The craft beer question: Stouts, or ales?

“No contest,” says Katie, “Stout. Hands down.”

“What?” says Ellen, “Ale – there are so many varieties, from Brown Ales to Blonde IPAs.”

Tricia smiles, “Neither. Give me a dry red wine anytime.”

Stacey, though, is thoughtful, “Either. Both. All.”

And so begins my quest to unveil one of the craft beer mysteries of ales and stouts. As craft beers are my thing, I’ll be sticking with traditionally crafted, smaller batch ales and stouts and get into further detail on each. Tapping into the wisdom of Michael Jackson, author of The New World Guide to Beer, I see no point in pitting the two types of beer against one another as “there is a classic style of beer for every mood and moment. To say that an Ale is better than a Stout is like arguing that a Chardonnay is more worthwhile than a sherry, or apples more important than oranges.” It is more beneficial to look at how each is produced and to learn a little history. After that, you’ll have a remarkable arsenal of trivia with which to impress your drinking companions.

The Fermentation Process

As far as craft beer brewing processes go, both ales and stouts are top-fermentation, or warm fermentation, wheat beers. As I explained in a recent post, the fermentation process defines beer in the simplest and most classical terms. The fruitiness of ale comes from a relatively quick, warm fermentation of the yeast that rises to the top during the process. The roasted, malty flavor of a stout comes from the combination of roasted and unroasted malts.

Brown ale, mild ale, India pale ale, pale ale, red ale, bitter, Belgian ales (saisons, Trappisten) and Scotch ale are produced in basically the same manner. However, what makes them different is the attributes of the water, the variety of the hops, the grain and roast used for the malt, the brewer’s yeast, and timing. One way I remember at what temperature I should drink my beer is by what temperature fermentation takes place. Wheat beers, including ales and stouts, are warm fermenting (about 55°F) and should be drunk at about 55°F.  On the other hand, lagers, pilsners and bocks (the cold fermenters) should be consumed at a brisk 48°F, but that discussion is for another day.

History of Pale Ale

There are so many different variations of ale that it would be impossible to group them and give one single characteristic that distinguishes them from other wheat beers. According to Roger Protz, ales served as a bridge between home-brewed beverages of the pre-industrial era and the rapid industrialization of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England.

The India pale ale (IPA) has one of the most interesting histories in the development of ales. It’s called a pale ale because prior to the use of coke (coal without the gas), wood fires were used to roast the malt, resulting in brown malt and subsequently brown beer. Once malt began to be roasted using coke, the result was a paler malt and thus a paler beer. Less malt was needed to make the same amount of beer because a more natural enzyme was available to turn starch into sugar. Burton Brewers of Staffordshire, England, who first popularized the paler beer,  had a substantial export trade with India. In order for the pale ale to survive a sea voyage, the brewers used four times the amount of hops as were used in conventional beers. The natural anti-bacterial properties of the hops preserved the exported beer in wooden casks. Even though the IPA style enjoyed a short popularity only until the late nineteenth century, IPAs have made a tremendous comeback, particularly in the United States where many craft breweries have a signature IPA.

Story of the Stout

In early eighteenth century England, stout was actually the common name given to the strongest beer in a brewery. At that time, although it has never been verified, a combination of beers called three threads came to be known as porter. Stronger versions of porter were called stout porter and, after a time, the “porter” was dropped leaving just “stout.” Of course, a lot has happened in two hundred years, so the stout we have today probably would not be recognizable to a working class bloke of London, England. Stout is a very dark, almost black ale with strong roasted malt overtones. The English version is a sweet, mid-afternoon restorative while the Irish stout, most notably Guinness, Murphy and Beamish, is a dryer, more intense brew with hints of coffee and chocolate. Again, according to Protz, both porter and stout were wiped out during Prohibition in America, but are enjoying popularity at craft breweries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Who knew craft beer could be so interesting? Next time you are feeling adventurous, try my favorite IPA, New Belgium’s Citradelic, with some garlicky Asian chicken wings, or try my favorite stout from Left Hand Brewery, Milk Stout Nitro, with some homemade chocolate chip cookies. Incidentally, both breweries are in Colorado, but I can buy both at my local Giant grocery in Virginia.

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About The Author

Colleen Walacavage

Colleen Walacavage is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, D. C. Her company, CW Editing Service, specializes in all degrees of editing. She recently moved to Northern Virginia from Colorado with her husband and three children. As a woman in her prime, Colleen is interested in expanding and sharing her knowledge and interests in a wide range of areas including literature, travel, and epicurean delights.