Dark, strong-flavored Irish beers such as Guinness and Murphy’s Irish Stout are the best-known brews of the “stout” style. Barley is roasted longer than it would be for paler ales, giving burnt, earthy flavors to stouts and to porters, a closely related style. Both originated in England and were exported to Ireland, according to beer lore. But these days, the most famous stouts are made in Ireland and exported back to England – and also, of course, to the U.S.
If you look to either side of the Guinness and Murphy’s in your local BevMo or Whole Foods, you’ll see that American breweries have gotten into the game, experimenting with the style in new ways. Beginning beer drinkers, be warned – an imperial stout is not for the faint of heart and would never, ever be mistaken for a Guinness.
Derek Wolfgram, member of the Los Altos Hills-based Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, offered a few locally brewed alternatives for a California take on the St. Patrick’s Day experience. He describes his top picks:
• Anchor Porter (San Francisco), 5.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV – the amount of alcohol contained in a beverage). Medium-bodied but full of flavor, this was one of the premier dark American craft beers of the modern era, first brewed in 1972. With a complex aroma incorporating notes of bread crust, toffee sweetness and delicate roast, and similar flavor characteristics, this is a great “gateway” porter for people who believe that all dark beers are overwhelmingly bitter.
• Drake’s Black Robusto Porter (San Leandro), 6.3 percent ABV. Slightly more intense and fuller bodied than a classic brown porter, this robust porter has a distinct aroma of dark-roasted cocoa beans. The flavor profile is focused on dark-roasted grains with a touch of crystal malt sweetness and a mildly bitter finish that melds the roast character with some earthy hop bitterness.
• Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (Fort Bragg), 9 percent ABV. There are several varieties of stouts, from traditional dry Irish stout like Guinness to sweet stouts brewed with lactose; velvety oatmeal stouts; and bitter, roasty American stouts. However, the most complex and flavorful style is the Russian Imperial Stout, with higher alcohol, more hop bitterness and the consistency of motor oil. In addition to aromas of coffee and chocolate, Old Rasputin also smells of prunelike dark fruits and citrusy hops, and combines hop bitterness, roast, sweetness and pronounced alcohol heat on the palate.
• Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout (Petaluma), 9.2 percent ABV. The flavor profiles of stouts and porters lend themselves to combination with many nontraditional beer ingredients: vanilla, chocolate or even coconut is added to a variety of darker craft beers. Lagunitas releases this beer, brewed with local Hardcore Coffee from Sebastopol, every winter. The cappuccino aroma is unmistakable and blends well with the milk-chocolaty sweetness. The flavor also highlights bitter coffee, with a complementary mild, earthy hop bitterness and a bit of an alcohol kick. Recommended with your favorite dessert, or just add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make a delicious float.