What is stout?

Rich, dark and complex in flavour, there’s probably no beer more distinctive or more celebrated than. It first popped up in the bars of London and Dublin in the late 18th century, but quickly (thanks to one particularly innovative brewer) became a global favourite.

Today, there are many different styles of stout, but all share a dark hue and a strong roasted, almost coffee-like, flavour. It’s made from malted barley, yeast, water and hops – and in Guinness dark-roasted barley, which is responsible for its deep, rich taste.

The history of stout

Taking its name from the Old French word for valiant and strong (“estout”), in the 1600s stout was simply a stronger beer with a high ABV (the percentage of alcohol in the drink). It wasn’t ‘til the end of the 18th century that it truly became a drink in its own right.

Its history is heavily intertwined with that of porter – a similar dark beer that came from the markets of Georgian London. At first, stout was a generic term for the very strongest of porters, but through the pioneering spirit of Arthur Guinness and his brewers at St James’s Gate, the beer developed its own taste and identity.

With Arthur’s visionary zeal Guinness stout was soon being drunk across the globe – as far afield as New Zealand. A sign of the drink’s growing popularity can be seen in The Times of London in 1803, in a court report detailing the theft of the dark beer direct from the barrel, a technique known as ‘sucking the monkey’.

Over a century later, it was a welcome taste of home for the troops in France during WW2: Guinness provided a bottle of their now highly perfected and refined stout to all soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force to accompany their Christmas dinner. 

It took until the 1950s though for stout to gain its creamy smoothness, a breakthrough made by Guinness brewer and mathematician, Michael Ash. He developed a system by which carbon dioxide in the beer was replaced with nitrogen gas, creating a velvety taste with a long-lasting white head (and the in the process, the Guinness moustache).

Know Your Beer - Stout

Know Your Beer - Stout

Stout: jargon-free stout tasting and serving notes

Aroma: Sweet-smelling with pleasant whiffs of roasted coffee. 

Flavour: Charred and treacly, people often find its taste reminiscent of coffee or chocolate. The reason: the roasted barley in stout goes through the same chemical changes as that of the roasted coffee or cocoa bean. Nitrogenated stouts, like Guinness Draught, have a smooth, creamy, velvety palate.

Typical ABV/strength: 4-12%

Best served in: a pint or a tulip glass

Serving temperature: 8-16 °C

Stout food-pairings: game meats, fruity desserts, strong cheese, oysters and other shellfish

Notable varieties of stout

Oyster stouts

A nod to when stout first emerged: a period when oysters were widely consumed in pubs and taverns. Often (but not always) brewed with a handful of the shellfish in the barrel, creating a very subtle but surprisingly pleasant aftertaste.

Milk stouts

Containing a lactose sugar from milk (which beer yeast is unable to ferment), milk stouts carry a hint of sweetness and greater depth of flavour.

Oatmeal stouts

Oats, added during the brewing process, are rich in protein and lipids (waxes and fats). This increases the viscosity of the drink, adding more body and a sensation of smoothness.

Irish dry stouts

Roasted unmalted barley mixed in with malted barley gives this stout a delicious, slightly drier taste. The most widely drunk variety, and made famous by Guinness.

Imperial stout

A strong dark brew – and also the longest-aged – it has a treacle-like consistency and a high ABV, usually over 9%. Sometimes referred to as Russian Stout, thanks to being the tipple of choice of in the court of Catherine The Great of Russia in the late 18th century.

Frequently asked questions

What's the difference between stout and porter?

If you ever want to get a bunch of brewers disagreeing, this is the question to ask. There’s no definitive set of differences between a porter and stout, with plenty of crossover, but most agree that porters are historically sweet dark beers with lower alcohol content than stouts and that use more mellow malts. Stouts are generally more bitter, higher in alcohol and use flavourful raw ingredients like patent malt, black malt or roasted barley – a combination that makes for a more intense coffee-like flavour.