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The Styles of the Isles, Part II

Written by Nick Jurkowski
Filed Under: Beer Tasting

In this entry exploring styles of beer from the British Isles, we will focus on the darker beers - porters and stouts, as well as Scotch Ales. Stretch you mind and palate while improving your beer-fu.

Porters

Porters, as I mentioned in the previous British beer entry, were one of the first beers that were specifically designed for a mass market. It was in the mid 1700s that brewers realized they could make an affordable, wholesome, decently alcoholic beer that common workers would enjoy. At the time, it was called `Entire Butt` in the grand British tradition of stupid names that sound dirty (`butt` actually refers to `barrel` in this case). It sold like proverbial hotcakes, especially to porters and other laborers, and it has been referred to more genteelly as `porter` ever since.

Porter gave birth to stout (which overtook it in terms of popularity), but it has recently enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. Porters are characterized by the use of chocolate and black malts, which are kilned at high temperatures and impart the dark color that porters are known for. Chocolate malt has nothing to do with literal chocolate, but imparts a nutty, roasted, slightly bitter taste to the brew. Hop flavors are generally subdued and used chiefly for bittering, but occasionally (especially in British-made Porters), a `dry-hopping` technique is used to impart subtle floral aromas to the finished brew (dry hopping involves dumping a whole mess of hops into an otherwise finished barrel of beer. Used this way, the hops don't impart too much bitterness, only aromatic qualities, as a boil is needed to extract the bittering alpha acids). The general character of porters will be toasted, nutty and coffee-like, with some hop bitterness for balance. Try Deschutes' Black Butte Porter (I prefer in a bottle to on tap for this one) or Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter for good examples of the style.

Stout

Though the first use of the term `stout` dates to the mid seventeenth century, modern stout is considered the child of porter, and it grew in renown and eventually far surpassed porter in availability and popularity. Stouts generally get their characteristic flavor from the roasted barley used, which is similar to Chocolate malt, but is not malted and imparts coffee-like flavors and a dry bitterness. There are a few different kinds of stout, each with different characteristics and alcohol levels. They can generally be divided into Dry, Sweet, Foreign, and Imperial.

Most people have heard of Guinness, and Guinness Draught is a textbook example of a dry Irish stout. These stouts are typically low in alcohol (3%-5% ABV, generally) with moderate hop bitterness to offset the dryness of the unmalted roasted barley used. Murphy's Stout is a good authentic Irish example of this style. Foreign export Stout is similar to this style, but with higher gravity (try Guinness Foreign Export Stout if you're curious).

Sweet stouts are harder to come by than the dry variety, and they taste markedly different. Originally known as milk or cream stout, these stouts were sweetened by milk sugar (lactose). Brewing yeast can't metabolize lactose, so rather than turn into alcohol, it just lends the beer a sweetness that can be quite pleasant. The roasted barley taste, while evident, will generally be more subdued than in the dry variety, with a balance more towards caramel flavors than coffee. My favorite variety of this, Mackeson's XXX Stout is available at boutiquey beer stores, and Widmer Snow Plow is fairly widely available on a seasonal basis, and is a fine example of the style. Oatmeal stout could be considered a subcategory of sweet stout, though less sweet and with (surprise!) a palpable oaty flavor. You could do far worse than a Nimbus Brewing Oatmeal Stout.

Imperial Stouts

Imperial Stouts are big. Intensely malty, well hopped, a little fruity, and alcoholic (generally 8%-14% ABV), imperial stouts got their name from alleged popularity within the Russian Imperial courts, but there is little corroborating evidence for this, and no one really knows the whole story. What is known is that imperial stouts are delicious beers for those who like big flavor and a high alcohol content. Give Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout a try.

Scotch Ales

Scotch Ales can be broken down into light, heavy, and export, and as they get heavier you will taste more body and alcohol. These are malty beers, often with a slight smokey character, and they have little hop profile and almost no fruitiness. I have not tried enough Scotch Ales to be a huge fan, but I have no doubt that will a little more sampling, I would come around. The Caledonian Brewing Company produces classic examples that are quite good.

Well, that concludes our whirlwind (and by no means comprehensive) tour of British beer styles. Armed with this knowledge, I have no doubt that you'll impress every publican you run into, and, more importantly, know exactly what you're ordering.