What Makes Beer a Stout?

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When most people think of stouts, they think of creamy, strong and dark beers. Usually, a Guinness comes to mind. Yet, though many types of stout do have these attributes, there are different varieties that don’t have any of them. In fact, Guinness doesn’t even have a high alcohol content. It’s the same as Bud Light, at 4.20%. Styles range from being dry and very alcoholic to hoppy with a low ABV.

What really differentiates a stout from other beers styles is its standout, roasted flavor. This flavor comes from roasted barley, which is made by highly kilning barley grain that has not been malted.

Let’s take a look at the history of the stout style to better understand it and to find out where all these misconceptions came from.

A Brief History of Stout Beer

The word “stout” used to refer to strong beers way back in the late 1600s to early 1700s. These were stronger, full-bodied varieties of porters, usually called “stout porters.” Porters originated in London and became extremely popular among porters (which explains the name), since its flavor was so strong, it didn’t go bad as quickly, tasted great in the heat and was cheaper than other beers. Along with porters, “stout” was used to describe strong versions of all different types of beers. It still wasn’t it’s own style. In the UK, someone could use it to describe a strong pale ale (“stout pale ale”). Weird, right? As time went on, “stout” was only used to describe porters.

As porters made their way over to Ireland, St. James’s Gate Brewery (Guinness) first started brewing its “porter” in the late 1700s. This porter was nothing like the smooth, creamy and thick session beer we now enjoy and call Guinness. Rather, it was complex, big-bodied and incredibly strong at 7.5% ABV. The brewery used the expression “stout porter” to describe its strong porter, eventually shortening to “stout”. Later on, the brewery started brewing an export style that was sent to the Caribbean, and this brew was later called the Foreign Extra Stout.

In the 1700s, English breweries from the Baltic began brewing an export stout called the Russian imperial Stout. Again, this popular beer was extremely strong, at 8 to 11% ABV, and was sometimes aged for years. The Russian Imperial Court loved this style, which explains the name.

Since porters were so popular, breweries made them at different strengths, which continued to popularize the word “stout”. There is still some confusion over the difference between stouts and porters. Sometimes, the answer simply comes down to the beer’s strength.

Now that we have a little background on the stout, let’s break the misconceptions about modern day stouts by looking at some common styles.

Dry Irish Stout

This style of stout is probably the one that comes to mind when you think of a stout. Dry Irish Stout beers include Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. Though many mistakenly believe these beers have a high ABV because of their dark color, they usually are 3.5-5.5% ABV. This allows them to be incredibly drinkable. The Dry Irish Stout is usually medium bodied and features the trademark deep black color of a stout.

Russian Imperial Stout

Mentioned earlier in the blog post, the Russian Imperial Stout was brewed by the English in the 1700s for the court of Catherine II of Russia. To ensure the beer lasted the trip, the export style was loaded with hops. They are incredibly strong, from 8 to 11% ABV, bitter and contain fruity notes.

Oatmeal Stout

Who said oatmeal is only good for breakfast? If you didn’t guess already, oatmeal stouts are actually brewed with oatmeal. This gives them a fuller body, smoothness and an extra note of sweetness. These tasty brews usually have an ABV of 4 to 7%.

Sweet (or Milk) Stout

Another stout with a name that hints at its flavor, the sweet stout usually contains more residual dextrin and unfermented sugars than other stouts. This allows for a sweet profile along with the roasted character that all stouts feature. Milk stouts are a variation of the sweet stout, and usually contain, you guessed it, lactose and milk sugars.

Whether you’re looking to end the day with an easy drink or plan to get suitably drunk with a friend, there’s a stout for you. I recommend adventuring beyond Guinness and trying all the different varieties of stouts out there. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.