The Full Bar - all my pages

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Session: The Three Faces of Stout

I took the challenge of The Session, to blog about stouts today. We were supposed to do this any way we wanted, so I figured I'd go to three different breweries for three different stouts. I do that a lot, traveling to breweries.

The first stop was Rock Bottom in King of Prussia, Penn., where Brian McConnell had a Mad Cow Milk Stout on. He had it on two ways, actually: nitro tap, and cask, which made me wonder about why it is that The Geekerie loves nitro-tap stouts and shuns other beers, like IPA, on nitro. You'd think that stout was designated by God Almighty as The One True Nitro Beer, but I've had very good nitro dispense of hoppy pale ales. "It just accentuates the malt," Brian agreed, "it's just another way to serve a beer." Funny, but there you are. I had the cask (that's Shawn the bartender pulling the booger), and Brian gave me a sample of the push stout: two very different jars. Neither one sickly sweet, as you might expect from a milk stout, but rather medium-rich, dryly sweet, and damned drinkable. Bill Moore of Lancaster Brewing was also there, it was a pleasant session and we gossiped a bit, but then I had to push on.
Next stop was Sly Fox Phoenixville, where I met up with Jack Curtin. Jack had decided to pass on The Session, he thought the whole idea was "kinda hinky." I told him the last time I'd heard anyone use that word was in The Fugitive, and that characters in the film made fun of the guy who used it then, too. As Jack babbled on, I ordered a pint of O'Reilly's Stout, the delicious Irish dry stout of the house. Corey poured me a beautiful pint -- he's the guy standing behind the beautiful pint. It had plenty of dry roast, lots of flavor, pretty much blows Guinness out of the water without being insistent or strident about it. I love this beer, because it got me through the first five months of Weight Watchers: ounce for ounce, it's the same "points" as light beer.

Guinness is iconic, but there are other stouts just as good. Why do so many folks choose Guinness? Habit, honest preference, lack of experience? There's an "Irish" pub in Philly, McGillin's, that does not serve Guinness for personal reasons. They have several other stouts, and they seem to do a roaring business.

I took the opportunity to sample draft Incubus, Sly Fox's tripel (not, as I originally wrote, the quadrupel; that's Ichor -- sorry), that is only on draft the first Friday of each month: Incubus Friday. It was a new batch, and bursting with fruity esters and rich malt, a delicious aperitif beer, and perfect for the day, a gorgeous preview of Spring I'd been enjoying through the drive.

Last stop: Victory, for a small glass of Storm King Imperial Stout. This was easily the blackest of the three, heavy, rich, aggressive stuff, but not an angry beer, or a forceful beer. Storm King is a hearty beer, full-bodied and certain, not looking to knock you out, but maybe to knock you over. It's hard to pound -- and why would you want to?

Storm King made me look back at the stouts I'd had, and all the stouts that are out there, and the stouts I'd read that other bloggers would be sampling. I realized that this is a continuum, that stout embraces session beers, extreme beers (Dogfish Head World Wide Stout certainly qualifies), dessert beers, hoppy beers (black IPA, anyone?), mild and malty beers... There is no definite "stout," not even Guinness can claim that, with so many different versions of itself around.

I love stouts and porters, in a large part because of this malleability of form. They're dark ales (and sometimes lagers!), yet they have enough in common to be recognizable as brethren. The Brotherhood of Stout (women welcome, too).


Rick Lyke said...


I envy you. Storm King is a great stout. Having it brewery fresh must be a real experience!



jakester said...

Oh no! You just started ANOTHER beer style: Black IPA! I can see it all now...

Anonymous said...

Lew and Rick -- Totally agree about Storm King! A really wonderful beer that I have been trying (in vain) to convince my buddies to try. I can't get them off the Miller Lite.

I actually just wrote about Storm King in a "Top 5" for this week's City Paper. Take a look if you wish.

Stonch said...

Lew - you're too polite about Guinness! Just about the least interesting stout available. Guinness is to stout what American Bud is to lager...

JohnG said...

Just my $0.02 on nitro, in response to "why it is that The Geekerie loves nitro-tap stouts and shuns other beers, like IPA, on nitro. You'd think that stout was designated by God Almighty as The One True Nitro Beer, but I've had very good nitro dispense of hoppy pale ales."

Here's the thing. CO2 delivers a "sting" when you drink it (literally from carbonic acid). In a Dry Irish Stout, you have a beer with a significant bite from both roasted barley (traditionally 10% of the grist), and from a high bittering rate (30-45 IBUs), combined with a low gravity body. One can argue, with that much "bite" already present in the beer, that any significant CO2 bite would be "too much" - hence the smoothing effect of the nitro can be seen as beneficial. However, in a hoppy beer, since you don't have the effervesence to bring the volatile hop notes to your nose, you are kind of wasting the point of the beer and supressing hop aroma with the nitro.

Now, I don't know who this "The Geekerie" that you speak of is (are they the same as the "vast right-wing conspiracy"?), but that is my at least semi-objective reason for liking Irish Dry Stouts (and just Irish Dry - not Oatmeal, not Imperial, etc...) on nitro, but not hoppy beers. But drink what you like - don't let your imaginary "Geekerie" keep you down.

