A friend from Cork told me years ago that St. Patrick’s Day is not actually much of a big deal or drinking occasion in Ireland. However, since you’re going to drink beer on March 17 anyway, you might as well make it an Irish-style stout and not a light beer with green food coloring in it. Yuck.
What exactly is an Irish stout?
A stout, in general, is a dark ale with a roasty flavor. One variety of stout is dry stout, sometimes called Irish stout or Irish-style stout. In layman’s terms, dry stout may taste and smell like a bit chocolate, coffee, and/or roasted grain. It’s dark brown or black with a creamy, tannish head. Contrary to popular belief about dark beers, it is not more alcoholic than lighter beers and should be between 4% and 5% ABV. Dry stout should be medium-bodied, smooth (but not sweet, hence the name “dry” stout), not too carbonated, and a little bitter. (For technical details, see BJCP category 13A).
My goodness, my Guinness
The most famous dry stout is, of course, Guinness. It’s been liquid bread to the people of Ireland since 1759, with Murphy’s and Beamish bringing up the rear. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson offered several theories why Guinness is so synonymous with Ireland: the brewery distributed its beers (via canal!) back in the day when most breweries only served locals, it appealed to patriotism by using the national symbol of the harp as its logo, and it continued to roast grains necessary for dark beers when British breweries were banned from doing so during World War I energy restrictions. Jackson also enigmatically wrote, “In some countries, stout is seen as an aphrodisiac, or as a beneficial bath for newborn babies.” Stout is often paired with another fabled aphrodisiac, oysters, so one never knows.
A hallmark of Guinness, for many, is the “cascade” of small bubbles that comes with a proper pour from the tap or widget can. This is not a Guinness-specific effect. Most beers are pushed into your glass with carbon dioxide, but another option is to serve beer “on nitro,” which refers to a mix of CO2 and nitrogen. It’s the nitro that creates the cascade and a smoother mouthfeel, and any beer can be served this way.
Local examples of Irish-style stout
Guinness isn’t your only option for a dry stout on draught. And, since the Guinness that comes to us in California is made in Canada by Labatt, it seems fair to bring up some other North American options, especially local ones.
Moylan’s in Novato, a proudly Irish-American brewery, makes a dry stout called Dragoon’s that’s definitely worth a try for all Guinness fans and is also available in 22 ounce bottles. Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, though more known for Belgian-style beers, makes a good stout called O.V.L. When in San Francisco, stop by Thirsty Bear near Montgomery BART, and try the Kozlov Stout and some not-so-Irish tapas.
Not sure if the stout on a bar menu is Irish-style or not? A good bartender will know, or find out for you, so ask. Read on for other types of dark, roasty beers.
If you like stout, chances are you also like porter. If you’re not familiar with porter, give one a try – some easy-to-find porters include Anchor Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, and Speakeasy Payback Porter.
Would you prefer your stout a little more sweet? Look for bottles or taps labeled “oatmeal stout.” Samuel Smith and Young’s make good British examples, with Iron Springs, Anderson Valley, Firestone Walker, and Lost Coast holding it down closer to home. Chocolate stouts like those from Rogue or Bison might also be up your alley.
For those who like their beer with a bit more punch, imperial stout (sometimes called Russian imperial stout) is the way to go, with most examples ranging upwards of 8% ABV. The easiest one to consistenty find around here, and many people’s introduction to the style, is North Coast Old Rasputin. Generally, just look for the word “imperial” in the name of the beer.
American-style stouts are similar to dry stouts, but may be hoppier, more experimental, or slightly higher in alcohol. This covers most stouts made locally and not mentioned above. When in doubt, try one! Sláinte and cheers.