DRAFT PICKS: Finding the sweet spot for stouts

Let’s talk about stout.

Many readers and beer explorers bump into a good stout at some time or the other. It seems they most often either like the brew, or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground when it comes to stout.

Actually, there is a lot of “middle ground.” Just as with other beers and ales, there are some good stouts out there, and then there are some that are a little tough going for many drinkers.

What is stout?

There is actually still quite a bit of argument in the brewing world over what stout is, where it came from, and how it should fit in the larger list of brewed beverages.

Many would say stout is a brown ale “with attitude.”

Some more historically orientated aficionados believe stout is derived from the porter family and, in fact, is a type of porter. The story goes that there were different types of porter being brewed back in the day, and the stronger batch of the bunch was called “stout porter.”

There certainly are similarities between more hefty batches of porter and stout ales.

Stouts are brewed from well thought out lists of malts that are enthusiastically roasted. Some are started with roasted barley. Other ingredients include the old standbys — hops, water, and yeast.

The trick is, the grains used in the malting process are generally roasted longer than they are in the production of other ales and as a result tend to bring out the more flavorful, and stronger aspects of the brew. (In fact, stouts often have a bit more “bite” than other ales or lagers, sometimes boasting an 8 percent ABV — alcohol by volume.

For quite some time, stouts pretty much disappeared from the market — not only in the U.S. but in Europe (specifically Great Britain), as well.

There has, however, been quite a bit of renewed interest over the past 20 years or so. There are some very, very nice stouts out there and some restaurants and pubs offer commercially produced versions with their menus.

There are quite a few different versions of stouts. Some include dry or Irish stout (Guinness, Murphy’s),  imperial stout (three Michigan versions are Bells Black Note Stout,  Bells Expedition Stout, and Founders CBS - Canadian Breakfast Stout), porter (some of best locally include Founders Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. My personal favorite is Fuller’s London Porter), milk stout (sometimes referred to as sweet stout. It does not actually have any milk in the recipe, but contains lactose, a sugar derived from milk), oatmeal stout (gaining in popularity lately. I personally enjoy Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout with many meal menus), chocolate stout, coffee or java stout.

The differences in stouts generally comes from the grain list, the length of time the grains are roasted, and other ingredients and factors.

For example, chocolate stout has  a noticeable dark chocolate flavor although there is actually no chocolate involved in the process.  The chocolaty flavor comes from malts that have been roasted until they develop a rich chocolate color and produce even richer chocolate aromas. (It should be noted that some chocolate stouts, such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, do benefit from the addition of a small amount of added chocolate.)

Stouts are most often not offered as a general, “let’s have something cold” beverage. They’re just aren’t the “sit on the deck after mowing the lawn” brew of choice. Today, stouts are more usually a dinner or after-dinner drink, often paired with more subtle, smoky foods (such as earthy, soft cheeses, smoked meats, and some smoked fish dishes). Many of the stouts, especially the oatmeal, chocolate, and coffee or java stouts, can be wonderfully paired with desserts such as plated chocolates, creme broulees, or just about any fine pastry.

Very, very often, new explorers are put off by the very distinct tastes of stout ales. Slow down and give them a chance. Learn to appreciate the distinguishing tastes and rich history of these somewhat exotic offerings.

Stouts are different. There’s no doubt about it.

Drinking a dignified stout for the first time is not at all unlike having a good double shot of espresso after having sipped on instant coffee all your life.

It can be a bit surprising, but if you don’t stick with it you’ll never have the opportunity to really branch out and broaden your horizons. (And truth be known, once you learn how REAL coffee tastes, it’s hard to return to the instant stuff.)

Same with the more heady, hefty, “beefy” stouts. You just must give them a chance. You can always go back to more simple lagers, but if you ease yourself into the experience, you’ll find all sort of new wonderful taste sensations.

Fort Collins

Chocolate Stout

Fort Collins


Fort Collins, Colo.

This is a great example of one of the better stouts in this genre. Definitely something to write home about.

This chocolate stout was among the brews brought from out west by a friend. (I must remember to stay on good terms with this buddy!)

The stout pours a very dark brown with a good amount of head that hangs around a bit and lends a lot to the initial experience. The head is rather dark and really releases the strong roasted aromas that accompany most stouts. There is a little bit of darker lacing in the head.

The smell is so very typical of a well-thought out and lovingly produced stout - deep and dignified with sweet chocolaty tones and tons of malt bursting to the top of the schooner with every release of the busy bubbling.

First sip reminds me why I love this style brew so much - rich and full-bodied. Lots of maltiness, distinct hints of chocolate, and background blasts of coffee-like flavor.

There is virtually no hoppiness. There certainly were hops used to balance off the sweetness, but they simply aren’t evident unless you spend a lot of time searching.

I know I’ve used the terms often - maybe too often - but this stout is rich and creamy.

The Fort Collins Chocolate Stout is a lesson in just how complex a single drink can be. I’ve talked with people who mix their stouts with other, less dominant brews to reach what they might consider a “middle ground.” In this case I thin that could well be a mistake. I wouldn’t fiddle with this exceptional stout.

It is very, very good.

As I noted in my discussion of stouts, I’d suggest this more as a dessert drink - with fine chocolates or even better pastries.

Well, well recommended.

Slow Elk Stout

Big Sky Brewing Company

Missoula, Mont.

By way of disclosure, this is arguably my favorite brewery in the United States.

These folks love what they do, and it shows. Big Sky turns out some of the best brew in Montana - and there are some pretty spectacular ales and lagers coming out of that part of the country.

Slow Elk pours deep, deep brown (virtually black),  and brings with it a measurable head that leaves some expressive lacing behind when it dissipates.

It has very a luxurious aroma smacking of coffee served up in an old library with leather walls and lots of oak furnishings. It is a drink you sip on while pondering the questions of the day.

Each sniff announces deep roasted malts, some definite hints of dark chocolate and thick caramel that has been left a bit too long on the stove.

The taste is really deep and sublime. Rich and expressive.

The aromas you got in your first stage of investigation, are the same tastes you now experience.

Wonderful coffee, chocolate and caramel with no bitterness but a full mouth-feel nevertheless.

This is like dark, soft, liquid velvet.

There is a defined background with earthy character to the whole brew, but is goes down smoothly.

I’ve heard and read critique noting that while this was a exceptional stout, it was not a “great all around beer.”

I have to take umbrage.

Slow Elk is a great beer - and yes, exceptional stout.

It is slightly oatmealy in all the right places, (although I’m pretty sure this is not an oatmeal stout.)

This is the type of brew I’ll readily invest in making sure I have a few around the house ready for good friends and good conversation.

What food to pair with this stout?

Nothing. Chill it, and sip it on its own.