What Is a Stout Beer?

NOTE: In the 2021 BJCP Beer Style Guidelines, Stout now falls under Category 16 Dark British Beer, which contains average to strong, bitter to sweet, modern British and Irish stouts. In this case, “British” means the broader British Isles and not Great Britain. Although many of these beers originated in England, most are more widely associated with Ireland with many falling into the BJCP Category 15 Irish Beer

the glass is filled with dark beer with white foam flowing down the sides of the glass

Photo by Jonathan Sanchez on Unsplash

Say the word “stout” and most people automatically think of the world-famous Guinness brand from Ireland. However stout has a history that predates 1759 when Arthur Guinness started his brewery at St James Gate in Dublin.

Guinness beer in a tall beer glass on a wooden table in a pub

Photo by Erik Jacobson on Unsplash

The first known use of the word “stout” in reference to beer was in a collection of historical manuscripts from England in 1677 which referred to the strength of a beer.

Stouts as we know them today originate from the  English ales in the early 18th century known as porters. These popular beers were made in varying strengths with the stronger versions being known as “stout porters.”

The history of porters and stouts are intertwined and you can read more about the similarities and differences elsewhere on this site in our informative stout vs porter round-up.

Stout nowadays is firmly associated with dark beers, or a pint of the black stuff, rather than just strong beers with many stouts having lower alcohol contents, often as low as 4 percent alcohol by volume. (There’s even a 0.0% Guinness stout available now, God forbid!)

So if stout no longer refers to a stronger beer, what exactly is a stout and what are the different varieties of stout which fall into these categories of beer?

What Is a Stout?

Your average beer drinker probably only knows of Guinness as a stout, but this is just one brand in many of the world of stouts.

Wikipedia defines a stout as “a dark, top-fermented beer”  and according to the Beer Judge Certification Program, a stout is defined as “a very dark, roasty, bitter, creamy ale,” within category 16 Dark British beers.

Originating from the London brewed porter beers which used malted barley of the 18th century, a London “Porter Stout” was adopted by the Irish who started brewing their own versions of this dark color beer using roasted barley and other roast malted darker grains.

The Guinness brewery began making a “Stout Porter” in 1820. Around this same time, the style began to diverge from the porter style. More brown malt and hops were used to increase the strength. Chocolate stouts today use cocoa for that darker color and to impart a more coffee-like flavor and bitter chocolate flavor.

Coincidentally, around the same time, a device for making black patent malt was invented and brewers began adding these malts to their stout and porter recipes.

Prior to this time, the earliest stout porters were probably brown. But with the use of more malt to get the higher strengths, the beers may have been a little darker than the standard porters of the time. As the use of roasted barley and black patent became widespread, the stout porters became darker and darker.

Early porters, and thus early stout porters, were highly hopped beers. This character survives in the style today. Stouts can be some of the most highly hopped beers of any style, with a BU:GU ratio of up to 0.90, according to Ray Daniels in his book Designing Great Beers.

Adulterations, or additions of various ingredients to the recipes of porters and stouts, were carried out early on in the beer’s history. Some porter additions were actually poisonous in some cases, prompting the British government to pass their own purity laws.

Although stouts fared better as far as adulterations went, there were some strange things added to the beer. Take an oyster stout for example. Oysters were actually added to the beer, either the juice or the meat. Oyster Stouts are occasionally made today in some microbreweries and brewpubs.

These additions were probably used so the brewers could make claims about the beer’s nutritional value. Nursing mothers were actually advised to drink 3 quarts (yes quarts) of porter and stout per day.

The same convention was used with lactose in a sweet stout and oatmeal in an oatmeal stout, to bolster the nutrition (or advertisement of its nutritional value) for nursing mothers and the hard-working men and women of the day. These health claims persisted for quite a while.

About 1820, Guinness remained the XX porter as Guinness Extra Stout Porter. Eventually, most brewers dropped the name Porter and these beers were simply called Stouts, thus the name Guinness Extra Stout.

Guinness further distanced his beer from the others by only using pale malt and black malt. Other brewers throughout England were still using a good portion of brown malt in their stouts.

What Are the Key Stout Styles Today?

There are plenty of stouts to choose from today, many falling into their own categories–it can often be overwhelming! Here are the key styles recognized by the BJCP guidelines and why we rate them.

