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St. Patrick’s Day is a few weeks away, and if any beer is synonymous with this boozy holiday, it’s Guinness. Thirsty revelers throw back an estimated 13 million pints on St. Patty’s alone--but much like the shenanigans now associated with the day itself, stouts aren’t actually from Ireland.
This style traces its roots to 18th century London. Porter was king of beers back then, and the first large scale, industrial breweries were built to meet the frenzied demand for these dark, malty ales. Porter makers continuously toyed with recipes to create bigger, stronger, and even more flavorful beers, and many made “stout porters” in addition to their standard or “plain” porter. Back then, “stout” simply meant “strong,” much like “double” or “imperial” in reference to today’s IPAs.
Arthur Guinness began brewing his own porter in Dublin in 1778, and while English brewers shifted from dark to pale ales, Guinness and his sons made stouts Ireland’s top beer and an international phenomenon. Guinness’s stout was released in 1840, and by the early 20th century the London porter houses were long gone and Guinness was the largest brewery in the world.
The demand for Guinness’s brews went beyond its home island. Stronger stouts were brewed for export, including a sweeter, fruitier version for tropical climates that remains popular in the Caribbean. Brewers abroad were inspired to make their own stouts. Brasserie Dupont, famous for their earthy saisons, began making Belgian-style stouts in the 1950s. Ceylon Brewery in Sri Lanka has made their own variation of a tropical stout since 1940, inspired by Guinness’s exports. Even porters experienced some renewed popularity, though modern versions are closer to Irish stouts than their English ancestors likely were. Though they have a lot in common, porters tend to have flavors closer to caramel, chocolate, and burnt toast while the darker malts used more generously in stout brewing lend more coffee and espresso-like flavors and bitterness.
Freewheel Brewing’s Ironbridge Wenlock Stout (5.6% ABV) is about as traditional a stout as you can find here in the Bay Area. This Redwood City brewery draws on English brewing techniques as well as ingredients, conditioning and serving their beer from casks instead of kegs. This means lighter carbonation than typical of U.S. brews, giving this stout an added smooth creaminess. A smattering of U.S. grown hops accents the roasty malt without overpowering the underlying coffee flavor.
Ballena Stout (5.5% ABV) by Alameda Island Brewing is an all-American interpretation of the classic Irish dry stout. Espresso is complimented by rich, dark chocolate and hint of hoppy citrus and spice. Though the flavors are bigger and bolder, this stout is actually a bit lower in alcohol than Freewheel’s. Darker beers aren’t necessarily stronger--the deeper color comes from roasted malts, which contain less sugar and therefore create less alcohol than lighter malts. Some of the strongest beer styles you’ll find--barleywines, Belgian quadrupels, and triple IPAs--are all much paler than stouts.
Cleophus Quealy’s Sweet Henrietta is a great example of this, landing at an easy drinking 3.6% ABV. This is actually a milk stout, so lactose, a sugar derived from milk and dairy, is added during brewing. Yeast can’t break down lactose, and the added sweetness remains in the finished beer, combining with the hallmark coffee flavor(in this case, accentuated by the addition of cold-pressed espresso) for a softer, smoother beer reminiscent of iced coffee with a splash of cream and sugar.
Last, but certainly not least, is Dragoons Dry Irish Stout by Moylan's. Dragoons epitomizes the American style dry Irish stout. It has a rich, creamy, roasted character with a smooth and dry finish. The light carbonation, harkening back to the great irish stouts we know and love, makes for an easy, enjoyable drinking experience. The imported hops and malts really do the timeless style justice, which lead to this brew taking Silver in its catagory at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.
If you want some suggestions, feel free to drop by our Albany location and come chat with us. You can also browse the rest of our craft beer menu here.