|An ongoing series of reports about
the beer world froma variety of
award winning writers.
Early American brewing had its share of porters and stouts before lagers began to dominate the market,
pushing out all but a few old stalwarts. The darkness and supposed strength of stout was—and still is—the
perfect antithesis to American light lager. What better way to let the world know that you, be it brewer or
drinker, were different?
The first of the then new, independent breweries was New Albion in Sonoma, California. Jack McAuliffe’s short-
lived creation (1976–1982) was a ramshackle hodgepodge of equipment and an inspiration for a number of
brewing trends—namely, pale ale, porter, and stout. (In a sense, that was a more diverse lineup than what
you might find at some more prolific breweries today.) Those beers were a revelation, if a bit fickle in terms of
quality. They set the foundation of what you could expect from a craft brewery for the next 20-plus years. And
from the get-go, there was a stout.
New Albion Stout had an important successor: Sierra Nevada Stout. That’s the beer that arguably took what
McAuliffe started and cemented it on the American scene. What makes Sierra Nevada Stout doubly
important—it was the very first beer Ken Grossman brewed when he fired up his own ramshackle kit.
What makes the Sierra Nevada Stout (5.8 percent ABV, 50 IBUs) special is its blueprint. It’s a mid-range
beer—well above the Irish examples that might have otherwise served as models. Consider Guinness, at
roughly 4.2 percent ABV. In the world of American stouts, most of the classics ride that 5.5 to 7 percent range.
The style’s strength is more reminiscent of foreign export stouts.
However, that American stout archetype is firmly bitter, with those 50 IBUs sitting on a 1.062 OG beer. The big
American Cs—Cascade, Columbus, Centennial—all play a role, blasting forth with pine and citrus.
Unsurprisingly these days, you’ll see Citra and other newfangled hops in the mix.
Amazingly, the bitterness finds a way to harmonize with the sharpness of dark roasted grains such as black
patent and roasted barley. For that, we can give some thanks to a mix of other malts—particularly crystals or
caramels—to provide a richer, sweeter note to soften things up, much like cream in coffee. More recently, a
popular tactic is to use dehusked or “debittered” black malts to get color and some flavor without the harsh
bite of burnt husk material. Even Sierra Nevada now uses Weyermann’s debittered Carafa in their classic
Stout. Briess offers Blackprinz, which has similar qualities.
Historical, mildly modified styles such as oatmeal stout and milk stout segued into coffee stouts, or spiced
stouts, or fruited stouts. Simultaneously, the “extreme beer” phase bloomed in the mid-to-late 2000s, led by
the surging popularity of barrel-aged imperial stouts attempting to replicate the growing cults of beers like
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Three Floyds Dark Lord or Founders KBS. And as time passed, what
was “extreme” became commonplace, as it always does. A mere handful of years after putting a stout in a
bourbon or rum barrel seemed like a novel idea, you now have to add half a dozen adjuncts to that same beer
to capture any kind of beer buzz. We’re now in the era of pastry stout—of cookie stout, of breakfast cereal
stout, of milkshake stout.
As those beers came into vogue, they managed to do something interesting—they usurped the term “stout” in
the beer landscape. It’s the reality of selling beer that If you say “stout” these days, the first thing to come to a
consumer’s mind isn’t a 6 percent ABV, roasty, dry, mildly hoppy dark ale. It’s a 10-14 percent ABV, likely
barrel-aged beer with vanilla bean, cinnamon, marshmallows and coconut in it. Indeed, the evidence of
“standard” stout’s decline is everywhere, once you start to look. Or to put it another way ask yourself: When’s
the last time you saw Sierra Nevada Stout for sale at a package store or beer bar? In many states they’ve
been pulled out entirely, presumably because they didn’t sell enough to justify shipping them in.
Ultimately, the thing holding back a revival of “American stout” most firmly is likely the fact that it’s simply not a
beer style with any kind of significant buzz or “cool” factor attached to it. Its fall from grace is, in its own way,
emblematic of the wider shift in the kinds of beers we see as defining the “craft beer” industry as a whole.
At an earlier time in its history, “craft beer” styles tended to define themselves oppositionally. These were
beers you were drinking instead of the obvious alternative, which were bland, watery American adjunct lagers.
They were big, bold, acquired tastes. This was as true for the roasty bitterness of an American stout as it was
for the hop-derived bitterness of American IPAs. They were tastes and sensations you essentially worked to
Today, the craft beer world is a different space, and numerous styles have changed accordingly, in much the
same way. IPAs became fruitier, then hazier, then outright sweeter. Stouts became more flavored, then
bigger, then outright sweeter. Our craving for sugar, for approachability, left its mark in both spheres. These
were no longer tastes that people would describe as “acquired.” They were tastes aimed at capturing the
widest possible demographic of sugar-loving drinkers, but they also had the unfortunate effect of decreasing
access to those roasty, hoppy, more subtle stouts of old.
|The Story of American Stout
Submitted By Brian S. Dunlevy
|BeerNexus does not validate
authorship of submitted articles
based on an article by Jim Vorel in pastemagazine.com