On the bottle

Old-fashioned stout is going through a rethink, reckons Alastair Gilmour

There are few words more able to focus the beer-lover’s mind than the five characters in ‘stout’. Literature drips with evocative references such as “stout and true”, “stout hearts”, “stout of step” and John Keats’ “stout Cortez…with eagle eyes”. All have connotations of bravery, solidity and courage, yet we all know stout can also mean fat.

And when it comes to beer, there lies stout’s predicament. We think of stout as fattening and we think of stout as Guinness, but the style covers a multitude of subdivisions, each with their own characteristics and flavour profiles. Along with Irish – or Dry – Stout, the category that Guinness belongs to, we have Oyster Stout, Coffee Stout, Chocolate Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Sweet Stout, Milk Stout and Imperial Russian Stout. It doesn’t have to be black, either – White Stouts are simply strong beers.

None of those actually contained oysters, milk or even Russians – flavours traditionally emerged from the ability to tease latent flavours out of malted barley – but present that hypothesis today to our more inventive microbrewers and watch them roll up their sleeves and drool. They love a challenge, they enjoy tinkering, and they adore combining ingredients to see what comes out the other end. Stout is going through something of a revival and consumers are demanding more unusual approaches to making beer. Tyne Bank Brewery in Newcastle has produced a Cherry Stout using sweet and sour cherries, plus oatmeal for a smooth mouthfeel. Ouseburn Valley’s Milk Stout contains lactose, and Morpeth-based Anarchy Brewery’s Sublime Chaos has been labelled a “breakfast stout” presumably because of its oatmeal and coffee bean content. Its complex fruitcake flavours are certainly an eye-opener.

Durham Brewery’s Temptation – an Imperial Russian Stout (the style was favoured by Catherine The Great, 18th century Empress of Russia) – comes wrapped in roast bitterness with coffee and liquorice notes combining in a velvety rich malt texture.

Jarrow Brewery’s McConnell’s Irish Stout is rich and creamy with lingering liquorice and chocolate hints, and Allendale Tar Bar’l Stout, which celebrates the local custom of men carrying barrels of burning tar on their heads at New Year, also goes down the traditional chocolate and coffee route. Similarly, Big Lamp Summerhill Stout is rich in malt and roasted barley. Young’s Chocolate Stout is lively and complex with faint aromas of ginger, then creamy fudge on the palate, and a rounded bitter-chocolate finish. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout is spicy and fruity, while its textured chocolate flavour is derived from malted barley alone – a classic example of the maltster’s art.

Stouts were traditionally the generic term for the strongest – or stoutest – porters produced by a brewery. The name was first used in 1721 to describe a dark brown beer made with roasted malts which were popular with London’s street and river porters. This same beer also became known as stout and, although that particular style was previously well documented as a separate species, the history and development of stout and porter are inseparable. Then there’s Guinness, a story that has fascinated from day one. Richard Guinness, born in the 1690s, was land agent to Dr Arthur Price, Archbishop of Cashel in County Kildare in Ireland. The archbishop let £100 in his will to Richard’s son Arthur who bought a small brewery in a neighbouring village in 1756.

He quickly moved onwards and upwards and three years later emerged in Dublin where he took a 9,000-year lease on a disused brewery at St James’ Gate – the ancient entrance to the outer city from the suburbs – at an annual rent of £45. A whole industry was born and now Guinness is sold in 150 countries, brewed in 49 of them and sells 10 million glasses a day.

Guinness has long excelled in its advertising with images of the ostrich swallowing the pint, the sea lion making off with the glass on its nose, and the jaunty, flat-capped workman casually carrying an impossibly large and heavy girder. They were the brainchild of John Gilroy (1898-1985) the Whitley Bay-born artist and illustrator, and remain some of the most potent images ever created.

David Ogilvy, one of the most influential figures in modern advertising, maintains that Gilroy’s posters, “made Guinness part of the warp and woof of English life and have never been excelled – anywhere”.

But, the quintessential stout’s basic dilemma is that young people don’t regard it as something for them. Tyne Bank Cherry Stout may be; Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout certainly has youth on its side, but as far as the younger market is concerned Guinness can wait a wee while.

As Mark Griffiths writes in a highly personal view of the brand, Guinness Is Guinness: “You walk into a pub. See a beer on the bar. It’s black and bitter, like mud in a glass. You’re 18 years old and none of your mates drinks it, so why should you? Yet there’s something strangely attractive about it. Never mind. There’s no time to wait. Another day, maybe. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”

Guinness might come with warp and woof, but these days it seems whole coffee beans and chocolate bars are what stout’s about.

Master chef
Sign up to our news
You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us.