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Ireland: Where Being Stout is a Virtue

My Goodness, My Guiness

The Rest of the Pack

A Meal with a Glass

By Jim Clarke

I went to college in the Pacific Northwest, which, at the time (the early '90s) was known for three things: grunge, rain, and microbrews. Grunge has come and gone, but the rain and beer remain. The rain, actually, was usually on the light side; the beers, on the other hand, veered toward the dark end of the spectrum. My beer tastes began to turn to the dark side, and one St. Patrick’s Day I decided it was, as the old ads say, “a good time for a Guinness.”

Unfortunately, I was wrong. My roommates and I were celebrating our varying degrees of Irishness with a house party, so the Guinness we had bought was bottled; nowadays Guinness has developed a widget for their bottles that more or less reproduces the “on tap” effect, but that innovation was yet to come at the time. Additionally, we were laboring under the delusion that the Irish (and British) drink their beer warm, so the bottle came out of the cupboard, not the refrigerator, and when we popped it open we tasted what seemed to be a diabolical mixture of soy sauce and motor oil.

It took a trip to Ireland to correct that initial bad impression, but Irish stouts have since become a staple in my beer consumption, treasured for their rich flavors, smooth character, and clean finish. That finish is the hops at work. Roasted malt flavors typically overpower the fruity or floral aromas that hops might bring; the latter show themselves instead in the finish, adding that slight bitterness which keeps the beer from tasting cloying. Stouts developed from Porter, which was a hugely popular style in 18th and 19th century England. The original Porters were made by blending pale and brown ales; the strongest brew from a brewery was its “stout,” and eventually this name came to denote a strong porter – which is essentially what today’s stout is.

There are several styles of stout. The English variety is typically a touch sweeter and less hopped, tending toward chocolate and espresso flavors. Imperial stouts are usually significantly stronger and sweeter, with a pronounced chocolate character; they were made to travel well and fit the sweet tooth of the Russian Imperial court.

My Goodness, My Guinness

Irish dry stout remains the best-known style, and Guinness is by far the best known. It can be relied on for a smooth, mellow style, with touches of walnut, caramel, and malt. Some stout enthusiasts claim Guinness is thinner or more watery than other stouts. In my experience it is lighter-bodied than some if its peers, but still well-balanced; it only becomes watery at establishments that are lackadaisical in maintaining and cleaning their taps and the lines that feed the beer from the keg. Incidentally, while stouts have a reputation for their richness – “a meal in a glass” – dry stouts are typically lower in calories than most beers: 12 oz. of Guinness clocks in at about 125, compared to 150 calories or so for the same amount of Budweiser.

Guinness has been available in cans for sometime, with a widget inside that helps recreate the creamy effect of a nitrogen tap. You still need to pour the beer into a pint glass to enjoy it, so Guinness’s more recent innovation is a bottle widget which allows you to drink from it directly. Despite my initial disaster with bottled Guinness, this new design yields a beer as creamy and smooth as you could hope for. (That bottle I tried back in college was Guinness Extra Stout, a different recipe that uses more roasted barley and has a sharper flavor, with no nitro-widget, just carbon dioxide. I’ve tried it since, in better circumstances, and still don’t get excited about it.)

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The Rest of the Pack

The two other Irish competitors are both based in Cork, in the south of Ireland. (Guinness, for those who have somehow missed their advertising, hails from Dublin.) Beamish was traditionally the Protestant stout while Murphy’s was a Catholic tipple. It seems, then, that the Protestants of the south coast of Ireland preferred a malty, stout core embellished with light touches of coffee, bitter chocolate, and a bit of spice. Murphy’s drinkers opt instead for a heavily roasted character so dark that the notes of bitter chocolate, espresso, and smoke became quite pronounced.

U.S. microbrews seem to have had more success with other styles of stout, particularly Imperial stouts. Try Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout or Bert Grant’s Imperial Stout. If you want to stick to the Irish style, the McMenamin’s Brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest make a great seasonal Irish Stout; like Murphy’s, it has a strong coffee and cocoa element, but shows a hoppy, herbal side which, while it may not be typical to the style, does add complexity and balance to the beer. Unfortunately you won’t find it in stores. A few California brewers make solid Irish stouts. My favorites to-date are North Coast Brewing Company’s Old No. 38 Stout and Mendocino Brewing Company’s Black Hawk Stout; both have a fruitier, hoppier profile than their ancestors back in the Old Country.

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A Meal with a Glass

I had always considered Irish stouts as accompaniments to pub foods like fish and chips and plowman’s platters—and they certainly do well there. I once read, however, that oysters and stouts were de riguer back in the days when oysters were the cheap staple of dock workers and their families. It doesn’t sound like a natural combo, but I found that the low-acid, rich flavor of a stout does indeed go very well with the shellfish; the briny oysters cut through the beer like bright paints splashed across a dark canvas. Stout and chocolatey desserts seem like a natural pair, but I find it best to turn to an imperial stout so the sweetness of the dessert and the beer are more in line with each other.

A last word on temperature: Americans have a taste for an ice-cold beer, refreshing for its coolness if not its flavor, which, in fact, becomes masked when a beer is too cold. The Irish/British reputation for warm beer stems from their pre-refrigeration custom of serving beer at room temperature. The room in question, however, would have been a cellar, which in the British Isles would have been quite cool, even in summer. Think of St. Patty’s Day weather; the beginning of spring—cool, but not cold. An Irish stout should be the same way.

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       Published: February 2006
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