It took me a while to learn to love dark beer.
When I became of legal age to drink, the only dark beer I was exposed to was Guinness. This dark, dry stout was conveniently and ubiquitously available at the Irish-themed pubs popular across New England. But I couldn’t get used to the beer’s burnt flavor. It probably didn’t help that what I was drinking at those dingy college bars was likely far from fresh.
It took years of cajoling by my future husband to finally get me to open up to trying stouts. After overcoming my initial reluctance, a love of dark beer bloomed, beginning with two craft beers from opposite coasts. Shakespeare Stout from Rogue Brewing Co. in Portland, Oregon, opened my eyes to the richness and chocolate undertones that could permeate every sip. New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Co. impressed me with its dignified, approachable Baltic Porter with plum and dark fruit notes that tasted even better if you forgot about it in your cellar for a few years.
To get back in touch with the dark beer fundamentals, I recently decided to revisit a few stand-out versions of the dark beers that I had come to love, this time brewed in Maine.
The Geary Brewing Co. London Porter (in a freshly redesigned 16-ounce can) is as close as you can get to the origins of this style. It has a ruby glow when held up to the light, and those dark malts are warm and inviting in aroma. It has a light enough body to be enjoyable, but not thin enough to come across weak or too mild. There’s just something about this beer that ticks all the boxes of what a stout should be; it isn’t oily, filling or creamy, and it has a pleasant bitterness without being difficult to drink. It’s also only 4.25 percent alcohol, which means it is a beer that really can go with anything.
Next, I found something I hadn’t sampled before from Rock Harbor Brewing Co. in Rockland. Its Spruce Head Stout (5 percent alcohol and available in 16-ounce cans) has been brewed since 2013, but this month is the first time I’ve seen it show up at retail locations in the new, attractive cans. What I love about this stout is that it plays with your mind a little. Blindfold me, and I’d probably tell you that I’m tasting chocolate or even the bitterness of cold-brewed coffee lurking in the beer’s backbone. The reality, though, is that it’s an excellent example of how darker malts can be used to produce those flavors. Because it falls a little on the roastier side in terms of taste, I think this would be my pick to accompany a hearty dinner.
The next two beers are technically adjunct stouts – but in a very tame (and actually traditional) way. About a hundred years ago, brewers in England started to look for ways to sweeten their stouts to compete with more popular beer styles. The solution they found was to add a different type of sugar to the beer, but a type that the yeast they used for brewing could not convert into alcohol. Lactose (milk) sugar, a byproduct of cheese production, was proposed by John Henry Johnson in 1875 as a beer sweetener and would eventually become the means of creating what would become known as “milk stouts.”
Fore River Brewing Co. in South Portland offers a solid version of this historical style, aptly named John Henry. The difference between John Henry and the previous stouts is that bitterness doesn’t drive the flavor profile at all. There is a significant sweetness and an almost honey-like quality. The overall taste is very smooth and still only 5.2 percent alcohol, despite what its bolder flavor would seem to indicate.
Lastly, whenever I am in the area, I try to find some Austin Street beer to bring home, and Six Grain, its milk stout, is a beer that I keep going back to over and over. Six Grain manages to present depth along with subtle sweetness. The feeling in the mouth of this beer is thick, and its richness is memorable. At 6.4 percent, this has the highest alcohol content of the four, but doesn’t taste like it. It’s just pleasant from the first sip to the last.
While it seems like Maine should be flush with dark beer, considering the length of our winters, it seems like these straightforward versions of these beer styles are getting rarer. I’m a little worried they are being overshadowed by other beers that rely more heavily on added ingredients.
Stouts, with their rich flavors, make a good canvas for adding sweeter ingredients like maple syrup or those that enhance the natural bitterness, such as coffee. But when brewers start adding whole donuts, children’s breakfast cereals, whoopie pies or waffles to create so-called “pastry stouts,” the resulting beers are something different. These experiments can produce some memorable results, but I have yet to find one that I want to drink more than a pint of, mostly due to their creeping sweetness.
Personally, I plan to spend the long tail of the winter hunkered down with these classic stouts and porters. And for my beer, at least, you can hold the sprinkles.