The History of Stout
Twilight was falling. A thick, grey mist lingered around the dark, cramped, filthy streets of 18th Century London. The air was so thick with soot, smog and sulphur that even the most hardened workers would find it hard to breathe as they finished their shifts at the dockyards, markets and warehouses, where they would carry (or ‘porter’) goods from place to place.
Their work was tough and badly paid – one could expect less than two pence for an hour’s labour. The hard work required substantial carbohydrate to survive, and much of this came in the form of beer. Their drink of choice after a long shift would be a dark, well-hopped brown beer which soon took the namesake of its drinkers – porter.
Before the 18th Century, London brewers would send out their beer very young, and any ‘aging’ of the beer was subsequently either performed by the publican or a dealer. Porter was the first beer to be aged at the brewery and dispatched in a condition fit to be drunk immediately. At this time the drink would not have been much darker than standard brown beer, as the advent of black patent malt would not occur for another 140 years. As the 1700s rolled on, industry grew in London and other cities in the British Isles, such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, and the popularity of porter grew within these cities. Large volumes of porter were exported to Ireland where it became very popular, particularly in the rapidly growing and industrialized Dublin.
Many varieties of porter came about in the 1700s – Entire Porter, Double Porter, Extra Porter, Stout Porter, Three Threads, etc. – most reflecting a variety in the strength, taste or brewing technique. The name “stout” for a darker beer is believed to have come about because a strong porter could have been called a “stout porter”, and the name was shortened to “stout” over the coming decades. The word “stout” still meant only “strong” when describing beer and it could be related to any beer type: for example, it was possible to find “stout pale ale” brewed by many UK breweries at the time.
A delicious pint of Cheddar Ales – Totty Pot Porter. The history of stout is understandably inter-twined with porter.
By the early 1800s, the growing popularity of the easy-drinking mild ale in Britain decreased demand of dark beers, but porters and stouts continued to flourish in Ireland where the success of breweries such as Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish rapidly grew thanks to international interest in Irish (or “dry”) stout. It is from these Irish roots that modern stout was born, although its history remained intertwined with porter.
In the mid-19th century, stout gained its customary black colour through the use of black patent malt, and became significantly stronger in flavour. Its popularity remained strong through the turn of the 20th Century and the First World War, after which sweet “milk” stouts (we’ll come back to these later), brewed with lactose sugar, became a popular variety of stout in Great Britain. The temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in combination with First World War emergency measures, introduced a number of changes to beer brewing and consumption. These included higher taxation on beer, a striving for lower strengths, a ban on “buying a round” and restricted opening hours. Although most were gradually repealed over subsequent decades, these temperance measures rapidly increased the popularity of mild ale over the stronger stouts and porters.
During World War II, restrictions on the roasting of malt effectively killed English porter and stout production. The advent of pressurized keg beer, the “chic foreign” advertising of megabrewery lagers in the UK, as well as the invention of canned beer, also hit the stout market hard. The number of breweries in Britain declined from nearly 700 just after WWII to just 200 by 1971. By the 1980s, porter and stout virtually disappeared in British breweries, although it enjoyed much greater success in the Irish (and pockets of the Scottish) market.
However, a recent resurgence in popularity of stout has been seen, largely brought about by beer writers such as Michael Jackson, as well as campaign groups such as CAMRA and SIBA. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the rapid worldwide growth in craft beer, and its growing popularity in countries such as Australia, the US, Japan and Canada, have created a global increase in popularity of dark beers, albeit still a small minority market share compared to lager and pale ale. This recent revival has made stout and its many modern varieties, such as oatmeal stout, oyster stout, milk stout, and imperial stout, one of the most hailed and enjoyed drinks of beer connoisseurs worldwide.
Stout is enjoyed by beer drinkers worldwide.
Varieties of stout
Over the last 250 years there have been several varieties of stout invented. For this article, the versions which are commonplace today have been focused on.
Irish (or “dry”) Stout
Generally, Irish Stouts are very dark in colour, generally quite light in alcohol for a stout (typically 3.5-4.5% ABV), and with strong coffee and other toasted flavours. Famous varieties of Irish Stout include the Irish-brewed Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish, although there are also many microbrewery Irish Stouts such as the US-brewed Old #38 Stout by North Coast.
