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Through a Glass Darkly

A sipping survey reveals that not all stouts are created equal


Published March 16, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

Like a kindly old friend, stout begins appearing on tap every fall to warm our bones and reaches a crescendo of consumption by St. Patrick’s Day. With its name originally coined in the late 1700s to describe the strongest porters, stout still reigns as the inkiest of beers and one with which brewers love to experiment.

For many everyday drinkers, the style is synonymous with Guinness, the black gold of Ireland, which fills thousands of pint glasses on March 17. Yet stouts range widely from the creamy, dry Irish style to a heavier imperial. Stout can be brewed with oats, espresso beans, milk, even oysters; all are able complements to its roasted malts. Whatever the style, drinkers will most likely encounter notes of coffee, chocolate, toffee, caramel, smoke or toast, or hints of unusual flavors ranging from currants to dirt.

The eve of spring seemed an ideal time to sample some locally poured stout. Because St. Patrick’s Day is all about social boozing — not brooding at home — there are no bottled stouts here, even though Vermont’s brewers produce many fine varieties.

In the spirit of conviviality, friends and coworkers cheerily attended some of these samplings. The field is pretty strong.

The Old-Timer

Guinness Draught (poured at McKee’s Pub & Grill in Winooski)

The original Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin may be the Willy Wonka factory of beer. From its imposing gates roll forth millions of kegs of the world’s most quaffed stout, Guinness Draught.

Central to drinking Guinness is the “wait” that begins when the barkeep fills a mug most of the way, then lets the stuff settle before topping it off. The nitrogen that was added to the beer during brewing is released during the pour, lending Guinness its signature silky creaminess. A minicumulus fills the glass as you watch a three-quarter-inch head form.

The pair of Seven Days colleagues who sampled the Guinness here after a long day at work found the wait uncomfortably suspenseful. One noted he felt “anxious,” though he admired the “cool fountain” that appeared as his glass cleared. Sipping her pint, another drinker said “It tastes like I deserve it!”

Ever since Guinness began crossing oceans to faraway taps, its admirers have puzzled over the flavor differences between pints consumed in Ireland and those drunk elsewhere. On the Emerald Isle, the beer can taste almost like a malted milkshake, with nary a hint of bitterness. In this country, the bitter and sour notes are more apparent. All of the Guinness draft in the U.S. comes from St. James’s Gate — at least according to its distributor — so perhaps the brew simply doesn’t travel well. (Guinness Extra Stout is brewed and bottled in Canada.)

To me, the pint tasted of chicory, dirt and cream — familiar but muted. One coworker summed it up this way: “If I’m going to drink stout, I usually go for microbrews over the manufactured stuff.”

The Caffeinator

Hill Farmstead Brewery, Earl: Coffee Stout (poured at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington)

Brewing stout with coffee beans is not exactly novel, but using Guatemalan espresso beans and oats infuses this stout with a bittersweet, toffee-like flavor. The latte-colored head was minimal and dissipated quickly, leaving a faintly ocher lacing. It looked a little dirty, but this beer had presence — complex notes of caramel, cocoa and, of course, coffee, with a lingering finish. This is a thinking woman’s stout, as are many of the beers from the Greensboro Bend brewer. You probably wouldn’t drink more than a pint or two in one sitting: Like a rich dessert, it’s best in small, considered doses.

The Powerhouse

North Coast Brewing, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (poured at Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier)

Too high an alcohol content can kill a beer’s flavors. At 9 percent abv (alcohol by volume), this is a danger with Old Rasputin, a Russian imperial stout from California’s North Coast Brewing. The head was creamy, with a chocolatey nose, much gentler than the waves of bitter hops and toast that infused the first sip. My tasting companion, a chemist and avid home brewer, said he smelled “slightly dry grass and hay hops.” In the mouth, I found this akin to drinking smoke and cocoa, and its initial bitterness melted into an appealing sweetness on successive sips. The chemist suggested “candied fruit” and “raspberry liquor.” “Can’t you taste it?” he asked. I didn’t, but, paired with some Bayley Hazen Blue cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, this earned top honors.

The Gentleman

Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse, Two Patrick Stout (poured at the Norwich Inn)

Norwich Inn brewer Jeremy Hebert was waiting for a porter to kick before putting his newest batch of Two Patrick Stout on tap. So he pulled some from a tank for sampling, rendering the head frothier than it might be otherwise. The pint was elegantly dry and low in alcohol. On the palate, it’s lighter in style than other stouts, tasting of caramel and dark molasses. It’s probably the most drinkable stout over a long evening spent in a pub — gentle on the synapses but still full of flavor.

The Lingerer

Extra Stout (poured at American Flatbread, Burlington Hearth)

This simply named stout, served in a tulip-shaped glass, is from American Flatbread’s Zero Gravity line of beers. The thin, beige head faded quickly, leaving a faintly effervescent brew that tasted of coffee and raisins, with a hint of burnt sugar. Its finish was epic, staying on the tongue a full 10 minutes after the last sip.

The Pretender

Victory Brewing, Donnybrook Stout (poured at Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier)

I was excited to try this Pennsylvania brewer’s Donnybrook Stout, which is low in alcohol but has the creamy head of an Irish stout. Yet this was where the kinship ended. Though the nose was almost citrusy, its flavor was akin to diluted seawater. “It tastes kind of like … nothing,” said my home-brewing friend. To be fair, this was the end of the keg, and we tried it after the much more robust Old Rasputin.

The Crowd Pleaser

Handsome Micks Irish Stout (brewed and poured at Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington)

My dark brown Handsome Micks Irish Stout had a half-inch, light brown head. Its intense aroma of coffee and bittersweet chocolate promised a wallop to the palate, but it didn’t happen. This was the smoothest of the stouts, silky and totally lacking in hoppy bitterness. It was like liquid toast. On the back end, one of my coworkers detected a soy-sauce note. This is a beer for people who don’t usually order stout: tasty, but somewhat two-dimensional and lacking in finish.

The Musclehead

Iron Bear Imperial Stout (brewed and poured at the Shed Restaurant & Brewery in Stowe)

Russian imperial stouts are known for high alcohol content and earthy flavors. Inky and dense looking, this one had a rough zestiness, almost like sandpaper on the tongue. The flavor was bristling but rich, as if the brew had been aged in bourbon barrels with sticks of licorice. This is definitely one to put hair on your chest, but is perhaps too brash for its own good.