For 364 days of the year, most North Americans are satisfied with a pretty standard style of beer: Cold, crisp and fresh-tasting. Plus, according to the flavor profiles of the most popular brands, a little on the sweet side. And most of all, clear and golden.
Yet on one lone day, St. Patrick's Day, millions of beer drinkers across the continent will head to their local bar for the express purpose of drinking beer adulterated with green food coloring. The mythology is that it's an Irish thing -- even though you'd be served only astonished looks if you ordered green beer in Dublin -- and that ordering green beer on St. Patrick's Day is the proper way to celebrate the national day of Ireland. It's a tradition that's as horribly misguided as it is well intentioned.
To really welcome the feast of St. Patrick, the color of the beer in your glass should be not green, but black, as in stout, the true national drink of Ireland.
Within the almost limitless scope of beer styles, perhaps none is more intimidating than the jet black potion known as stout. Because of its color, stout is commonly perceived to be thick, rich, heavy and filling. It's a meal in a glass, according to some and "liquid Viagra" if we're to believe Caribbean legend. Some brewers of the style even promote these misunderstandings, as in Labatt's recent campaign for its Canadian version of Guinness, brewed under license, which boldly claims "It's not beer, it's stout!"
But the truth is that this lion of the brewing world is actually a docile lamb. With 4.1 percent alcohol by volume, Guinness, the world's most famous stout, is actually lighter in alcohol and equal or lower in calories compared to a typical North American lager. In fact, far from being a repast in and of itself, the dry and appetizing taste of Irish stout actually makes it a wonderful aperitif.
The source of stout's misleading personality can be found in the barley malt, one of the primary ingredients that, along with hops, yeast and water, make up a beer. Malt is simply partially sprouted barley that's been kilned in order to stop the germination process. For golden beers, this is the only preparation necessary. For darker brews, however, the cooking continues until the malt assumes deeper and deeper shades, eventually reaching the pitch black of what's known variously as chocolate, black or roasted malt. In stout, a generous portion of these dark malts is used, so that result will sport its characteristic midnight hue.
Though invented in England, stout has become almost synonymous with Ireland. This is due to the work of one man, Arthur Guinness, who, in 1759, set up his company in a disused brewery on what was then the edge of Dublin. He agreed to what may well be one of the best leases ever signed: 45 pounds per year... for 9,000 years! Twenty years later, he added porter -- the precursor of stout -- to his brewery's lineup. And twenty years after that, he boldly decreed that henceforth his brewery would produce only stouts and porters. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Guinness is far and away the most popular stout in the world, distantly followed by the other two major Irish stouts: Murphy's and Beamish. Behind them come a multitude of other stouts of every variety: the strong and intense Courage Imperial Russian Stout, no longer brewed but still sporadically available in aged versions; rich Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, made silky smooth and rich through the addition of oats; the sweet and curiously refreshing Dragon Stout, which is actually a potent and tasty lager; and the occasional Oyster Stout, fortified with actual oyster liquor and crafted by only the most adventurous of brewers.
Regardless of name or style, all modern stouts owe their existence to Arthur Guinness and the Irish stout. So this St. Patrick's Day, try on some black instead of green. You just might like it. (And it won't change the color of your tongue.)
Five Fine Stouts
Guinness (Dublin, Ireland): Still a classic after all these years, despite the brewery's recent and, to my mind, ill-conceived attempts to convince people to drink it ice cold (at 37-40 degrees Fahrenheit)! The key to its success? A dry, roasty, lightly coffee-ish flavor with a slight sour edge and a smooth, drinkable character.
Murphy's (Cork, Ireland): All too often ignored in favor of its much more famous Dublin-produced cousin, Murphy's is a minor classic in its own right. The sweetest of the "big three" Irish stouts, the malty, chocolaty character and faint fruitiness make it a beer well-suited to the dinner table.
Beamish (Cork, Ireland): Fifteen years ago, only small amounts of this stout were produced for Cork residents. Today, the Beamish black is easy to find in Dublin and has become the second most popular stout in Ireland. Roastier and more assertive than Guinness without the Dublin stout's faint sourness.
St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout (Montreal, Quebec): The addition of oats in the brewing grains affords this beer a silky smoothness and a slight suggestion of sweetness, while the roasted malts give it outstanding flavor and complexity. Canada's finest stout and undeniably a world-class example of the oatmeal stout style.
North Coast Brewing Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout (Fort Bragg, California): A big name for a massive beer, this is arguably the best example of the Imperial stout style brewed anywhere in the world today. Fabulously balanced between its fruitiness, roastiness and 9.2% alcohol, Rasputin has a beautiful taste profile that flows seamlessly from the sweet start to the bitter-roasty finish.