February has become Stout Month thanks to the designation invented by the Mountain Sun family of pubs. Despite the somewhat Hallmark Holiday feel of it, they do make a good point that it’s a great time to drink this hearty winter style.
Stouts actually cover a lot of territory so first let’s talk about commonalities. Stouts are dark-colored, from brown to almost black, with significant roast malt flavors. You’ll find no noticeable hops, sourness or anything in that realm. They are generally low-carbonated, medium-bodied beers but can range up though full-bodied, and the frequent addition of nitrogen can impact their mouth-feel. Regular Stouts usually have low/medium alcohol content, but any time you see “Imperial” be prepared for a high-gravity treat. As a category I think of Stouts as warm, comfort-food beers for the cold dark nights of winter.
Getting into the nitty-gritty on some of the variations, Irish Stouts and Dry Irish Stouts are likely to be familiar to almost everyone. These beers showcase the chocolate, roast, and coffee characteristics of the malt and downplay the sweetness. Alcohol tends to be low. The best-known (though definitely not craft-beery) example is Guinness, which also figures into the origin story of Stouts. Stouts grew out of porters, where stronger porters were designated Stout. Guinness adopted this practice in their Extra Stout Porter but eventually dropped the “porter”, and their wide distribution network helped popularize Stout as a unique style.
English and American Stouts have many similarities to Irish Stouts with the key differences being more sweetness and potentially slightly higher alcohol. If you see a craft beer listed simply as a “Stout” on the menu, then likely it is one of these. One key note in this category is that brewers like to experiment. Craft breweries have added everything from cherries and plums to vanilla and pumpkin spices. Several have even combined peppers, chocolate and cinnamon for a tasty Mexican chocolate stout.
In addition to adding flavor ingredients, some recipes make more fundamental changes to the beer. Oatmeal Stouts add oats to the mash for a nuttier, bready flavor and a much smoother, fuller body. Milk Stouts add lactose sugar for a sweeter and somewhat smoother beer.
Finally, the royalty: Imperial Stouts. There really is a royal connection, as these were brewed for the Russian Imperial Household back when Russia had that sort of thing. Perhaps the bitterly-cold Russian winters required offsetting warming beverages, because these thick, almost-syrupy, high-alcohol beers will certainly heat you up. These very dark, full-bodied brews intensify the standard Stout flavors of roast, coffee, chocolate and sometimes dried fruit which ideally balance the higher alcohol for a smooth and complex-but-pleasant quaff. You may see the terms Russian Imperial or American Imperial but they are very similar, and barrel-aging has become popular as a way to add even more complexity and alcohol.