Serious Beer: Tasting North American Stouts

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

It all started with Oktoberfest. After the Märzenbier, the zesty autumn rye beers, and brews made at hop-harvest time, the weather got colder, and the beers here at Serious Beer HQ got darker. We tried deep, brooding Belgian dubbels, brown ales and a sleighful of winter warmers. It snowed and sleeted, and the groundhog saw his shadow, but we stocked up with dark beers to last us through the dark days.

We've arrived at the darkest of them. Over the next few weeks, we'll taste stouts and Imperial stouts, starting on the low-alcohol end and finishing up with the richest, roastiest, strongest we can find.

Some stouts are dry, with roasted coffee or nut flavors and hints of unsweetened bitter chocolate. Some brewers add oatmeal to their stout to dry them out and boost body and complexity, while others include lactose sugars for a bit of creamy residual sweetness. This year, a few brewers are reviving the old style of the oyster stout—that's right, they throw bivalves (and their juices) into the brew kettle and boil away!

How do they taste? Find out in our stout roundup, after the jump. And don't worry, we've got stronger stouts still to come!

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite **** Awesome, worth remembering *** We'd consider buying this again ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Our Favorite Stouts

Goose Island Oatmeal Stout Illinois, 5.1% ABV This beer's scent is rich and grainy, and the taste follows through. It's a big, mouth-filling beer, with dry chocolate flavors, a hint of brown sugar, graham crackers, hickory smoke, and dates. One taster was reminded of the toasted-oat taste of Cheerios. We're big fans—this is a drinkable, satisfying beer. ****1/2

St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout Quebec, 5% ABV We couldn't leave this Canadian out of the roundup—it's just too tasty. This is a robustly flavored, very dry oatmeal stout with grainy, savory flavors and a roasted finish. We noted a hint of smoke and sesame; ;this would be great with barbecue or a hefty pastrami sandwich. Quite well balanced and drinkable. ****1/2

For Coffee Fanatics

Laurelwood Portland Roast Espresso Stout Oregon, 6% ABV Many coffee beers taste like stale or canned coffee, but this one, brewed with a blend of Ethiopian and Sumatran organic coffees has no stale flavors. It tastes like strong espresso beans, and reminded us of the intense coffee granitas we had in Rome. This beer is very smooth, with a fruity finish—there are hints of cherry and prune. Almost more coffee than beer, this stout would probably pair beautifully with a slice of cheesecake. ****

Oysters: Not Just for Eating Anymore

Flying Fish Exit 1 New Jersey, 7% ABV Don't be afraid of the oysters used to brew this beer—it doesn't taste fishy! Roasty, smooth, chocolaty, and creamy, this stout tastes more like sea air than sea water, and finishes with a hoppy tang. As you drink it, silky minerals wash over your tongue. We prefer this beer a little cooler than most stouts. ****

Hoppy Stouts

Three Floyds Black Sun Stout Indiana, 6.5% ABV If you tasted this beer blindfolded, you might not guess that it's dark—there's only a hint of roast character. Instead, we tasted caramel, papaya, pineapple, and grapefruit in this unconventional, refreshing, and delicious beer. ****1/2

Avery Out of Bounds Stout Colorado, 5.1% ABV This beer has a musty scent and a splash of pungent rosemary hops. Malty creamyness and caramel follow up—this isn't quite as darkly roasted a beer as some of the others. There's a bit of charred nutmeg flavor in the finish. While untraditional, the hoppiness mingles nicely with the roasty bitterness of the stout. If you're a hophead, or you're bored with traditional stouts, give this one a try! ***1/2 or ****, if you're hopcrazy

Sierra Nevada Stout California 5.8% ABV This drinkable, approachable stout lacks the hefty roast and smoky notes of some, but has nice toasted malt and a serious squeeze of grapefruity hops. If you're a dark beer newbie but you like IPAs, this could be a great stout to start off your explorations. ***1/2

Milk Stouts

Left Hand Milk Stout Colorado, 5.2% ABV We smelled cocoa and hazelnut on the nose of this beer. It's rich and quite filling, with a nice roast character and a hint of black coffee. Up front, it's smooth and creamy, though the finish is slightly bitter. This beer would be great with roasted almonds or dark chocolate. ***3/4

Ska Brewing Steel Toe Stout Colorado, 5.4% ABV This tasty beer has a hint of milky sweetness balanced with caramely malt, hops, and roasted-chocolate flavor. It's well integrated and quite drinkable, though we found it tasted a little sour as it warmed up, so we'd recommend serving it a little cooler that you might serve other stouts. ***3/4

Keegan Ales Mother's Milk New York This has that milky cocoa-pebbles flavor that's common in milk stouts, with a hint of sourness. It's not bad, but not our favorite of the style—a little thin in the mouth. ***

A Few More Sippable Stouts

20100304stoutglass.jpgSebago Lake Trout Stout Maine, 5.8% ABV This beer tastes like chocolate milk and cocoa nibs, with a piney bitterness and crisp finish. It's quite drinkable, and has nice dark roast flavors. ***1/2

Rogue Shakespeare Stout Oregon, 6% ABV This slick stout tastes a little like almond butter, with coffee notes and hints of herbal hops. We were reminded of sage and thyme. It's best to serve this just under room temperature—it mellows out as it warms. ***1/2

North Coast Old Plowshare Stout California, 5.7% ABV Coffee, chocolate, and raspberry come through in the nose of this beer. It's medium-to-full bodied, with a chocolaty hint of sweetness. The taste reminded a few people of chocolate malted milkshakes, perhaps spiked with a bit of bourbon and caramel. ***1/2

Deschutes Obsidian Stout Oregon, 6.3% ABV This full bodied stout leaves a smoky taste in your mouth—the finish reminded some tasters of marshmallows charred over a campfire. This beer is creamy and nutty, with robust roast and a hint of sour rye bread. ***1/2

Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout Colorado, 4.95% ABV With robust boozy flavors, oaky bourbon notes, and a focused flavor, this is a pretty intense beer. We tasted cocoa powder, cinnamon, and soy sauce, with dark coffee roast in the finish. ***1/2

Mad River Steelhead Extra Stout California, 6% ABV This concentrated, roasty beer pours quite opaque. It tastes much stronger than it is—this is not a mellow beer. We tasted raspberry and dark rum, fruity hops, and a bit of an ashy finish. Not sure we could finish a whole bottle of this, but if you're looking for a big beer, you might love this. ***

Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout Vermont, 5.9% ABV This stout isn't as creamy or full-bodied as some of the others, and it lacks the complexity of the better examples of this style. We detected straw on the nose, and tasted toasted sourdough, soy sauce, and clove cigarettes. Not our favorite of Wolaver's offerings. **3/4

Locals Only

East Coast:
Bluepoint Oatmeal Stout is only available on tap (I nabbed a growler at my local Whole Foods) but it's worth tracking down. Mellow and creamy, with a thick mouthfeel and a bit of hops, it's a drinkable stout that'll stick to your ribs. Oatmeal lovers will recognize their favorite grain in the finish.

West Coast: We had a chance to taste the Oyster Stout from Upright Brewing before it was even bottled, and it's a treat: silky smooth, with nice body and a hint of calcium. If you're in the Portland area, make a point of checking out this fantastic small brewery.

Disclosure: The Goose Island, Laurelwood, Flying Fish, Three Floyds, Ska, Sebago, Deschutes, Breckenridge, and Wolavers were review samples.