I am definitely a creature built for warmer climes. And yet, for some reason, here I remain in Canada. As winter wears on, I’m finding myself drawn increasingly to malt-oriented beers, particularly stouts. Thanks to a generous friend, I have another beer book in my library. So I’ve been curled up with my stouts, reading about stouts. What could be more wonderful (or meta) than that?
The stout, as it happens, has a history nearly as impenetrable as its colour. Say the word “stout” today, and most people immediately think Guinness. While Guinness is certainly one of the better known stouts, it isn’t the only—nor what it was it even necessarily the first.
See, the really fun thing about beer history is that specific terms mean different things at different times. References to “stout beers” actually appear in the historical record around 1677, but these aren’t the stouts with which we’re familiar. Rather, at this point, “stout” simply designated a strong beer. Thus, it was entirely possible to have a “pale stout,” which seems like an oxymoron today.
The stout we know and love today is closely intertwined with the development of the porter. The history of the porter could be an entire blog post all on its own, so to keep things simple: by the 1700s, the porter had become popular throughout London as a more-aged, slightly stronger style of beer. In 1778, a certain Irishman jumped on the bandwagon. You may have heard of him—Arthur Guinness?
So maybe we saw that one coming…
It actually took Guinness a while to turn his attention to porters. He started brewing in the 1750s, taking over a family-run brewery in the town of Leixlip, County Kildare, Ireland. He’d relocated to Dublin by the end of the decade, where he signed a 9000-year lease, paying £40 (about $75) yearly. Not too shabby. He brewed several different styles, but by the end of the 1700s, he was focusing almost exclusively on the porter. Guinness’s porters came in varying strengths, so he commonly referred to them with names like “plain porter,” “stout porter,” and even “double stout porter.”
All of this begs the question: when did porters and stouts diverge into different styles? Well, according to some, they never really did: they’re just two variations on the same style of beer.
But if you really want to distinguish them…there are a few handy historical benchmarks. In 1817, a man named Daniel Wheeler invented a process of kilning barley at a temperature so high, the grain carbonizes, thus creating a very, very dark malt. How dark? Dark enough that even a small amount added to the grain bill results in an almost completely-black beer. This was, of course, the Black Patent Malt, and it allowed for the very dark beers that we know today.
Other people point to 1820, the year in which Guinness changed the name of his Extra Stout Porter to the Extra Stout. But given that he was still advertising “Stout Porters” in 1836, I’m unconvinced. Honestly, like many developments in early brewery history, I’m not sure that there was any single watershed moment—more like, small changes over time added up to create the stout as a distinguishable style, albeit one still very closely linked to the porter.
In any case, most “stouts” from the late 1700s-early 1800s are what we would consider Irish or “dry stouts,” so called for the drying sensation they impart on the finish. This resulted from a small addition (no more than 10% of the malt used) of barely that was roasted, but unmalted—this left flavours similar to dark roasted coffee or dark chocolate. There are, of course, other styles of stouts. Oatmeal stouts are richer and fuller due to the addition of oatmeal to the grain bill. Milk Stouts, as we know well here at Black Creek, are sweet and silky from added lactose. Imperial stouts were originally brewed for export to the Russian imperial court, and they are stout stouts indeed, running up to 10% ABV. You can even have potato stouts! (I’m looking forward to seeing that one again, incidentally.)
As to the adage that a stout is a “meal in a glass”…well, remember that down in the historic brewery, our stout only runs about 4.5% ABV, and calorically speaking, stouts just aren’t significantly heavier. So, even post-holidays, you should be fine to enjoy one every now and then.
Especially if it’s accompanied by a good book.