Lew Bryson said...

Stonch...can't agree, old man! I know Guinness has its detractors, and it gets served too damned cold these days, but I still order it, still enjoy it. Would I rather have O'Reilly's? Yup. But I drink plenty of G in a year, too.

Lew Bryson said...

JohnG --

Good argument, and there's no denying that CO2 adds bitterness, but I think you're a bit too focused on hop aroma. An even better point would have been that hopping in Irish dry stouts is classically about bitterness -- the hopping of these beers is early, for bittering, not flavor or aroma -- which is not affected by the nitro dispense. A few stouts, like Shipyard's Bluefin, are still served mostly on CO2, and in my experience, Bluefin, at least, works well that way. But a good hoppy pale ale, that a brewer has tailored for hop flavor, can certainly work well on nitro dispense. I know, I've had 'em.

Another point is that nitro-dispense was originally created to ape cask ale; a less fizzy form of beer that brings out more of the flavor of the beer behind the CO2, while avoiding the staling issues inherent in cask ale. That didn't win them many friends with the real ale crowd, who rightly declared that nitro-dispense misses the whole point. Yet stout succeeded in nitro-dispense form here in the U.S. -- I don't know about the UK, sorry -- while other beers did not, until the modest success of Boddington's.

Speaking of Boddington's, while nitro-cans of stout -- particularly Guinness -- have been a big success in the U.S. market, other types of beer -- again, with the modest exception of Boddington's -- have not.

The libertarian in me says that this is simply because of free-market choice. People buy nitro stout and don't buy nitro bitters/pale ales because the stout tastes good to them and the others don't. But the librarian in me -- and the cask ale lover and craft beer aficionado in me (it's crowded in here) -- point out that if people don't get the choice, they can't make the choice...and I don't see any nitro choice but stout very often.

As for your barb about "The Geekerie," that's just my term for the group-think of beer geeks. And I always drink what I like -- except when I'm working, when I drink what I have to, and then talk about it.

And before anyone takes off with that...once again, I do not consider it my job -- or my place -- to tell people what they should like. All I do is say what I've liked, and why, in hopes that readers might discover something they didn't know about before, or maybe hadn't thought about before.

Steven said...

Thanks for sticking up for Guinness Lew. Though I see the direction, your comparison to Spud is way off base Stonch.

If Guinness (draught) had really tumbled to lifeless swill I'd be inclined to agree, but it's always been a smooth and mellow drinker with more flavor than most beer around - I've used it as a springboard to sway many a Lite drinker to better beers and continue to grab one when the mood hits.

Loren said...

Just 3 faces? Weird...

Neill Acer at Defiant (NY) has a series of Stouts going on right now. The 4th is due out soon and will be called Death (4 horsemen series). The first 3 were all notably Stouts but all were equally unique. He's also got a dry Irish Stout coming out for you know what. No nitro, my guess.

God I love Stout. Maybe because I'm not?



Stonch said...

Guinness - maybe familiarity breeds contempt. It's available everywhere in Britain, and I mean EVERYWHERE. In fact, the only pubs that don't serve Guinness are those dedicated to real ale / craft beer, like The Jerusalem Tavern or The Pembury Tavern, to name but two.

I liked Guinness when I was a kid (I remember drinking about 10 pints of it to celebrate finishing my GCSE exams), I still sometimes have it at sports stadia and the like when there's nothing better. But I can't think of it as anything but another macrobrew, high on marketing, low on taste.

On reflection the comparison to Bud was perhaps a little harsh ... I'll concede that much!

Lew Bryson said...


"just 3 face" because even I can only drive so far and drink so many stouts, especially in my somewhat diminished state. Well, that and the classical reference, of course.

Sorry to hear I'm missing so much Neillage, though!

Lew Bryson said...


I like a man who can give on a beer argument! I can see your point on Guinness's ubiquity, though: last time I was in Ireland, I would go out of my way to get a Murphy's, just because it wasn't everywhere. Met a handful of pub owners who felt the same way, but most of them looked at me like I was nuts. Perceptive bastards...

Steven said...

Then there was the uh, "political" pub we visited in Dublin that was out of Beamish when my friends and I ordered...but others seemed to have no trouble receiving a pint!

Stonch - Guinness' marketing has been flooding England for years. There's a famous wide picture of Picadilly Circus in the 30s or 40s with a very prominent and large "Guinness is Good for You" billboard.

Sure, it's not the only game, or maybe even the best game, in town anymore, but it beats Carlsberg hands down at the hotel bar in Tavistock Square when the pubs are closed! ;)

Stonch said...

Just noticed the familiar sight of a proper hand pump in the first photo. Great!

Steven - Guinness has never been the only game in town here, because we've always had good beer on the scene. No prohibition and it's after effects to deal with here, so the "lesser of two evils" dilemma which often leads to Guinness coming out on top rarely arises - apart from in places like sports stadia, or indeed in places like the hotel bar you mention. I think that's why British beer lovers don't hold any affection for Guinness. It's never been the most exciting thing at the bar.