Stout: Rich and creamy stout with chocolate and coffee undertones.Photo for menu

© 2021, Randy Mosher / Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine

Rich, dark, deeply flavored and sometimes beastly, stouts are a style that people don’t like, they love. Or hate. There’s no “meh” in stout-land. The near-universal rap from the haters is that “it’s heavy” or strong, or filling, and sometimes they are, just like any style. But one of the world’s most popular stouts isn’t even as strong, or rich, or filling as your average mass-market lager—it’s as light on its feet as a ballerina—and you can dance with her all night long. 

Whether you’re a drinker or a brewer, our misperceptions revolve around our psychology, especially the way our different senses are integrated and brought to our consciousness. As tasters, we like to think we’re pulling apart the various threads of taste, aroma, mouthfeel and that elusive synthetic construct called flavor. But that’s not how we’re built. Shaped by billions of years of evolution, our chemical senses are gloriously effective at translating the outside world into an action plan. The results of this unconscious sensory integration are notions that are strongly motivating, either attractive or repulsive. Analysis takes too much time in the heat of the moment; we’re not all that good at it anyway. Our every sensory experience is shaped not just by the sensations of the moment, but a lifetime of expectations and experiences that set the framework for what is delivered to our window of consciousness. We rarely have access to the raw data. We struggle to focus on the parts, when our mind really wants to give us the bottom line.

In the case of stouts, the sensory elephant in the glass is color. We’re supremely visual creatures. If we see something meaningful, our brains will try to find a way to support it even if it’s not actually there. This has been studied over and over in many contexts and it’s inescapable. The wine people have just given up, often judging red wines in black glasses to avoid polluting their evaluations with erroneous visual cues. 

There is relatively little we can learn from the appearance of a beer. As the legendary brewing science professor Michael Lewis of UIC Davis is fond of saying, “Color is not a flavor outcome.” This is doubly true for stouts. Dark color is highly correlated by our experience with roasted and even burnt things, and of course chocolate and coffee. 

Color taints our understanding of the whole spectrum of malt color. In our everyday lives, as something is roasted darker and darker, it becomes more intensely flavored. And while that’s true to a point, it does not match the reality of how malt is roasted. Up to a coppery-brown color—about 100 Lovibond or 200 EBC—flavor intensity really does increase as volatiles are created by the heat. But at that point they turn ugly, with harsh, wet ashtray smells. The malts in this 100–200 (200–400 EBC) range are so nasty, they’re just not available. With continued roasting, those volatiles start to blow off into the smokestack. Maltsters sometimes use techniques to enhance this process, like spraying the roasting malt with water mist, which instantly evaporates, creating a vacuum near the kernels that helps suck the offending chemicals out of the grains. 

Above 200 (400 EBC), the malt is usable again, but as roasting continues up to about 600 (1200 EBC), the chemical reality is just the opposite of that our eyes are seeing. The malt becomes less intense in flavor as it gets darker.

Chocolate malts are the most coffee-like, but in this context the word chocolate brings up another psychological issue. Language can “prime” our sensory system, setting up expectations the same way our eyes do. This underpins the power of marketing and so many other uses of language. We are nearly powerless to resist it, not the least because we’re barely aware of it. That’s why structured tasting of ingredients can be so helpful.

Dark chocolate or lighter black malts can straddle the fence between coffee and chocolate. Black malts can range between espresso and dark chocolate. Roasted malts from lager-centric places (Weyermann’s Carafa series, for example, from Bavaria) often have a smooth, chocolatey character. This is especially so for ones made from de-husked malt, which removes phenolic material that can add to the harshness. Roasted unroasted barley is traditional in Irish stouts, and is responsible for a sharp coffee-like aspect that defines the style.On the negative side, astringency can sometimes be a problem in stouts. In the best of circumstances it can add to the balance with a kind of soft, tannic quality. Harsh astringency can be a problem, so it’s always something to put on your tasting checklist; look for it in that long, dark finish. 

Outside of careful malt selection, there are techniques to minimize harshness. Dark malts are sometimes not mashed in, but added to the mash right before transfer to the lauter, which still extracts plenty of color and flavor, but reduces the time for harsh tannins to leach into the brew. Another is a cold-brew method where all the dark and caramel malts are soaked overnight, then drained and added to the kettle with the runoff. This is an impressively effective technique, resulting in very smooth-tasting brews. 

At one of my breweries, we recently did a tasting of about 2o different malt “teas,” made by briefly soaking dark malts in hot water, then straining, filtering and adding to a pale lager to taste it in a beer context. The variety was amazing. Even within the same color range, every maltster’s flavors were different, often strikingly so. Vocabulary ran the gamut from nutty to milk- and dark-chocolate to fig, raisin and caramelized prunes, to latté, coffee, and espresso, with some malts being less inviting: more like stale diner coffee or even burnt and acrid. 

When looking for other flaws, be aware that roasty intensity can sometime camouflage them. Diacetyl, for example, in a pale beer presents as a buttery aroma and flavor, feeling very out-of-place. It feels at home in a dark beer, so if I find myself thinking this tastes just like brownies or cake, I know that’s a sign to sniff again and search for that telltale butteriness. 

Another issue with the appearance of stouts is to assume that the roasty malts must dominate the taste of the beer as completely as they do its color. Roasted malt and grains do bring a lot to the stout party, but there’s more to a good stout. Look past the darkness and focus on the layers of flavor underneath, which should be there if the brewer has thoughtfully formulated the recipe.

Mid-colored malts can easily stand up to roastiness, adding luscious caramel, nutty, toffee, toasted marshmallow, cake and cookie flavors to a stout. Crystal/caramel malts can add caramelly, raisiny, dried fruit and other aromas that add depth and personality. You can think of a well-brewed stout like a box of chocolates. They’re chocolate on the outside, but that gets a little boring after the first couple. Sometimes you want to grab one with a center of caramel, or nougat, or nuts. 

Some stouts, particularly strong ones, do have these confectionary flavors added to the roast, caramel, toffee and other flavors provided by the grain bill. Nuts, chocolate and coffee are all popular with drinkers but challenging for brewers because of their expense and their oily nature that makes them only partially soluble and prone to affecting head retention. Fruits—especially berries—are sometimes added, but they can be tricky. Roasty flavors can overwhelm them pretty quickly and their acidity can add to the sharpness, which is already fairly high, even with a great recipe and masterful brewing. 

Vanilla, whether added as an ingredient or obtained via oak-aging, will shift the balance much more to chocolate since that ingredient is ubiquitous in chocolate-flavored candies and desserts, and will also add a perception of sweetness based on our expectations. The popular “pastry” stouts rely heavily on this, and often supplement it with the unfermentable sugar, lactose. These beers are notable for their intensity of flavors and sweetness, which helps stimulate a transporting memory of a childhood encounter with some C-store treat, but at the same time, takes its toll on drinkability. 

I like stouts and all kinds of dark beers, and wish more people embraced them for their depth and roasty charms. We’re so close already; they embody so many different flavors that people profess to love and consume in great quantities—just look at the drive-through line at Starbucks. They ought to appreciate stouts just as fully. I can’t help feeling that maybe they’re just thinking about them wrong.