Ahh, stouts. The beautiful, chocolate-colored drink, perfect for cold winter nights next to the fire. Whether you’re watching the slow cascade of nitrogen bubbles as your Guinness Draught settles or you’re wafting the boozy, roasted scent of a North Coast Old Rasputin, you know that soon the beer’s warmth will spread from your belly to the rest of your body. But where do stouts—and their siblings, porters—come from?
Porters were popular in London, and according to Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, the style of beer’s “most visible enthusiasts” were the physical laborers of the same name. (Porters, the human kind, were hired to carry things from one place to another.) After hard work, they would go to the bars and ask for this dark-colored ale, which back then was a blend of beers.
When did stouts come into the picture? According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, stout is actually short for “stout porter” which started as a more alcoholic version of the porter, but both terms were used interchangeably. Nowadays, both porters and stouts are dark, full-bodied, and roasted, but stouts typically remain the darker, more alcoholic, and “stouter” version of the modern porter.
All English ales, not just porters and stouts, use strains of yeast that allow the other ingredients—the malt and hops—to really bloom, a huge distinction from Belgian yeast, which often impart its “Belgian”-ness to any style of beer. (Even if you brew an English-style ale but with Belgian yeast, you’ll find it more Belgian than English.) With English yeast taking the backseat, the toastiness and roastiness of darker malts and hop bitterness have a chance to come to the forefront of your palate, making them the stars of all porters and stouts.
With these notes in mind, let’s take a look at how each porter and stout sub-style makes its own mark on our tongues and in our stomachs.
We’ll start with brown porters, the mildest of the porters and stouts. Like the name suggests, these porters are dark brown in color from the roasted malt used in the recipe. The roast itself should be mild and usually has a chocolate character to it, but you’ll also find notes of caramel, nuttiness, or toffee. Lesser so, you’ll find notes of coffee, licorice, or toast, and you should never taste any acrid, burnt, or harshness in brown porters. A little bit of bitterness is expected.
Beers to try: Fuller’s London Porter, Samuel Smith Taddy Porter
Unlike brown porters, the robust versions can have a slightly burnt flavor to them, in addition to some sharpness. Malt flavor is also stronger in robust porters with the same chocolate, caramel, or nutty flavors and aroma. You’ll also find that the hop bitterness is stronger in robust porters than in browns.
They can be very similar to stouts as well, but the lack of a strong roasted barley character in the robust porter is what distinguishes it from the stout.
Beers to try: Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter
Baltic porters are named after the route it took from England to get to the Baltic States and Russia. They have a higher ABV than the brown and robust porters, but have the same roasted, caramel, toffee, and nutty notes, without the burnt character of a robust porter or stout. The main difference is the dried fruit characteristics like black currant, licorice, and other dark fruits.
Baltic porters can also be distinguished by the fact that they’re technically lagers. Lager yeast tolerates colder temperature and generally takes longer to ferment. Flavor-wise, the yeast gives the beer a clean finish. Baltic porters should also be less bitter than other porters with a balance that leans towards malty sweetness.
Beers to try: Baltika Porter, Southamptom Imperial Baltic Porter
Characterized by the use of roasted barley rather than black malt, Irish dry stouts have a sharp, coffee-like roastiness and a rich, creamy texture. You should be able to taste and smell moderate roast and hoppy bitterness, balanced by the creaminess of the barley. Don’t be surprised if you get some bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate character as well.
The most famous of the dry stouts is Guinness, which is served on draft (or draught for you non-Americans) on nitrogen, giving it a thick, creamy head.
Beers to try: Guinness Draught, North Coast Old No. 38 Stout
Like the name suggests, oatmeal stouts use raw or malted oats in addition to malt and barley. Flavor-wise, the oats add cookie-like nuttiness or even earthiness, and depending on the amount added, the mouthfeel can range from silky or creamy to slick or oily. Oatmeal stouts are medium-brown to black in color, full-bodied, with milk chocolate or creamy coffee characteristics.
Beers to try: Young’s Oatmeal Stout, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
Named after the milk sugar (lactose) used to sweeten the beer, sweet stouts became known “as a drink for invalids” according to beer guru Randy Mosher.
Since yeast cannot ferment this type of sugar, the addition of it does not create a higher alcohol content and gives the beer a much sweeter taste. The malt is dark and roasted giving it coffee and chocolate characteristics. Imagine sweetened espresso or bittersweet chocolate. Sweet stouts are full-bodied, creamy and sometimes have a fruity aroma.
Beers to try: Samuel Adams Cream Stout, Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout Nitro
The imperial stout is named after the Russian imperial family who supposedly loved this English export. It’s also stronger in alcohol content than the other stouts (much like the Baltic porter to the other porters). When you drink an imperial stout, you’ll definitely feel the warmth of the alcohol as it travels down and settles into your stomach. Everything about this beer is aggressive, from the high hop flavor to the strong malt and grain characters.
The roasted grain can be compared to bittersweet chocolate, cocoa, or coffee. If you get fruit in an imperial stout, it’ll often be dark fruit notes like raisins, plums, black currants, or prunes. And don’t be surprised if you think it tastes burnt, caramel-like, bready, or toasty.
Imperial stouts are very full-bodied, more so than the other stouts, almost to the point of being “chewy” and velvety. You might even consider it a meal onto itself, though I wouldn’t recommend drinking this on an empty stomach!
Beers to try: Deschutes The Abyss, North Coast Old Rasputin, Samuel Smith Imperial Stout