What Is Stout Beer?

Beer in glass
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Stout beer is a style of ale that is known for its dark, often black, color and malty flavor. Brewed with top-fermenting ale yeast and (almost always) roasted barley that's nearly charred, it's most commonly associated with Irish stouts such as Guinness. There are other stouts, including English and American styles, and—the strongest of them all—imperial stouts. Oatmeal and milk stouts include adjuncts, as do coffee stouts, which are popular among craft brewers. Though the flavor varies, these dark beers are frequently thick, rich, and sharp with a dry finish. They're generally preferred for fall and winter drinking, though enjoyable year-round.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 3.2–12%
  • Bitterness: 25–90+ IBU
  • Color: 20–90 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Stouts and Porters?

The history of stout is as clear as a glass of "the black stuff" (a common nickname for Guinness). There is a traditional belief, strongly held by many, that stout is the offspring of porter.

It is known that many porters brewed with higher gravities were called "stout porters." The word stout was an adjective for the blackest porters that were stronger in alcohol and significantly heavier. This is no longer universally true, as there are porters that are stronger than stouts and many stouts with relatively normal gravities. Today, it comes down to the choice of how a brewer labels the beer. For craft beers, it pays to read how the brewer describes the different characteristics.

Black unmalted barley is used to brew nearly all stouts. This contributes most of the color and flavor characteristics common in the style. A great number of adjuncts, from coffee to oatmeal to milk sugar, are added as well, creating even more types of stouts.

Styles

No matter the style, there are a few characteristics drinkers can expect from a stout. The head is thick and usually tan to brown. Its body is either very dark brown or black and typically opaque; if any light does find its way through, the beer should be clear. The nose is typically grainy and can carry hints of coffee, chocolate, licorice, and molasses with little to no apparent hops. The flavor is similar to the nose and should be rich and full. The mouthfeel should be anything but watery. A good stout can be silky, full, and creamy.

Irish Dry Stout

Also called dry stout or Irish stout, American-brewed beers will be labeled "Irish-style." This is the style that represents a typical stout, primarily because of Guinness Draught. The beer sits in the glass completely black with a thick, creamy, long-lasting head. It smells of dark roasted coffee, barley, and chocolate. The flavor is rich and dry with perhaps a bit of acidity shining through.

Irish stouts have moderate alcohol and bitterness. They're generally 4.2 percent to 5.3 percent ABV and have 30 to 40 IBUs.

English Stout

A traditional English stout is dark brown to pitch black. It's the classic style that most likely evolved from English porters, with a dry character from roasted grain, little hop taste, and robust flavors that are dark and roasty with chocolate and coffee nuances. These beers have a moderate ABV of 4 percent to 7 percent, with between 20 and 40 IBUs.

English Sweet Stout

Sweet stouts cover the entire spectrum of sweetness. Some resemble dry stouts with just a bit of sweetness, while others are so sweet that the sugar high negates any alcohol effect. In a good example, the sweetness balances against the bitterness of the hops (15 to 25 IBUs) and black barley for a rich, complex brew. They range from 3.2 percent to 6.3 percent ABV.

More often, these are milk or cream stouts. Lactose is the sugar used to give the beer its sweetness. Beer yeast can't process lactose, so it remains in the stout and these should not be drunk by those who are lactose intolerant.

Oatmeal Stout

Another classic English style, this distinctive stout is slightly sweeter than a dry but not so sweet that it could be called a milk stout. The addition of oatmeal during the brewing process gives it an impressively long-lasting head and a very smooth, silky mouthfeel. These characteristics work to spread out the sometimes sharp and jarring flavors of stout, making it a great introduction to the style.

The alcohol of oatmeal stouts falls between 3.8 percent and 6.1 percent, with an IBU range of 20 to 40.

Foreign Extra Stout

Foreign extra stout (FES) may also be labeled export stout, extra stout, or tropical stout. Like India pale ale (IPA), this stout was brewed with more hops and alcohol so it could survive transport to tropical regions of the world. The best-known example is Guinness—in the bottle, not the draught style.

The style can resemble either dry or sweet stout but with broader flavors and generally higher alcohol (5.5 percent to 8 percent ABV). It's common to find a big roasted flavor with a maltiness that resembles coffee, chocolate, or burnt grain. The hoppiness is typically low while the bitterness ranges from 30 to 70 IBUs.

American Stout

As is often the case, once U.S. brewers started producing stout, they began to put their own twists on the style until their version gained its own category. In many ways, American stout is an interpretation of foreign extra stout. This makes sense as it was designed for export and would have been the version American brewers knew best.

American stouts tend to have a more pronounced roasted malt presence with a sharper, almost acidic, coffee impression. The citrusy American hops also make this style distinctive. Typically the thickest and darkest among craft brewers, these stouts may also include adjuncts; coffee stout is among the most popular. The alcohol is moderate, ranging from 5.7 percent to 8.9 percent ABV, and the IBUs fall somewhere between 35 and 60.

Russian Imperial Stout

First brewed in England for Russian czar Peter the Great, this English stout magnifies everything about the style. Imperial stouts are packed with intense flavors and aromas such as coffee, fruit, dark chocolate, burnt grain, and currant. They typically have the highest alcohol content (8 percent to 12 percent ABV) and 50 to 90 IBUs. Adding to the flavor complexity of the full-bodied brew, imperial stouts can be aged for a blending effect that will take off the intense edge.

American Imperial Stout

Inspired by the Russian imperial stout, American microbrewers enjoy crafting this extreme black beer as well. With the same high alcohol and IBU ranges, these tend to be extremely rich, malty beers with a bitterness contributed by roasted malts and native American hops.

How to Serve Stout

All stouts are best served at cellar temperatures, between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Pint glasses are preferred, with the exception of imperial stouts, which are normally poured into snifters.

Pouring a stout is done slowly into a tilted glass, raising it as the glass fills. This creates a large, full head on top. Sometimes with draughts, the foam is skimmed off by scraping the rim, then more beer is added to fill the glass.

The draught style of stout is always creamier and has a thicker head than bottled stout. A well-pulled draught stout should be creamy with a thick, persistent head while stout from a bottle will seem more bubbly and less silky with a shorter-lived head. This is because draught beer is infused with beer gas (a blend of nitrogen and carbon dioxide), while bottled beer is carbonated with carbon dioxide alone.

Food Pairings

Stout's complexity makes it an excellent companion for a wide variety of foods. Nearly any stout can be paired with chocolate, cheddar cheeses, meat prepared almost any way, and oysters.

Irish stouts are particularly well suited for shellfish, ham, and Irish cheddar while American stouts are especially nice with lamb and sharp cheddar. Try oatmeal stouts with cheesecake and imperials with any aged cheese or foie gras. Spicy food, barbecue classics, and soft cheeses are delightful pairings for milk and other sweet stouts.

Best Brands

It is not difficult to find stouts in any beer cooler and it's interesting to explore the brewers' interpretations of the various styles. These are good representations worth trying.

  • Beamish Genuine Irish Stout
  • Bell's Kalamazoo Stout
  • Guinness Extra Stout (bottled) and Draught Stout
  • Lion Stout
  • Mackeson's XXX Stout
  • Murphy's Irish Stout
  • North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout
  • Rouge Shakespeare
  • Samuel Smiths Oatmeal Stout
  • Dogfish Head World Wide Stout