Brewing an Education: Stouts and Porters (Guinness and Sam Adams)

Part of my goals for next year is to try and become more educated, to develop a better palate and learn to discern flavors and textures and sensations with more adept discernment. I am, of course, talking about drinking more beer. But I want to do it smartly. Last year, I drank a lot of pumpkin beers and IPAs and random brews from random breweries with no attempt to learn about the histories behind the styles or even about how each style should taste. 

After all, a Belgian shouldn’t taste like an IPA, nor a stout like a lager, but should a porter taste like a stout? I’m not even sure what half the words I used in the last sentence even mean, much less what they should taste like or the subtle variations between those tastes.

So, I’ve decided to spend the year moving slowly, carefully, through the many different styles of beers. No more bouncing willy-nilly through bizarrely branded concoctions designed to cash in on the latest seasonal craze. No, I will pick something and stick to it. I will learn what I like and don’t like. I will learn about the history and the behind-the-scenes stories for the brews. I will learn the vocabulary and might actually learn something along the way instead of just getting plastered and rambling about goblins and pumpkin ales for three paragraphs.

For January (and I’m starting early here), we’re going over stouts and porters.

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I decided to pick to varieties of stout that are, in all probability, not going to be knock-outs. I wanted simple staples, beers that exhibited the basic qualities of the genre without going overboard or in new directions. I went with the Samuel Adams “Cream Stout”, one of their seasonal beers and the Guinness “Draught”.

Now, a stout is going to be a few things. It’s going to be dark, with a head that’s either a dark brown or tan color. Guinness, of course, cheats by using those nifty little nitrogen doodads in their cans to give the foam that characteristic light, creamy color. Out of the bottle, the foam is lighter, but nowhere near that gorgeous contrasting color one sees on the tap or out the can.

A stout is also heavily flavored by toasted malts or barley, rather than hops, like an IPA. Many people describe stouts of having a very strong coffee or chocolate flavor which is why stouts are often flavored with coffee or chocolate. If you’ve had a coffee beer (like the Sam Adams Black and Brew), you’ve most likely had a stout flavored with coffee grounds.

I have to say, that while I wasn’t impressed with either stout, I did enjoy the flavor of the Sam Adams a lot more. The Guinness Draught is a weaker, less flavorful affair. The finishing notes are more reminiscent of black tea than, say, coffee, though the coffee notes are still there. But it just feels insubstantial. It has a more, and I hate to say this about a Guinness, watery mouthfeel.

For me, I order a Guinness when I’m both hungry and I want a beer. It fills you up on both accounts, but, in this case, the Guinness Draught fails on both accounts. It has a slightly sour tang to it, and I’m more reminded of the flavors of unsweetened, iced tea than anything. I’m left craving more body, more flavor, more everything.

The Sam Adams Cream Stout, while not their best beer, is better than the Draught. It is more complex and more mellow. It still still has the bitter, toasted flavors of a stout, but it is mild. While I do not taste the sweetness that was supposed to be a marker of traditional cream stouts, it is a milder stout than I’ve had in the past.

I would recommend it over the Draught. It tastes more strongly of those dark, heavy coffee notes that a good stout is supposed to have and lacks that metallic, sour tang of the Guinness Draught.

Using these two beers as a baseline (a very low baseline in the case of the Draught), I’ll move deeper into the world of craft beers and, hopefully, better styles of stouts, including the Imperial Russian Stouts and Oatmeal Stouts. And there’ll be history along the way!

-D-

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