I was feeling adventurous one Saturday night and, since we still can’t go anywhere, I decided to attempt the Cicerone American Style Stout comparison tasting, which consists of Irish, American, and Imperial Stout sub-styles.
Stout is a style I already enjoyed, so I was excited to learn more and compare and contrast sub-styles in the process. Plus, there was the stout trivia! Did you know the style did not survive prohibition in America and was “reintroduced” when early American craft brewers gained interest in traditional British styles? See? Fun trivia for all beer lovers!
To get started on my #StoutSaturday, I looked up each style on the BJCP app. (Yes, there’s an app! I highly recommend it for anyone looking for style descriptions on the go. Available on Apple and Google.) Then, it was time to get sipping.
Typically, American-style stouts will have roasted malt characteristics, similar to dark chocolate and dark roast coffee (what I lovingly refer to as “jet fuel”), and medium American hop qualities like pine and resin. This beer also has assertive bitterness, some hoppiness, and a medium-full body. Unlike other stouts, it can be lighter in color, with ABVs in the 5-7% range and 35-75 IBUs.
To examine this style, I chose Allagash’s North Sky. As soon as I poured North Sky into my tasting glass, I noticed that the color was much lighter than I had expected and the carmel-colored head disappeared fast. Otherwise, the beer aligned well with the other characteristics I was looking for, which were flavors of dark chocolate, high carbonation, and high-perceived bitterness. I could also really taste some warming alcohol flavors. Of the three I tried (more on the others below!), this was my third favorite, which makes sense to me, as I’m currently enjoying a more malty, less hoppy overall stout.
Of course, I had to crack open a Guinness Draft Irish Stout for my Irish-style variety! What I was looking for from this style — and what you should look for, too! — was a dark color with roasty characteristics, smooth yet creamy mouthfeel, and pronounced bitterness that isn’t too hoppy. There should be no fermentation characteristics in these beers, which fall in the 4-4.5% ABV and 25-45 IBU ranges.
Notably, the Guinness I drank was much darker than the American-style stout, and the dense head remained for nearly 10 minutes after pouring. The mouthfeel might be my favorite part of a Guinness, right after watching the beer settle. I appreciated that there wasn’t as much hop flavor or bitterness in this beer but rather a roastier, dried fruit sweetness and lighter effervescence from the foamy head. The flavors felt muted after the hoppiness of the American style stout, but what I love about Guinness is that I know what to expect, and I always find it enjoyable.
Finally, I opened a Black is Beautiful can to test out an Imperial. Of all three styles, this was the one I was most excited for. For the night’s tasting, I opted to crack open Brouwerij West’s take on BIB, which I’ve tried before.
A little backstory before I get into the beer itself: Black Is Beautiful is an initiative aiming to raise awareness and funds for organizations that fight the injustices faced by people of color through an Imperial stout recipe originated by Texas’ Weathered Souls Brewing. More than 1,000 breweries worldwide have participated in the initiative by brewing their own batches, either using the exact recipe or adding adjuncts for their own spin on the stout. Comparing different BIB releases is a project in itself, and one I’ve really enjoyed!
As for this particular style, I love that it’s sometimes called a Russian Imperial Stout because of the bitter, boozy, dark beer that used to be shipped over from England and enjoyed by Catherine the Great. A typical Imperial stout will be high alcohol, often ranging from 8-12% ABV, with a dark hue. They have some fermentation characteristics, such as dry fruit, as well as an intense roast and hop bitterness that generally fall in the 50-90 IBU range.
I chose to drink Brouwerij West’s take on BIB over others I have in my fridge because it was the most true to form, with no additions or added flavors. Its characteristics very much aligned with the BJCP description: prune flavor, assertive bitterness, dark roasted malt flavor and, at 10% ABV, some warming alcohol, all bundled in a smooth mouthfeel. Now that I’ve retried Brouwerij West’s delicious example, I’m excited to try my BIBs from Crown and Hops and Highland Park Brewery soon. I find Imperial stouts very appealing in the cooler winter months, and this collaborative series has been a delicious adventure that supports many worthy causes.
Bonus: Black IPA
While reading the American-style stout description for this tasting evening, a style was brought to my attention that we don’t see all that often: the Black IPA. In the write up, the American-style stout is described as having “much more roast and body than a Black IPA.” Since Black IPAs don’t get their time to shine during any of the comparison tastings, I thought I’d consider them here on my own.
Though not a stout, this style is a specialty IPA that typically has the characteristics of an American IPA. This often includes Northwestern forest floor tastes like pine, resin, and citrus rind, an assertive bitterness, and a dark appearance due to the toasted malts used, sometimes including Pale, Caramel and Rye, which don’t typically impact the flavor much. You can usually find these falling in a pretty large ABV range of 5.5-9% and IBUs coming in around 50-90.
To test out this style, I cracked open Common Space Brewery’s Forget Me Not Black IPA. I poured it straight into a regular pint glass, bypassing my handy taster glasses, and saw a dark brown, relatively opaque brew. Prominent American hop characteristics in this dark beer were balanced out with clean, dry characteristics and a smoother mouthfeel than a West Coast IPA.
As I near the end of my American Styles Course, I look back fondly on several memorable comparison tastings, especially the American and British brown ales. I look forward to a barrel-aged chapter and comparison tasting coming up, then it’ll be time to thoroughly review for my second attempt on the test! Wish me luck!
Is there anything you want to know about prepping for the course or what it’s like to take it? Leave me a note in the comments below!