PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You still have a little time before Diageo-Guinness and every bar with a cardboard shamrock in the window try to convince you there's only one stout on tap in these United States. With all respect to Arthur Guinness, that's just nonsense.
First off, stout and St. Patrick's Day don't have a whole lot to do with each other. We've said it before and we'll say it again, there is no "official beer of St. Patrick's Day." It's a religious holiday that has no more traditional ties to beer than Hannukah or Halloween do.
Even if St. Patrick's Day did have an official beer, Guinness wouldn't be it. That nitrogenated dry stout Guinness touts this time each year has more than 150 years of Irish tradition behind it, but makes up less than 1% of the U.S. beer market and is less than a third of the beer drunk in Ireland. Ask folks at a pub in Galway what they'll have, and nearly two times out of three they'll answer with Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser, Stella Artois, Carlsberg, Heineken or some other light lager.
Also, while we're very sure Guinness stout is Irish, we're not so sure it's actually stout. Arthur Guinness' original recipe for Guinness Stout was originally his Extra Superior Porter. True porters didn't return until the initial American craft beer boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s. To this day, judges at beer competitions insist stouts are darker, use roasted barley and less water than porters. Unfortunately, even brewers and beer experts don't believe there's much separating porters and stouts beyond what a brewer decides to call them.
All of that said, this is an absolutely fantastic time of year for stouts. There's still a chill in the air and a craving for something malty in U.S. beer glasses. There are also a whole lot of stouts out there to get the job done. Here are just 10 that fit the bill:
10. Elysian Brewing Split Shot Espresso Milk Stout
Style: Sweet stout
Alcohol by volume: 5.6%
Just pure genius. The problem with any good milk stout -- in which lactose is used to boost the sweetness -- is that it can come off as too sweet on some occasions. The problem with coffee stout -- which adds coffee or coffee beans to the mix for bittering -- is that it can come off as way too bitter. Who best to resolve this issue than a brewer in a town with ubiquitous espresso shops and Starbucks' headquarters parked right near the railyards. Using lactose for sweetness and Stumptown espresso from Portland, Ore., for its bitterness, Split Shot hits it right down the middle and creates a near perfect stout just in time for the end of stout season. This one goes away at the end of March and is going to be missed something awful by anyone who's ever wished they could balance their stout the way they balance their morning coffee.
9. Breakside Brewing Salted Caramel Stout
Style: Sweet stout
Alcohol by volume: 6.8%
For those who've never been, Portland-based ice cream shop Salt & Straw keeps lines out the door with its bold blends of the sweet and savory. By combining coffee with bourbon; honey and strawberry with black pepper; and pear and blue cheese, the tiny three-shop chain has developed an outsized reputation for taking chances with its cream. This year, it's teamed up with Portland brewer Breakside on a beer variation of its flagship sea salt ice cream with caramel ribbon. Using salt and caramel in the brewing process, the partners came up with a chocolatey sweet stout with strong hints of caramel. The salt is only mildly detectable, but enough to cut the sweetness a bit and balance out the palate. It has all the elements of a great dessert beer, but it's tough not to stow away 22-ounce bottles of this for whenever a craving hits.
8. Bells Expedition Stout
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Alcohol by volume: 10.5%
Michigan knows cold, Michigan knows long winter months and lake-effect snow, Michigan knows hard times. As a result of all of that, its large craft beer community knows how to make a stout that will get folks through.
From October until about mid-March, it's Expedition Stout season. Bell's created this malty, fruity, chocolate-laden monster strictly for the winter months, even if it won't be at its best until a winter from now. It's one of the only beers of its kind brewed for the expressed purpose of aging, yet is still available on tap for much of the season for those who can't wait.
How long you hold off depends on what kind of a stout drinker you are. If you like a powerful, bitter imperial that lets you in on its secret from the first sip, drink Expedition Stout in its early months. If you enjoy a more subtle, malty stout, let this one sit around a while.
7. Maine Beer Company's Mean Old Tom
Style: American Stout
Alcohol by volume: 6.5%
In a beer-saturated state, this Freeport brewery has become one of its best in very little time, largely because of accessible styles such as this.
Aged over organic vanilla beans, Mean Old Tom is a lot sweeter than he looks. This beer's coffee bitterness is cut by loads of chocolate and vanilla to produce a silky, balanced stout worth relegating to a snifter. A tough find when we were in Boston a few years back, Mean Old Tom is becoming a more familiar face to New England beer lovers who prize a mild stout.
6. Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout
Style: Sweet Stout
Alcohol by volume: 5.7%
With a whole lot of carpetbaggers moving their way into North Carolina and setting up second breweries, it's easy to forget there are a bunch of little North Carolina breweries that got it right the first time.
We came across Duck-Rabbit about four years ago at the American Craft Beer Festival in Boston after the guys had made the trip up from Farmville with nothing but a tapbox and a few kegs of some of the most delicious dark beers on the floor. By the last day of the event, their line stretched across the aisle and news about the "dark beer specialists" was out.
