Saturday, November 5, 2011

Stout Day in Argentina - What Makes a Good Stout?

For me, any day might as well be Stout Day. I don’t need a “holiday” of uncertain origin to motivate me towards the black end of the beer spectrum (I humbly refer you to a previous post from St. Patrick's Day). That said, I do support the basic idea behind Stout Day: beer style appreciation, events, discussion and camaraderie.

I decided to track down some stouts of Argentine origin to explore more of what the Argentine beer industry has to offer in the style. As it happens, the beers I picked and the order I drank them in were very instructive about what stout is all about and what makes a good stout. Let’s take a look:

Cerveza Bohl – La Negra, 6%

This is a very simple and straightforward beer. The bitterness is there but is nowhere near overpowering and there is no hop flavour, only bitterness. It has an enticing smell but not a complex one either. This beer is really all about the malt, as the body is not heavy, chewy or a star all its own. In fact, it is a little thin and the beer is quite carbonated which amplifies this effect. The roast malt flavours are not intense, but very variable. Each sip is a little different: sweet-ish, chocolate, roast, tangy, etc.

There are no heavy or complex flavours here. The beer is rather plain, but not overly simple. It was a nice sipper but didn’t make me sit up and take notice. This beer is Decent.

Franz Scheitler – Negra, 5%
More body here and a more pungent aroma as well. There is less carbonation than the previous offering from Bohl. There are less distinct layers to the malt flavours. Instead, there is a stronger push from a tighter range of aspects dark malts can offer. The body helps make this beer more interesting and is a nice medium for the yeast flavours. Yeast played a soft but noticeable and very nice role in this beer.

This was a better beer than the last one but not by leaps and bounds. The body was an improvement and it was more fun to drink for that reason. The yeast offered a little creaminess and it was a reminder (though this beer is not remotely comparable) of a world classic beer in which the yeast is a key part of the enjoyment: Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout*

This beer was nowhere near as good as that, but the fact it jogged my memory and reminded me of Sam Smith’s can’t be a bad sign. Franz: you are on the right track. This beer in Nice.

Berlina – Foreign Stout, 6%

This was the blackest and most pungent of the three. Very chocolat-ey smell. The body is smooth and thicker than the Scheitler but was my no means heavy. Again, and it is no surprise, this beer is different than the last. Here, however, the differences are less stark: the difference in body is not as great as between the first and second. The flavour and body is rich but exceedingly drinkable, light and smooth. Nothing powerful or overbearing here—just a solid stout with clear flavour notes and a great body.

This beer is Very Nice, perhaps even verging on Awesome.

My thoughts overall:

It was a happy coincidence that the beers were drank in order of enjoyment. It reminded me of the pieces of the puzzle that make black beers such a favourite of mine.

Body -- what invariably disappoints me in a stout is the body.

Poor examples of stout (call them “stouts in colour only”) invariably have weak, watery bodies. The mouthfeel of the beer is an enjoyable part in and of itself. A thin texture with no heft to it at all is a poor vehicle for what is inherently a hefty range of flavours. The colour and flavours in black beers come from various forms of highly roasted or intentionally burnt malts. Roasted barley that has not been malted can also be used.

Imagine water with the flavour of a potent gourmet chocolate. It would taste strange. Part of the appeal of a chocolate flavoured beverage is the body. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I refer you to the joys of drinking chocolate milk. Texture is important.

Why does a good body make a better stout?

The first beer is a counterexample that highlights what I mean by coherence. You might think I would like it because it was a showcase of many different flavours dark malts can show off. While it was by no means unpleasant to drink the beer was running in too many different directions at once and the thin body was helping it get away with that. You didn’t need to sip away at this beer to tease the flavours out. They were already teased apart to begin with.

Examples of stout that are packed with many complex flavours (check out the end of a previous post to read about Nogne Porter) avoid the problems described here because of their more substantial bodies. They hold the many flavours together into a coherent package. This is a good way of summing up why I liked the second and third beers better; they were just more coherent.

Another observation that I made was about my own habits. I love a good imperial stout because of their complexity, booziness, and robust character. To say they are not very sessionable beers is missing the point. You aren’t meant to drink a case of them as they often approach and frequently exceed 9% abv.

What the beers I had on Stout Day brought back into sharp relief was the pleasures in drinking a more sessionable beer that still took to heart the best things about their imperial big brothers. There is nothing necessarily imperial about a beer that has a smooth yet substantial mouthfeel, bold flavour, and an element of contemplation available to the drinker. I found all of these characteristics in the Berlina Foreign Stout.

I had a great Stout Day. Not only was drinking fun, but so was seeking them out in Buenos Aires.

This post is already long enough so I will conclude the words here and let the photos take over. Let us just say that buying the beer and attempting to feed myself proved just as entertaining as consuming the products later that night.

*Sam Smith's uses an uncommon system of fermentation (called a Yorkshire Square -- more to read on Yorkshire Squares here) and a house strain of yeast that has been in use for a very long time. The two go hand in hand: the system is partly designed to rouse the activity of the yeast and the yeast is very flocculent (meaning it tends to clump together) which means it will benefit from rousing. A yeast character is evident is the examples of Smith’s beers I have tried. 

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