If you have just finished a couple hours of yard work in 95 degree, 70% humidity weather, and every thread of your clothing is dripping wet with sweat, chances are good you’re not craving a stout. You’ll probably reach for a pilsner, or perhaps a light wheat beer. I can’t explain the psychology behind it, but beers light in body and color are the most popular when the temperatures are high.
But I checked the weather on my smartphone before taking my daughter to school today, and that miracle piece of technology told me it was 42 degrees Fahrenheit when I walked out the door this morning. That may not impress you if you grew up somewhere in Yankee-ville, but here in Alabama that’s considered downright chilly. When temps get that low, people who appreciate good beer start thinking about stouts.
Although I’ve busted the following common myth before, I think it deserves another treatment in this space. Darker beers are not inherently “stronger” than lighter beers—in alcohol content or flavor. The most famous stout, Guinness, is a mere 4% ABV, about the same as an American light beer. It is the amount of barley used in brewing that determines alcohol content, not the color.
Stouts are made using specialty malts that are dark brown and/or black due to certain drying and roasting processes. Barley malt can be dried at high temperatures to produce “caramel” malts and it can also be roasted at a variety of temperatures and lengths of time to create a wide variety of colors and flavors. These malts can produce beers with flavors of caramel, coffee, chocolate, scotch, bread, dark fruit, and/or roasted nuts, all from just barley. Of course, sometimes actual coffee, chocolate, or nuts are used in beer to magnify these flavors. And aging beer in used whiskey barrels is becoming increasingly common.
Use a little bit of these specialty malts and a little base malt and you’ll get a mild flavored beer with a low alcohol content. Use a lot of these malts (and keep it balanced with lots of base malt) and you’ll get a giant, massively complex beer with lots of alcohol. Big stouts with high alcohol contents are imperial stouts—the beer style most sought-after by beer geeks. And nothing is better to sip slowly and enjoy on a cold fall or winter night than a complex imperial stout.
Since Free The Hops’ success last year in passing a bill to raise the alcohol limit on beer, Birmingham retailers now offer a good variety of imperial stouts. One of my favorites is Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide. It’s loaded with more hops than most. Perhaps the most widely distributed in our area is Old Rasputin from North Coast—it sets the standard for American versions of this style of beer. Of course last year in this column I reviewed one of the top examples in the world, Bell’s Expedition Stout, available only during the winter months. Another seasonal is The Czar from Avery, which Birmingham should see for the first time ever this winter (draft only).
But as sexy as imperial stouts may be, don’t ignore the lower alcohol stouts. A few you must try:
• Guinness Foreign Extra Stout—this one isn’t here yet, but it’s about to return to the U.S. for the first time since before Prohibition. It’s bigger and roastier than Guinness Draught and I’m looking forward to trying it for the first time in my life.
• Left Hand Milk Stout—milk stouts don´t actually have milk in them, they have lactose, an unfermentable sugar that makes them sweeter than other stouts. Because they are on the sweet side of the sweet/bitter spectrum, they tend to be especially popular with people who don’t otherwise like stouts. Not for the lactose intolerant...
• Good People Coffee Oatmeal Stout—chances are good that if you’re reading this column, you’ve already tried this world class beer. It uses locally-roasted Primavera coffee and excessive amounts of Willamette hops, making it unusual for the style. This will be among the first three beers that Good People start canning this fall, so you’ll soon be able to enjoy it at home.
I myself have been drinking mostly pale ales and IPAs these last few sweltering months, but just writing this column has put me in the mood for a nice, roasty stout. Try some of these soon.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org