Dark, rich and creamy: California’s rising stars
IT’S Daylight Losing Time. The days are overcast, the nights are long. It’s the season for a glass of a dark, comforting ale: stout or its gentler cousin, porter. Drinking one of these brews, with their mellow coffee- or chocolate-like roasted flavors, is like curling up in front of the fire, only with bubbles.
They’re more than a seasonal thing too -- they’ve been gathering steam around here for a while. Fifteen years ago, you could scarcely find any stout in this country but Guinness. Then craft brewers fell in love with the style, and today at least 23 California brewers make a stout (about a dozen make a porter too). On top of that, about 30 California brew pubs make their own stouts and porters.
“There’s definitely a trend to roastier, darker, more full-flavored beers,” says Jason Rosenfeld, owner of Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach, which keeps five stouts and four porters on tap, including four California brews: Sierra Nevada Porter from Chico, San Diego’s AleSmith Speedway Stout, and the Smoked Porter and Imperial Russian Stout from Stone Brewing in Escondido.
“The same people who are into tastier wines are drinking the more flavorful beers,” Rosenfeld says. “A lot of my customers are drinking imperial stouts, which are almost a liquid meal -- when it pours out it looks like motor oil, with complex flavors of coffee, chocolate and licorice.”
And yet these dark ales are the opposite of the traditional American lager, which has always prided itself on its lightness. The stout and porter boom is a story of the growing sophistication of our national palate.
The pioneer, as in much else about the craft brew revival, was San Francisco brewer Fritz Maytag. Having revived the moribund Anchor Brewing Co. in 1971, he boldly released a porter in 1974. It was the first modern American version of a style of ale that had nearly been forgotten -- even in Europe, where the famous Guinness brewery had recently ended two centuries of making porter.
CRAFT brewing started to snowball in the 1980s, and newcomers such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. often made porters. In the process, it turned out that a lot of brewers, and their customers, really preferred stout, the more strongly flavored of the two styles. Now beer lovers have a wide range of choices.
Sang Yoon, whose Santa Monica restaurant Father’s Office typically has two or three California dark ales on draft and a dozen or so in bottles, particularly likes two that define that range. “Anchor Porter has nice balance,” he says. “It offers lots of coffee-toffee flavor; it’s not too alcoholic or too bitter or too sweet -- I think it’s a classic.
“I also love North Coast’s Old Rasputin [Russian] Imperial Stout, but it’s not for beginners -- it’s very hoppy, extremely malty, decadent, ridiculously strong, but well made.” Because of its coffee-like flavor, Yoon mixes Old Rasputin (made in Fort Bragg) with tawny Port to make what he calls his “espresso.”
“California stouts are generally good quality,” says Yoon. “They’re different from the European stouts like Guinness, though -- they’re bigger, bolder, hoppier.”
“I like the California stouts better than the Europeans’ because they do use more hops,” says Mike McCullough, beer buyer for Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, which stocks about 15 California stouts and porters. “Take Anderson Valley’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. Oatmeal tends to make malt sweeter, but it has a dry finish, almost floral with hops. And I love North Coast’s Old #38 Stout: a little smokiness with the roastiness, just a little espresso quality, a nice hop finish, fairly dry.”
Many brewers admit the basic reason they make stout or porter is that they just like big, highly flavored ales.
Brew master Peter Hoey of Bison Brewing Co. in Berkeley, known for its Chocolate Stout, which underlines the flavor of darkly roasted “chocolate” malts by actually adding cocoa, says, “I’d say the main reason brewers make it is that they all personally prefer porter, stout or IPA [India pale ale, a light-colored but highly hopped brew].”
Brew master Karl Zappa of Bayhawk Ales, Irvine, makes Bayhawk Chocolate Porter. He concurs: “The porter is our most decorated beer and also our slowest seller. Sometimes I’ve had to think it would be the style to drop, but I’d hate to. I’m committed to it. It fits a niche in the market -- people who like porter really like it. And it holds up well in bottle, it has a good shelf life.
“Also, everybody on my board of directors really likes to drink it.”
Brewers also enjoy making these distinctive brews. “It’s part of the allure of brewing to be able to make so many styles,” says Peter Zien, brew master of AleSmith Brewing in San Diego.
Stout and porter are basically made just like other ales. Malted barley is ground and mixed with hot water to dissolve its sugars. The sweet liquid, or wort, is then boiled with hops to pasteurize it and add bitterness. Then yeast is added, and the liquid ferments for a couple of days, after which it is “conditioned” by aging.
The difference is that in stout and porter, some of the malt has been roasted anywhere from tan to downright black. Every dark brew uses a unique mixture of these flavoring malts. “It only takes 5% of a roasted malt mixed in, and the whole beer is dark,” says Brendan Moylan, owner of Marin Brewing Co. in Larkspur. “I doubt any stout in the state has more than 10% roasted malt.”
To balance the richer flavor of these malts, stouts and porters typically have more hops, but they’re not necessarily sweet or particularly alcoholic or overwhelming in any way. Many are balanced and elegant, like Guinness.
A few brewers underline the flavors in their brews by adding chocolate or coffee. “Right now we’re aging a stout over chocolate in Bourbon barrels,” says Moylan.
And at Lagunitas Brewing, brew master Tony Magee adds coffee to his Cappuccino Stout. “You’ve got to drink it early in the evening,” he jests. European beer connoisseurs such as Michael Jackson consider this sort of thing a gimmick, but California stout lovers clearly see it as just part of our state’s heritage of eager experimentalism.
A couple of craft brewers even add smoked flavors. Greg Koch, chief executive of Stone Brewing, uses peat-smoked malt from England for his Smoked Porter. For a brewery that cultivates a jocular image of aggressiveness (one of its brews is named Arrogant Bastard), the smoke flavor is surprisingly restrained.