A milk stout that uses lactose to sweeten it up a bit can be tough to pull off, but Duck-Rabbit does so with flourish. The roasted malt bitterness that would be almost overwhelming otherwise is muted into an extremely pleasant chocolate coffee flavor that drinks almost like a milkshake. With an ABV below 6%, it's way too tempting to have a second helping.
5. Left Hand Wake Up The Dead Nitro
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Alcohol by volume: 10.2%
Back in 2011, this Longmont, Colo.-based brewer came up with a method of adding nitrogen to its beers without placing a little metal nitrogen widget into a bottle or can the way Guinness and other Irish and English brewers do. That meant wonderful things for its flagship milk stout, but it was similarly great for its heavy-hitting Wake Up The Dead imperial.
Wake Up The Dead is usually a dense blend of dark cocoa and dark fruits that drinks almost like an extract and burns slowly going down. It's a sipper. When you nitrogenate it and add tiny little bubbles and that foamy head, though, it lightens up the beer a bit and makes it a far less harsh drinking experience. All that alcohol is still there, so handle with care, but it's a whole lot more like drinking a stout than it is like drinking a port or a brandy -- which is the closest parallel we can draw to the Wake Up The Dead experience.
4. Free State Oatmeal Stout
Style: Sweet Stout
Alcohol by volume: 6.1%
Not only has Free State had to put up with Missouri's smug sense of self-importance when it comes to beer, but it's had to put up with Kansas's alcohol laws, which are among in the land.
Lawrence-based Free State is in a state that still hasn't gotten around to ratifying the 21st Amendment ending prohibition. Though it has great company in breweries such as Tallgrass of Manhattan, Kan., it faces some of the same issues Utah brewers once had in convincing folks that, yes, they make beer with more than 3.2% ABV and, yes, it's worth drinking.
Fortunately, it takes about one taste of their lineup to see that they're among the best in the country. Their oatmeal stout, however, exists on a completely different plane. Not overly sweet, but still incredibly smooth, this oatmeal stout has just the right balance of roasted malt coffee bitterness and chocolatey sweetness. It also does a great job of masquerading its 6% ABV, so don't underestimate it.
3. Lost Coast 8 Ball
Style: Sweet Stout
Alcohol by volume: 6.3%
This is one of those beers that's always hanging out in the beer aisle with the 22-ounce bombers and has had a place there for a good long time. New beers come and go around it, but that 8 Ball logo just keeps staring back at you like an old familiar face.
It's because Lost Coast brewmaster Barbara Groom has been at it since 1990 and started making this stout in Eureka, Calif., before most of the stouts people stand on line for were even a glimmer in some new brewer's eye. We regularly remind people that with a brewery's age usually comes consistency, and this roasty oatmeal stout hits the mark every time. Not too complex and and decidedly nonaggressive, this is the creamy stout you come back to after dabbling in the extremes. It's an old, familiar friend you've taken for granted for too long.
2. North Coast Old No. 38 Stout
Style: Irish Dry Stout
Alcohol by volume: 5.4%
This is where the beer geeks throw whatever device they're reading this on at the nearest wall because we didn't recommend North Coast's venerated Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout instead.
Sorry, but we just don't care. Old Rasputin is a wonderful beer that, all too often, ends up locked in a cellar for a year and forgotten about or ordered as a $10 snifter on a big night at the taproom. Its stablemate Old No. 38, however, is more in the grand Guinness everyday-drinking tradition. Its slightly bitter flavor is more roasted malt than coffee and its light body is improved only when some kindly bar manager places it on a nitro tap.
Old No. 38 is a sipping, almost sessionable stout that would be as much at home in an Irish pub as it would be in the geekiest of bottle shops. Let the Old Rasputin worshippers pontificate about its merits: There's a more approachable beer to be drunk.
1. Bar Harbor Brewing's Cadillac Mountain Stout
Style: Irish Dry Stout
Alcohol by volume: 6.7%
This has a little too much alcohol in it to be a St. Patrick's Day session stout and way too much French Roast bitterness to sneak in among the sweeter offerings, but this is a great stout to grab if you can find it.
This Maine brewer has been at it for 24 years and is all too often pushed into the background by the newer breweries in the state's rapidly expanding craft beer community. That experience, however, has helped produce an inspired version of the old Irish dry stout its neighbors just can't replicate.
There's a lot going on in this stout, but the big takeaway is that it's a dark, smooth, creamy, enjoyable stout that's kinder to the palate than the overwhelming majority of attempts at this style. It manages to cram in bits of cocoa and coffee without pointing a giant neon sign at them and turns its stout into a true publican meal.
In our travels through New England and Maine, this wasn't impossible to find, but wasn't exactly as plentiful as some of the other regional beers we've mentioned in this piece. If you can track it down, however, don't let it out of your grasp. Any informed decision about Irish stout needs to be made with this in the mix.
Alcohol by volume: 6.1% ABV
engine on the Fort Bragg to Willits run through the Redwoods
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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