Milk Stout

Referred to by the BJCP as Sweet stout, the original milk stout was named because of the lactose from milk added to the stout which contributes to the body, smoothness, and sweetness of the stout.

Its very dark brown to black color defies the creamy, malt character of this stout with notes of chocolate and caramel in the flavor profile. Many would argue it’s a coffee-and-cream flavor or that of a sweetened espresso. With an IBU of between 20 and 40, it’s much less bitter than many other types of stout but a lot sweeter.

The popularity of milk stouts came about when English workers used to add real milk to their stout to boost its nutritional value.

Irish Stout

Without a doubt the most famous of all stout beers was popularised by Arthur Guinness and other Irish brewers. 

A very dark beer, the color ranges from jet black to a deep brown with garnet highlights. According to Guinness, although an Irish stout may appear black, they say it is actually a very dark shade of ruby.

Traditionally served as draught beers, in the later part of the 20th-century nitro-pour was developed for cans and now in the 21st century, we even have nitro-pour bottles. The thick creamy and long-lasting tan to the brown-colored head can now be achieved at home.

`A moderate caffe-like aroma dominates but some Irish stouts may have slight dark chocolate, cocoa, or roasted grain notes. The flavor is that of roasted grain or malt with medium to high bitterness. A coffee-like finish can be moderately balanced with a touch of caramel or moderate sweetness.

American Stout

In the 1970s, a few independent American brewers tried their hand at brewing stouts having enjoyed these distinctive beers abroad. Like most American craft beers they tend to be more hopped than their European counterparts, we do like our hops here in the US! In the 2021 BJCP Beer style guidelines, American Stout even has its own classification.

Described as a fairly strong (5% – 7% ABV), highly roasted, bitter, hoppy dark stout, it has a more aggressive American hop character and bitterness. The home-brew version was once known as West Coast Stout with the stout produced by Sierra Nevada and acknowledged as the first of its kind.

Common American base malts, yeast, and hops are used with a varied use of dark and roasted malts in addition to caramel malts. Adjuncts or additives may be present in smaller quantities to add to the complexity of the flavor.

Much more body than a Black IPA, American Stouts are stronger and more assertive especially in the use of dark malt or grain additions than an American Porter too.

Imperial Stout

Imperial Stout is one of the darkest stout style beers and is big in both flavor and alcohol content at around 9%. The higher levels of alcohol offer sweeter, dark chocolate and coffee flavors.

Originally known as Russian Imperial stout it was exported to the Baltic states by English sailors in the nineteenth century and apparently Catherine the Great of Russia was very keen on this tipple. The first exports spoiled on the long sea journeys, so this problem was addressed by adding more alcohol; Imperial Stouts were born!

Imperial Stout is amongst the most popular with craft beer drinkers and many American interpretations of this style of beer include ingredients such as vanilla beans, chili powder, maple syrup, coffee, or marshmallows.

Some craft brewers age Imperial stouts in bourbon barrels to add extra layers of flavor.

The word “Imperial” is often added to other beer styles such as Imperial IPAs, Imperial Pilsners, etc to denote a stronger version.

Oatmeal Stout

Oatmeal stout is a popular type of stout where a proportion of oats, a maximum of 30%, are added during the brewing process. This produces a soft creamy mouthfeel with a sometimes distinctive nutty flavor.

Smooth dark roasted malts for a dark brown to black color with that distinctive malt aroma and a low to medium alcohol content, make this one of the most versatile stouts.

Oats could often lead to an astringent or bitter taste in beers and were a less common ingredient in beers until the end of the 19th century when brewers were looking to boost the nutritional value of stout. Porridge was associated with health, so many breweries started adding flaked or “porridge” oats to their brew.

Oatmeal stouts don’t usually taste too oaty, unlike a bowl of oatmeal, but the smoothness of these stouts comes from the high content of proteins and lipids ( fats and waxes) found in oats. The gums imparted by the use of oats add to the viscosity and body of the stout for an increased sense of smoothness.

Other categories of stout which you can find detailed breakdowns and brewing tips for in the 2021 BCJP Beer Style Guidelines include :

  • Tropical Stout – originally brewed for export to the Caribbean.
  • Foreign Extra Stout
  • Irish Extra Stout
  • Dry Stout

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