(This is an archived post from Summer 2014)
For reasons I'm trying to put my finger on, I've always been particularly fond of very dark beers. Perhaps because they look bad ass in a glass as opposed to their lightweight relatives? Maybe. But what's probably more likely is that I was introduced to Guinness well before I was 18. My dad is half Irish and I remember specifically, on a trip to England, when my brother and I were probably 8 & 6 respectively, that it was introduced to us. It began when we were left in the car with some 'crisps' while my parents went into the pub for a pint. We sat there pouting thinking this stinks but soon after we visited family friends with a pub and were granted access. My first memory of Stout is my dad explaining the genius of Guinness as evident in it's rich and creamy head and that if it was drawn properly, you could trace your initials in it and it would last all the way to the bottom, when all the dark liquid was gone.
But what is Guinness? While there are many slight variations on this answer I'll provide my understanding. Guinness is a brand and the style of beer is a dark Ale. However, one so dark due to the darkness of the toast of the special malts that it and was given the unique name Porter. But why call it Porter? One story goes that in the 18th Century Europe, this darker, sometimes richer style beer was made for the local dockyard porters to keep them sated during their long work days schlepping things around.
There are many different styles and strengths of Porter and the most well know would surely be Stout. Stout was originally a descriptor to the strength of a Porter, i.e. a Stout Porter would be a stronger Porter and while this still can be the case, Stout was also spun off as a style all its own, but still very similar to Porter. Confused? No need to be, generally speaking these days they are synonymous.
This Summer while shopping in a North Michigan grocery store before heading to a friends cottage, I saw a nice collection of Stouts and thought I'd do a small tasting with the group. I bought two old world styles, Guinness in a bottle and Murphy's in a can; and two new: Left Hand Milk Stout and Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout.
First off, a Stout in a can or on tap will have a much creamier and appealing head on it that one from the bottle. This is due to the nitrogen in each vessel which makes the beer less fizzy and the general texture creamy.
Our group generally found that the old style and brands were thinner with more grain taste detectable while the newer style, craft versions had more acid and floral character. Both proved surprising to our group in their appeal and ease of pairing with food.
Incidentally I dined at a local restaurant recently and of their 8-10 beers, not one was a stout or porter. Perhaps because the restaurant feels their demographic doesn't want something so dark and rich but I urge people to try these beers blind before making that decision as they are a lot lighter and flavorful than is usually assumed.
Cigar City Maduro, draft
Southern Tier Nitro 2x Stout, draft
Youngs Double Chocolate, draft
Rasputin Imperial, draft
Father Theodore, draft
Mikkeller, Chipotle Porter, bottle ($38)
Rivertown Roebling, Imperial Robust Porter