With winter upon us and St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, it’s time to talk about stouts. Stouts are typically characterized by their dark color and often high alcohol content, but beyond that it is a class so diverse it is hard to define. Many people will agree that stouts are an acquired taste and few enjoy their first ever stout. So how did stouts come to be in the first place?
The story of the stout is one of innovation in a quickly changing time. This led to a revolution in brewing, centuries before the amazing craft brewery revolution we are seeing now. First, let’s talk about how the industrial revolution, tax laws, and necessity brought about the dry stout. Then we’ll look at how the diversity of stouts grew from there.
How it all began
Let’s travel back to the UK in the early 1700s, where the stout porter was born. These stout porters are the common ancestor of modern porters and stouts, with the “stout” referring to the high alcohol content of the beer. At the time, the industrial revolution was bringing more and more people in from the fields, causing populations in cities to boom. After a hard day’s labor, all these new city dwellers went looking for a drink. However, they demanded hoppier beers than what most cities had to offer at the time. This new demand forced brewers to rethink their recipes. Luckily, at the same time, advances in shipping, trade, and technology brought brewers new raw materials and tools to experiment with. All of this led to a rapid boom in the brewing industry.
Enter the taxman
With growing demand, new ingredients, the invention of new tools like the thermometer and hydrometer, and better transportation, brewers were happy. Alas, the English government wanted their cut of the revenue, so they placed high taxes on malted barley. But as we know, brewers are some of the most innovative people in the world. It didn’t take long for them to figure out a way around these taxes. Unmalted barley was not taxed at the time, so after some experimentation, brewers figured out that they could get a great, dark, strong beer using roasted, unmalted barley.
With the invention of the roasting kiln, stouts and porters started their divergence. The darker roasted malts brought a natural black color to the beer. This roasting process caramelizes the sugars to produce the characteristic dark color. The process is similar to roasting coffee beans, which is why stouts often have tastes and aromas similar to coffee. This is where we see Guinness launching the stout, as opposed to the stout porter. While the process has been adapted over time, the basics of the traditional dry (Irish) stout has changed little in the past 200 years.
As you can imagine, the dry stout was not for everyone. Once again, brewers got to work making new variants, which led to the diversity we see today. This experimentation yielded dozens of different stouts, and to this day brewers continue to innovate. When it comes to stouts you are only limited by imagination. The popularity of oyster stouts, pastry stouts, barrel-aged stouts, and many more just go to prove this.
Diversity in stouts today
Let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular spin-offs of the dry stout.
Milk stouts were originally brewed to be nutritious. The increased sweetness made them more palatable while also increasing the calories in the beer. The addition of lactose (sugar found in milk) leads to a sweeter beer with a heavier body. Milk stouts have a smooth sweet finish and often pair well with additional flavors, like chocolate.
Similar to the milk stout, the oatmeal stout originated as another nutritious beer, and an alternative to milk stouts. Oatmeal stouts have the same creaminess as the milk stout without being as sweet. As the name suggests, it is brewed with oats which can sometimes lead to a nutty flavor.
The imperial stout is defined by its high alcohol content, typically above 8%. Imperial stouts have grown in popularity over the last few decades in the US and often use additional flavors such as vanilla or coffee. These beers could handle the longer travel times to other countries and became popular among the royal court in Russia in the late 18th century, therefore picking up the name Russian Imperial stout.
With so many stouts to choose from which one is right for you? We could give recommendations, but we don’t want to rob you of the joy that comes from discovery. So, just get out there and start trying the huge variety. While you’re sipping one or prepping to brew your stouts for St. Patrick’s Day, take a minute to appreciate how it took world-changing events like the industrial and scientific revolutions, advances in shipping, and yes, even taxes, to bring you this astonishing beer.
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