meal with a chocolate stout for dessert, and never look back to the uninspiring, insipid pale lagers that dominate most domestic taps. You deserve far better, my friend.