28 November 2022 · Consuming passions
In the latest addition to our consuming passions series, Laura Hadland (drinks writer and author of 50 Years of CAMRA: Celebrating 50 years of the Campaign for Real Ale) celebrates the dark mysteries of stout, the style of beer made famous by Guinness, whose rich and smooth flavour makes it a beverage with a vast range of culinary possibilities. Laura also offer recommendations for some of her personal favorite craft stouts and suggestions for their use.
My first really memorable experience of stout came quite late in life. Sure, I’d tried a Guinness and Black as a youth. I’d even dabbled with a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout on occasion. But although I was already a real ale drinker without the vocabulary to describe it, I had not yet dared to venture much to The Dark Side in my 20s.
In 2006, while I was Senior Curator for the museums in Leicester, we played host to ‘Black British Style’ - a wonderful exhibition from the V&A. I was relatively unenthused to discover Guinness was the launch event sponsor, although impressed by the attentions of such a big-name brand.
At the event, guests were invited to enjoy a cocktail I had never seen before - the Black Velvet. A simple combination, with the Guinness topping a small serve of Prosecco, I saw stout in a new light. The acidity of the wine cut through the richness of the beer and elevated its flavours. I experienced the chocolate tones and the fruitiness as if for the first time. The veil was lifted.
The experience encouraged me to taste more stouts, and they rapidly became one of my go-to beer styles. I adore their complexity and history. Evolving as a stronger (hence the name) version of the porter style that arose in 1700s London, stouts are dark beers made with roasted barley, which gives colour and bitterness. Typically this creates a flavour profile that includes bitter elements (think roasted coffee beans and dark chocolate) and dried fruit notes (like dates, figs and raisins).
The complex flavour profile makes stout a dream to pair with a wide range of foods. While complementing the savoury richness of beef, as in this 19th-century beef pudding, it also pairs well with desserts. Stout can often be found on the ingredient list of a traditional Christmas pudding recipe.
To bring an extra kick to your pud I’d suggest Hello Dimitri? from Rooster’s Brewing Co, a strong bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout that is already bursting with Christmas cake flavours, filling the mouth with raisin, vanilla and liquorice.
Many styles of stout have evolved, meaning that I can literally enjoy a stout for all seasons. This versatility and variety is another reason to love the style. Beers like Guinness are dry stouts, sometimes referred to as Irish stouts. The Kernel arguably makes one of the finest - its roasty, smoky flavours complemented by various undercurrents of fruit as they change the hop varieties used in each batch. It would be my stout of choice when marinating beef for a long, slow cook, as in this delicious glazed short rib recipe.
Some styles are sweeter - milk stouts contain lactose, milk sugars, making them richer, creamier and more indulgent. In the summer, beers like Badger Beers’ Milk Made are perfect chilled and poured over ice cream. This takes me back to running a beer and gelato tasting at Leicester’s Gelato Village in 2017 with the wonderful beer sommelier Mark Tetlow. That event certainly opened a few minds to the possibilities that dark beers offer! You could take your own experimentation to the next level with this simple Chocolate Stout Milkshake recipe.
If that sounds too sweet, but you don’t want too much bitterness either, try a tropical stout. They are softer, fruitier and tend to have a more moderated dryness. Wildcard Brewery’s False Gods is an excellent example and would lend itself nicely to Levi Root’s Spiced Stout Ice Cream.
Oatmeal stouts do exactly what they say on the tin, with the addition of oats to the brew adding richness to the body of the finished beer. I love the luxuriousness of Liverpool-based Neptune Brewery’s Abyss which is dry, and bitter but still beautifully balanced because of the full mouthfeel. I would let this particular beer shine as the hero ingredient in a Stout, Stilton and Walnut Bread.
The ‘stoutest’ stouts are the imperials. At 9% ABV and above they should be treated with respect. There has been something of a renaissance in the creation of barrel-aged imperial stouts in recent years and I am absolutely here for the trend.
The addition of notes from the wood, the whisper of the spirits that previously occupied the vessel and the slow maturation and conditioning of the beer really creates some of the most exciting and interesting beers I have ever tasted. They tend to have a richness and complexity that younger, weaker stouts can only aspire to, and the interaction of the beer with the bacteria that make the barrels their home can make this style sometimes wild and unpredictable.
At the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Awards Dinner in 2019, we were presented with a stunning beer-matched menu. The crowning glory was pudding - a molten centre chocolate cake served with a snifter of Thornbridge Brewery’s Necessary Evil. This imperial stout was aged for 8 months in bourbon casks. I was pregnant at the time, so I could only allow myself the tiniest sip, but I remember those few drops filling my mouth with flavour and a velvety texture. Chocolate, vanilla, caramel and just a hint of bourbon sweetness on the finish.
Even though I mainly just smelled it (longingly), Necessary Evil cemented both my love affair with Thornbridge as a brewery, and with barrel-aged stouts. The beer proved so popular that they continue to make it to this day and have since begun experimenting with other types of barrels, including triple sec and cognac. I cannot think of anything better to give unparalleled depth to your Welsh Rarebit, and I’ve already got one in the cupboard that I am going to try with this Mushroom Tart with Yorkshire Blue Rarebit!
Appealing to the latent historian in me, Wishbone Brewery have created a modern spin on the barrel-aged style by finishing theirs, Black Imp, with Motueka hops from New Zealand. Motueka is a descendent of the Saaz hop, which was used in some of the oldest stout and porter recipes. I love the melding of old meets new here, and the beer’s treacle toffee character would do an amazing job in a Derbyshire Cure.
I recognise that not everyone chooses to drink alcohol. Thanks for reading this far if you don’t! The good news is that the fascinating flavour profile of stout is available to all as the quality of alcohol-free beer continues to soar. I was (still) pregnant when I discovered Big Drop Brewing’s Galactic Milk Stout - simply known as ‘Stout’ back then. A recipe honed to perfection over a number of years, this beer gives all the rich bitterness of roasted coffee and cocoa nibs, along with a full and satisfying mouthfeel. You would never know it is 0.5% ABV (low enough to legally be described as alcohol-free).
And while I was pregnant, every so often a can of Galactic in the evening brought a smile to my face. All of the joy of the dark beer that I love: enjoyed completely. Now I am no longer pregnant, I can enjoy it with that most classic stout pairing - oysters. Sublime.