This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by Eric Burnley. Eric takes on the once almost extinct style of Oatmeal Stout! Thanks again to Paul from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton for supplying the beers for this feature. Also, if you’re interested in writing a Know Your Styles article, feel free to email me.
Beer: It’s Nutritional – not just for Dad, but now for lactating Moms!
Believe it or not, that’s how Oatmeal Stouts were originally marketed in the late 19th century. While today we know that women drinking alcohol while pregnant or nursing may result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, in certain circles, portions of that thought are still prevalent today. My wife (a certified Lamaze instructor, doula, nurse, childbirth guru) chuckled when I mentioned it, but she then pointed me to some recipes for ‘Lactation cookies’ that feature both oatmeal and brewers yeast (yeast used in making beer). Now, I’ve not yet researched into the benefits of brewers yeast and oatmeal for lactating moms, but- I may have finally found the ULTIMATE Mother’s Day gift.
Stouts in general date back to the 16th century Porter style: stout was actually a type of strong/bold porter, called a ‘stout porter’, a term used by Guinness beginning in 1820. Originally the term ‘stout’ simply referred to a strong beer, but ultimately through its frequent use as ‘stout porter’, stout became synonymous with a dark, strong beer. There are several types of stouts: dry stouts, sweet or milk stouts, imperial stouts, hoppy American stouts, Foreign extra stouts, and Oatmeal Stouts.
As stated previously, Oatmeal Stout originally rose to popularity in the late 19th century, framed as a nutritional drink. [Remember all those ‘Guinness is Good For You’ ads?] The amount of oatmeal varied greatly, up to 30% and even as low as 0.5%. The latter was pretty much a marketing gimmick recipe; a seemingly popular practice was to brew the same beer with the same oatmeal ratio and simply market it under different names. A beer with 0.5% Oatmeal still could technically be called an Oatmeal Stout, but it was also sold as porter and regular stout. Today, most examples include about 5-10% Oatmeal, though some commercial examples may exceed that. Oatmeal tends to give the beer a creamy, silky texture, lending it a smooth character that could also be bolstered by soft carbonation.
Oatmeal Stout fell into relative obscurity in the mid-20th century until about 1980, when Samuel Smith’s was asked by Charles Finkel, founder of Merchant du Vin, to brew up some. At that point, they were brewing the only readily available Oatmeal Stout, and theirs became the prime example for other brewers to follow. Since then, Oatmeal Stout has become a fairly popular beer with brewers all over the world. I decided to try the original, Sam Smith’s, as well as a couple of American varieties: local favorite Schlafly’s Oatmeal Stout and Anderson Valley’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout.
What you should be seeing: Stouts in general should be an extremely dark brown, almost black color with a slight reddish or ruby hue visible around the edge of the glass. Oatmeal stouts usually have large, fluffy, rocky off-white or light tan heads that persist well. My examples were all very dark, but the Sam Smith’s was a touch lighter, showing more garnet hue around the edge of the glass. The heads were all large and rocky: the Sam Smith’s was tan in color, the Anderson Valley was darker, and the Schlafly was more of an off-white. The Sam Smith’s head dissipated as it warmed, but the other two faded more slowly.
What you should be smelling: The first thing you should detect is a bit of roasted grain aroma. There will often be a creamy coffee smell, possibly supplemented by a bit of caramel sweetness. Some examples may have a certain fruity character derived from use of British yeast. There should be little to no detectable hop presence. The main aromas would be roast, coffee, caramel, and cream. The Schlafly had a very apparent roast character, with little to no caramel malt aroma. The aroma was detectably dry, with a faint hint of hops (this example was bottled in December, so it’s a touch old and any fresh hop notes probably have faded by now). The Anderson Valley had a less bold roast aroma, and I noted it had relatively little going on aroma-wise until it warmed up. Then it gained some ground with a touch of sweet caramel malt and a little coffee and cream. The Sam Smith’s was the most fragrant of the three, with an extremely bold coffee and cream nose, plenty of sweet caramel malt, and a touch of roast. There was a bit of fruity aroma from the British yeast, and the malt aroma was very intriguing. As it warmed, I found myself simply enjoying the nose again and again.
What you should be tasting: Oatmeal stouts should have an overall semi-sweet, semi-dry character with complexities of roast, coffee, cream, and sweet malt. The oatmeal should give the beer a soft and silky mouthfeel. There should be a bit of hop bitterness, but nothing overtly bitter and no real late-hopping flavor. The Anderson Valley was a bit bland when cold; as it warmed, more coffee and cream notes came out, and the roast flavor was balanced well. It had a nice caramel sweetness, but was not too sweet, and finished dry. The carbonation was soft, and it was very drinkable and enjoyable. The Schlafly’s flavor matched well with its aroma: plenty of roast character, almost with a slight touch of smoke or char. It was rather dry overall, but there was a touch of sweet malt character in the moment of tasting, finishing dry. The roasted barley shines through. The carbonation is a bit prickly on the tongue, and the oatmeal doesn’t play quite as much of a role in smoothing out the flavor and mouthfeel because of it. The Sam Smith’s was a huge blast of coffee and cream, with a bit of caramel malt sweetness. Even a bit of vanilla seemed to poke through. There was not nearly as much roast character as in the other two, and it was much sweeter in the finish. Although I greatly enjoyed the flavors, I did find myself sort of working to finish the end of the glass. The sweetness did seem to be a bit much when compared to the others, and cut back its drinkability a touch for me. I could sit and enjoy that aroma for weeks, though.
How you should be drinking this: Generally, pint or imperial pint glasses are great for Oatmeal Stouts. The coffee and cream aromas and flavors really come to life once the beer has warmed to about 45 or 50 degrees F. Most Oatmeal Stouts are in the 5% – 5.5% ABV range, so they are fairly hearty beers with bold flavors that can be matched up to many different foods. Hearty meals like beef stew, steaks, large soups, or something with brown gravy (an Oatmeal Stout gravy, perhaps?). Desserts like chocolate cake (with a nice french vanilla ice cream of course), tiramisu, dark fruits like raspberries, cherries, and figs – even an Oatmeal Stout Float would be a great way to enjoy this beer.
What you should be buying: As Oatmeal Stouts are fairly popular today, there are several commercial examples available to try. I’d suggest starting with Sam Smith’s, the one that shot it back into popularity, and try American examples after you get a good sense of the original British example. Luckily, these are often available for purchase in bottle shops as singles, so you can pick up a good mixed six pack of different Oatmeal Stouts and work your way through them all, noting what you do or don’t like. That learning process is most of the fun: as you decipher what your taste buds and senses navigate toward, other knowledgeable beer drinkers can help you by suggesting new beers you may not have heard of based on your tastes.
Related styles: Sweet or Milk Stout, Dry Stout, Foreign Extra Stout, Imperial Stout, and historically, Porters.