I love stouts. It could be 120 degrees in the dead of summer, and I'll still opt for one every time. Ice-cold water or a refreshing iced tea? Hell, no. Light, tasty pilsner? Thanks, but I'll pass. A black-as-used-motor-oil-and-just-as-thick Russian Imperial? Ah, yes, that'll hit the spot.
Plenty of stouts are terrible, of course, but most people treat them in a strictly binary way: You either love or hate them all. To me, though, they're the most flexible and varied style of beer around. I have my own generalizations, of course: IPAs are hoppy. Sours are sour. Pilsners are light, dry, and faintly citrus-y. Belgians are, uh, Belgian-y. And so on. Mostly, those things are what they are. But a stout? A stout can be many things to many people—even to a pronounced stout-hater.
"But what are your qualifications?" the more skeptical and unfriendly of you are asking. Fair question: I have none, other than that I drink all kinds of beer, and lately, thanks to Colorado brewery/taphouse chain Mountain Sun—where February is officially known as Stout Month—I've enjoyed a whole bunch of newer examples of my favorite kind of beer. Imagine a placemat-sized menu with nothing but stouts; now, imagine flipping it over and realizing there's just as many listed on the back side, too, along with a bunch more off-menu for some reason. They offered more than 50 in all, rotated over their different locations throughout the month; some changed week-by-week, some changed in the middle of the day. Most were brewed in-house, but they offered a wide selection of guest-stars, too, all of them indigenous to Colorado.
I tried as many of them as I could. Here are my findings.
Stouts as a Session Beer
Based on a scientific study of what I think, most people's biggest hangups about stouts is that they're too strong and too heavy. And sure, some are. But others work as dark, flavorful session beers—i.e. drinkable, low-alcohol options ideal for, uh, bulk consumption. When I think "session beer," I think Budweiser: a roughly 5-percent-alcohol-by-volume deal that most enthusiasts regard as a pretty light drink that you can down by the six-pack (on weekends).
So consider, say, Mountain Sun's Casual Friday, which rings in at a mere 3.9-percent ABV. In many ways, it's a perfect beginner's stout: dark, with a good malty flavor and a dry finish. You can sip it, or throw the whole thing back and order a couple more.
My problem, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that it's too weak, and missing the warmth you'd get from even, well, a Bud. Fortunately, there are many stout options in the 5- or 6-percent range. In fact, the best thing I had all month was a TRVE Brewing option called Stout-o))), named in honor of the doom-metal band. This beer has everything going for it: roasty sweetness, a bit of a hop bite to balance, and just enough body to make it feel substantial without filling you up. At 5.8 percent, it's strong enough to keep you warm but won't immediately knock you on your ass. If dank, bitter IPAs can be session beers, than so can Stout-o))), or non-Stout Month options like Avery's Out of Bounds or Deschutes' Obsidian.
For All You Hopheads
Think of beer as a spectrum ranging from bitter to sweet; it's likely you'd put IPAs at one end and stouts at the other, right? Not so, I say! Stouts can run the gamut. (Want to argue that IPAs do, too? Fine! Send me some samples!)
The good news: This means you can definitely find some stouts that you like. The bad news: I can definitely find some stouts that I don't like. I am not a hophead, you see. I dig hops as part of a mix—a voice in a chorus, if you will—but not as the predominant flavor. Which is why I was so surprised when I took a sip of Mountain Sun's Megatron, a 10.7-percent American-style imperial stout. Aren't imperial stouts supposed to be big, boozy malt bombs? Sure, a little hops to hedge the sweetness, I can get behind. But while the description set me up for "dominant flavors of chocolate and roast," it also promised to be "balanced by huge citrus and pine flavors."
I took a sip and quickly made my judgment: "Black IPA." That evening, I was drinking with my buddy Tyler (a hophead, and a better writer); "Smells like weed," he said. I took a few more sips, then gave up on it. It sure looked like a stout, but it didn't taste enough like one. Or maybe I'm just not into weed-flavored beer.
When you think of a refreshing beer, your mind probably goes to something you can, like, see through. But just because many stouts look as though you could pave roads with them doesn't mean they have to taste like it.
So let's talk about Mountain Sun's Sharkbite, a pretty spot-on name for a beer with this much bite that also manages to conjure up, well, the beach. At 7.2-percent ABV, it's a little strong for drinking very many in a row, but it's also not going to KO you, either: Mostly, you'll just be surprised that a beer like this can be so invigorating.
Sharkbite is what's called a foreign-export stout—like an Irish stout, basically, but with a little more alcohol, which helps protect the beer during shipping. It has been a pretty warm winter in Colorado, and I've found myself gravitating to this style; Upslope had a fantastic offering, and Left Hand's Fade to Black release this year was a reissue of their foreign-export-style Vol 1. The key here is for the beer to stay out of its own way; maybe this is weird, but think of it like a chardonnay, which ideally has a nice, balanced flavor up front and then a clean, dry finish that doesn't linger. I'm not a wine expert, either, but that comparison works for me.
Room for Mixers
Yes, delicious beers of all stripes are brewed with adjuncts, aka added flavors. But the way I see it, stouts are ideal in this realm, too. Cherry, chipotle, jalapeño, raspberry, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, peanut, graham crackers, pumpkin, honey, maple syrup, oak, poblano, and even meat all go well with stouts, or at least go better with stouts than anything else.
Coffee stouts are common, for example, and I absolutely love them. (Also, you can kind of rationalize having one for breakfast, which is nice.) Santa Fe Brewing Company's Imperial Java Stout is a fine example, and six-packs of it continue to appear in my shopping cart every time I go to the beer section at Lucky's. But Mountain Sun's Addiction was almost heartbreaking in how good it was—heartbreaking because I drank it during the very first week of Stout Month, and I knew that by the time I'd get back, it would be gone, and I'd have to wait another year to drink it again. In the meantime, I'm hoping to strike it rich so I can buy lots of Tweak, by Avery; I was told it contains the caffeine of about 2.5 espressos, with an ABV of nearly 18 percent for, y'know, balance.
In essence, Mountain Sun during Stout Month becomes a dessert shop. Over the course of three visits, I had the Dark Harvest Pumpkin Stout (think pumpkin pie), Nihilist (a stout with honey—also one of my favorites), Cherry Chocolate Stout (released on Valentine's Day), Cinnilla (which the menu accurately compares to a snickerdoodle), Chocolate Dip Stout (self-explanatory), S'mores Stout (from Wild Woods Brewery), and the Mexican Chocolate Stout (from Copper Kettle Brewing). That was just on three visits. Among the beers I missed: Depravity Imperial Peanut Butter Cup Milk Stout (from Renegade Brewing), Ski-In-Ski-Stout (made with cocoa nibs by Telluride Brewing), and Chocolate Raspberry Love Stout (Strange Brewing), as well as the in-house jams Coconut Cream Stout, Girl Scout Stout, and Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout.
Most of these beers are specific to Colorado at present, it's true, but even if you never make it out to Mountain Sun's Stout Month yourself, be aware that a direct equivalent to the vast majority of their stouts exists somewhere else in the world, if not the United States. The stouts are out there, and they come in all types, all flavors, all strengths. And even if you can't bring yourself to fully replace your beloved IPAs or golden ales, just keep in mind that a little dessert in a glass never hurt anyone.
David Obuchowski plays guitar in PUBLICIST UK, which will release its debut album on Relapse Records in 2015; catch them playing a number of shows in Austin during SXSW, where he'll be drinking stouts in the Texas heat. He tweets from @publicistUK.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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