Imperial Stout is the grand-daddy of stouts, and not for the faint of heart. It is often referred to with “Russian”, or similar prefixes, due to its origins as a beer produced by the London-based Thrale’s Brewery for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia. Generally Imperial Stout has a high alcohol content, generally 9-10% ABV, but it can be much higher. Imperial Stouts are generally strong, thick, and very rich in flavour. Examples include All Gates’ Mad Monk, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout and Dark Star Imperial Stout.
As the name suggests, oatmeal stout has a high proportion of oats, up to 30%, added to the brewing mixture. Oats were commonly added to brewing mixtures during the Middle Ages, although by the 16th Century the practice had almost completely died out. When writer Michael Jackson mentioned the defunct Eldrige Pope “Oat Malt Stout” in his 1977 book The World Guide to Beer, oatmeal stout was no longer being made anywhere, but Charles Finkel, founder of specialty beer importer Merchant du Vin, was curious enough to commission Samuel Smith to produce a version. The result, Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, became the template for other breweries’ versions. Due to a high quantity of proteins, fats and gums in oats relative to barley malt, Oatmeal Stouts tend to have a smoother, thicker taste than other stouts, though they do not tend to taste of oats or porridge. Oats tend to impart a bitter flavour and so Oatmeal Stouts are often brewed with less hop content to reduce the overall bitterness, and the ABV is kept relatively low (3.5-5% ABV). Alongside Samuel Smith’s version, several other breweries produce Oatmeal Stouts, including Broughton Scottish Oatmeal Stout, Glencoe Wild Oat Stout and Three B’s Oatmeal Stout.
Also known as “sweet” or “nourishing” stout, milk stout is brewed using lactose, a sugar derived from milk. Because beer yeasts cannot ferment lactose, the finished product is generally much sweeter, heavier in body and has higher calorific content than your standard stouts and porters. The alcohol content can vary from 3.5 to 8% ABV, but it is generally kept around 5%. The most famous Milk Stout is Mackeson’s, which used to be advertised in the pre-war years as a nourishing drink to nursing mothers (in the words of the old Mackeson’s advert, “each pint contains the energising carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk”). Alongside the commonly canned Mackeson’s of today, Milk stouts you can find in your local pub or off licence include Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout, Dunham Massey Milk Stout and the US-brewed Left Hand Milk Stout.
Oysters and stouts have a long history. During the rise in popularity of stouts in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, oysters were a common ‘pub grub’ food of the taverns and inns of London. However, by the 20th century oyster beds were in decline and stout had given way to pale ale. It took the ingenuity of a New Zealand brewer, Stewart Island, in 1929 to add oysters to the brewing mixture of stout, as it was “said to improve head retention without a trace of fishiness”. The result was replicated by Hammerton Brewery in London in 1938, and became popular during the post-war milk stout ‘nourishment’ period. Oyster stouts tend to be smoother, with creamier, longer-lasting heads than other stouts. Some modern Oyster Stouts, such as the Irish Porterhouse Oyster Stout and US-brewed Harpoon Island Creek Oyster Stout, are brewed with oysters in the mixture. However, others such as Marston’s Oyster Stout and Adnam’s Oyster Stouts are misleadingly not actually brewed using oysters – they are apparently so called as they are supposed to be enjoyed alongside oysters.
Chocolate malt – the name given to darker, more aromatic malt that has been roasted or kilned until it acquires a chocolate colour – is often added to stouts to give off dark, chocolate flavours. These stouts were traditionally known as Chocolate Stouts. However, in more recent times brewers have added chocolate to the brewing mixture, accentuating the chocolate flavours and, like milk stout, these are often much sweeter and heavier-bodied. Adding fruit or mint is also reasonably common. This addition of chocolate to Chocolate Stout has generally become the norm. Modern ‘chocolate added’ stouts include Muskoka Brewery’s Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, and Rogue Chocolate Stout.
Malts which have been kilned or roasted for longer than chocolate malt tends to give off much more bitter and coffee-like flavours. People also liken these heavily-roasted malts to the aroma of toasted brown bread and Marmite. Beers with these malts added are often called Coffee Stouts, and some brewers like to emphasise the coffee flavour by the addition of ground coffee. This variety of stout can vary in ABV from 4 to 8%. Most examples will be dry, bitter and with a lingering aftertaste, though some examples, particularly those with added lactose, are much creamier and sweeter. Chocolate, mint and fruit can also be added to the brewing mixture to impart respective flavours. Examples include Dark Star Espresso Stout, Flying Dog Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout and St Peter’s Cream Stout.
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