The problem for brewers is that some people won’t give stout or porter a try. Moylan says, “Initially, most people won’t drink a black beer, especially the ladies. So I ask them, ‘Do you drink coffee? Give it a taste.’ ”
Sang Yoon ups the ante. “The dark color of stout scares some people,” he says. “They figure it will be bitter, undrinkable, high in alcohol and so on. So to a lot of women who are light beer drinkers we say, ‘Do you like chocolate?’ ”
There is no doubt: The roasted flavors of many porters and stouts resemble coffee or even chocolate, so much that some brewers call their product “chocolate stout.” Imperial stouts are actually sweet (and high in alcohol), but most stouts and porters are just particularly mouth-filling ales, with lots of malt flavor and balancing hops to stand up to the rich, roasted flavors.
Stouts and porters go well with many foods. “Stout is roasty and the malts have a lot of tannin,” says Bison’s Hoey, “so you can pair it like you would a red wine, with red meat and stews.” Carlos Solis, food and beverage director of T.H. Brewster’s, a beer specialty pub at the Four Points by Sheraton LAX, has 10 stouts and porters in his 70-item beer list. He pairs them with some items on his tapas menu, such as Old Rasputin with a goat cheese salad and Stone Smoked Porter with smoked salad.
“Their real strong suit,” says Yoon, “is in cooking, in braised dishes. Because beer contains protein, the sauce self-clarifies when you reduce it, which is really cool. A lot of the roasted flavor pops up; it’s like a dark demi-glace. But you always have to add an acid ingredient, like tomato paste or balsamic, or the sauce will be flat.”
Mark Ruedrich of North Coast Brewing says stout goes with ripe blue and washed-rind cheeses, which are tricky to pair with wine. For many people, the natural place for stout or porter is with dessert, especially when it contains chocolate, berries or nuts.
Or you could go crazy and put stout in your dessert. Make stout-flavored ice cream or a stout float or a beer-a-misu.
Hmm -- a beer-a-misu made with a coffee stout? No, probably too crazy. The days are overcast, the nights are long. There’ll be time enough for beer-a-misus in summer. For now, this is the season for dark, rich, comforting ales ... in a glass.
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The brews with big flavor
Porter. An ale flavored with 5% to 10% toasted barley malt, giving a dark color and roasted flavor. Invented in 1722 by London brewer Ralph Harwood. It’s said that porter got its name because it was a favorite drink of porters and other dock workers.
Stout. In the 1820s, the Guinness brewing company of Dublin, Ireland, started referring to a darker, more alcoholic porter with extra hops as “stout” (that is, strong) porter. By the mid-20th century, stout had become so popular that plain porter died out until it was revived by craft
Oatmeal stout. Stout with a small quantity of oatmeal in the mix. The result is sweeter and smoother.
Milk stout. A relatively rare style to which lactose (milk sugar) has been added. Since beer yeasts can’t metabolize lactose, it gains sweetness.
Chocolate stout. Stout made with very dark roasted malt (“chocolate” malt), which has a chocolate-like aroma. A few brewers add a small quantity of chocolate or cocoa to emphasize this flavor.
Coffee stout, espresso stout, etc. A relatively uncommon designation that can refer to a stout with a particularly coffee-like aroma, but a few brewers do add coffee.
Imperial stout. A stout with an alcohol content as high as 10% to 15% (20 to 30 proof), compared with the more usual 7% to 8%. Originally made in England for export to Russia and the Baltic region because the alcohol served as a preservative. Imperial stouts can be aged several years for a more complex flavor.
-- Charles Perry
Sipping California stouts and porters
CALIFORNIA stout and porters are often available on tap at pubs and restaurants with large selections of beers. For bottled dark ales, the stout and porter headquarters in our area is Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa ( 650-8463,  331-3005, www.hitimewine.net), which stocks 15 California brews and several from other states and Europe, including the midnight-black Carnegie Stark Porter from Sweden.
Beverages & More stocks all the beers listed below -- check the website (www.bevmo.com) for inventory at your nearest store. Other retailers that carry a variety of stouts and porters include Beverage Warehouse in Mar Vista, (310) 306-2822; Red Carpet Wine Merchants in Glendale, (800) 339-0609; Trader Joe’s markets; Vendome Liquor and Wine Shops in Beverly Hills, (310) 276-9463, Toluca Lake, (818) 766-9593, and Studio City, (818) 766-5272; Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Westwood, (310) 475-0606; and Whole Foods Markets. Prices indicated are per bottle; there are two sizes available.
I tasted 15 California stouts and porters, and each had its charms, from the easygoing porters to the molasses-y imperial stouts, but the following stood out:
Sierra Nevada Porter. This dark amber brew has a bright hoppy nose with refreshing vegetal and pine notes dominating the strong maltiness. $1.50 (12 ounces)
Anchor Steam Porter. This pioneer California porter has a very thick and creamy head and rich mouth-feel with roasted coffee notes and a fine balance of hops and sweetness. $2 (12 ounces)
Lost Coast 8 Ball Stout. A thick tan head tops this practically black brew. There’s chocolate and a sweet vegetal note in the nose; the flavor’s rich and slightly sweet -- diabolically easy to drink. $3 (1 pint 6 ounces)
Rogue Shakespeare Stout. This very dark brew has a medium head. It’s malty and mouth-filling, also strongly hopped -- like a concentrate of beer. $4 (1 pint 6 ounces)
Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. A thick head and plush carbonation mark this very dark brew. There’s a note of chocolate and dried dark fruits -- rich, sweetish and mellow. $3 (1 pint 6 ounces)
-- Charles Perry