Back In Black
In which we leave Guinness for new dark horizons
by Jason Foster
Last time, we kicked off the topic of stouts - from their creation as Arthur Guinness' finest mistake to the key characteristics that distinguish it from other beer styles, along with an introduction to the most common examples of the type. This column continues with the stout theme, but looks at some of the less common variations on the blackest of beer.
After Arthur Guinness first stumbled upon, well, Guinness, stout quickly became a sensation, particularly among the working class. Guinness became the world's foremost stout maker and started altering the recipe depending on where the beer was heading - leading to Export Stout, Extra Stout and Foreign Stout, among others.
Most of these were subtle shifts on the original, but some were dramatically different. One case in point is Foreign Extra Stout, or Tropical Stout. This style was created in the mid-1800s when Guinness starting shipping beer to tropical climates such as Africa and the Caribbean. To handle both the long shipping time and the climate, they upped the alcohol content, downplayed the roasted barley and accented other fruity ale characteristics. To this day, this kind of stout is mostly made in tropical climates - Jamaica, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and so on.
Foreign Extra Stout is nothing like the Guinness you're used to - it's sharper, has a sweeter finish and offers flavours and aromas of dark fruit, similar to a brown ale. Rum notes are common, as is a general warming from the higher alcohol content (which generally runs from seven to nine per cent). The roast can vary, although in most examples it's rather subdued compared to regular stouts.
The only Foreign Stout I've found in Saskatchewan is Dragon Stout, which comes from Jamaica. It's a good example of the style (although not the best), offering burnt caramel and light Arabica coffee notes blending with raisin, plum and cherry. Fairly sweet overall, it has a fruitier base than regular stouts and its highlight is a noticeable alcohol warming, which balances the fruitiness and sweet finish.
Oatmeal stout is both a much younger style and much more easily found in this province. It was created in the late 1970s through a partnership between British brewer Samuel Smith and American beer importer (and now microbrewery owner) Charles Finkel. Despite its relatively recent origins, it has become a mainstay of stout brewing (and it's one of the favourite recipes in my home brewery).
On the surface, it's simple stuff: take a stout recipe and substitute a portion of around five to 10 per cent of the usual grain with oats. Seems easy, but the problem is that oatmeal stout exists in a middle land between dry stout and sweet stout, and the oats are supposed to add a smoother body and a nutty (or earthy) flavour to the beer. In a way, it mellows out the beer while accenting certain characteristics - and it's not easy to make, as the balance between sweet and dry is crucial.
Thankfully, two of the best examples of the style are available here. One is Bête Noire from local brewer Paddock Wood. It has all you could ask for in a stout - rich roast, along with chocolate accented by nut, licorice and a bit of coffee. The oats smooth out the overall body and make it more drinkable.
The second is St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from McAuslan Brewery in Montreal. While it's not quite as forward as Paddock Wood, St. Ambroise provides the classic balance that I look for in an oatmeal stout: the roast isn't overpowering, and the beer is perfectly poised between sweet and dry, and it brings licorice, coffee, nuttiness, caramel and a touch of smokiness to the table as well. It's a complex beer, but one that certainly makes you feel comfortable having a few.
Both foreign and oatmeal stouts prove that there's much more to the style than Guinness - one is bigger and sweeter, the other smoother and more balanced. The specific beers mentioned offer an excellent starting point.