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Some beer drinkers believe that dark stouts are best consumed during fall or winter, when nights turn cold. Not us. We believe any day, no matter the mercury reading, is a great day to drink stout and revel in the rich flavors of cocoa and roasted coffee derived from dark-roasted grains. The diverse stout family spans the gamut of intensity, mouthfeel, and alcohol levels, offering appealing options for just about every beer drinker.
In darkness, there is delight. Oatmeal stouts are lustrous and inviting, while creamy milk stouts entice with a subtle sweetness. Other stouts are amplified with additional chocolate, and some are aged in bourbon barrels for an approach that bridges the beer and spirits world.
Here are the best stout beers.
Best Overall: Maine Beer Company Mean Old Tom Stout
Maine Beer Company is best known for its expressive pale ales and IPAs, like Peeper and Lunch, but the brewery has a deft touch with dark beers. Its masterpiece is Mean Old Tom, says Christa Sobier, the owner of Beer Witch, a rigorously curated beer store in Brooklyn, New York. Expect flavors that are bold, yet balanced, like a rich cup of warming coffee, while oats lend a silky mouthfeel.
“This American-style stout is jet black with dark chocolate flavors and a lot of roasted bitterness,” Sobier says. Instead of the expected sweetness, aging the beer on vanilla beans adds a touch of earthy spiciness. It's "balanced, bitter, and dry—a classic.” Fun fact: The stout is named after the founders’ uncle, who was fond of collecting beer cans by the banks of the Mississippi River.
Best Chocolate: Stone Brewing Xocoveza Winter Spiced Mocha Stout
“This is my absolute favorite,” says Gloria Rakowsky, the founder and owner of Crafted Minds, which specializes in beer education. “The uses of Mexican chocolate and cinnamon are reminiscent of a café de olla in a Mexico City market.”
Chili heads, take note: This stout contains pasilla peppers that impart a fruity, warming heat, which makes Xocoveza ideal for drinking during the winter or whenever the temperatures drop. The addition of vanilla and nutmeg play well with “the pepper kick that’s great on the tongue,” Rakowsky says. “It’s a winner.”
Best Irish: Guinness Pub Draught Stout
This Irish stout might be the globe’s most consumed style of dark beer, and credit in large part goes to Guinness. The legendary Irish beer is sold the world over, its popularity due to its seamless blend of low alcohol—just north of 4 percent alcohol by volume for its iconic draught version—and balanced bittersweet flavors, the aroma evocative of fresh-brewed coffee tempered with a splash of milk. Drinking a freshly poured pint in a bar is one of a drinking life’s greatest pleasures; if that’s not possible, the next best thing is grabbing a four-pack of the nitrogen-infused cans. Use them to re-create a bartender’s patient, creamy pour at home.
Best Milk: Schilling Beer Co. Resilience Geppetto Milk Stout
This style requires a quick education lesson. Milk stouts are not made with milk, be it dairy, almond, or oat. Instead, they're brewed with lactose, a dairy-derived sugar that lends beer an appealing sweetness that helps smooth out roasty edges—kind of like creamer in coffee. Beer Witch’s Sobier favors Geppetto, a milk stout from Resilience Brewing in New Hampshire. (The brewery is the ale-focused offshoot of lager-centric Schilling Beer Co.)
“This milk stout has flavors of chocolate, subtle coffee, and roasted marshmallows," Sobier says. “So many milk stouts with coffee taste like actual coffee and dominate the flavor and aroma. This stout is brewed with whole-bean coffee that's added late in the boil, resulting in a harmoniously balanced beer.”
If you can’t find a can, look toward the more widely available Milk Stout Nitro from Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing. The pillowy beer, which tastes a bit like milk chocolate mixed with coffee, is made from a blend of grains, including rolled oats, chocolate malt, and roasted barley.
Best Oatmeal: Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
Oats are a secret weapon for many stout brewers. The grains help plump a stout’s body and adds a lustrous mouthfeel, creating a sleek sip from start to finish. Sobier likes Muted Lightning from New York City’s Fifth Hammer Brewing. It's “everything an oatmeal stout should be,” she says, adding that the smooth and creamy beer is “lightly roasted with hints of chocolate and not too bitter.
This beer is mainly sold in New York City. For a more available option, go for the legendary Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout. Rakowsky says the English beer is classic for a reason, that being “the minerals in the water and English hops give it that distinctive taste that makes for great drinkability. I could drink this all day, and with a 5 percent ABV, I can.”
Best Imperial: AleSmith Brewing Company Speedway Stout
Imperial stouts don’t hold back. They’re sky-high in alcohol and brooding complexity, turbocharged with flavors and aromas of well-roasted coffee beans and bittersweet cocoa. A well-made imperial stout is best sipped nice and slow, its charms unfolding as the beer slowly warms up in a snifter. Cult Vermont brewery The Alchemist makes Luscious, a favorite of Rakowsky.
“I really love this velvety beer,” she says. “It’s got a great roasty and chocolaty character that is pleasant from the nose to the aftertaste.”
The downside: grabbing a can regularly requires a road trip to Vermont. An equally excellent option is AleSmith’s long-running Speedway Stout, sold year-round in 16-ounce cans. The San Diego strong stout, which weighs in at 12 percent alcohol by volume, is infused with locally roasted coffee beans, creating a “rich, yet smooth, deceptively powerful liquid icon,” says Brandon Hernández, the founder and executive editor of San Diego Beer News. Be on the lookout for regularly released variants that might include, say, unique blends of espresso and Madagascar vanilla beans.
Best Barrel-Aged: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Over the last decade, barrel-aged stouts have become big business in the beer world. Brewers send their dark beers to slumber inside barrels that previously held bourbon or whiskey, emerging months or even years later with layers of spirited complexity. Hernández likes Ballast Point Brewing’s special-edition of its Victory at Sea imperial porter, which is steeped with coffee and vanilla beans and aged in a blend of oaks cask that previously contained High West rye or bourbon.
“It’s remarkable this world-class, oak- and booze-tinged delight comes in affordable four-packs,” Hernández says.
Given the beer’s limited nature, another widely available option is Goose Island’s legendary Bourbon County Brand Stout. For more than 25 years, the Chicago brewery (now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) has produced this inky gem that’s patiently bathed in bourbon barrels until it emerges tasting like boozy vanilla-flavored fudge.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Joshua M. Bernstein, the author of this piece, knows beer. He’s written five books on the subject, as well as articles for The New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, Men’s Journal, and Imbibe. He interviewed three beer experts for this article.