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It was a pint of Guinness that opened my eyes to what a beer could be. Before then, “beer” was the amber stuff that came out of a keg in someone's backyard. But everything changed while I was sitting at the bar of a pub in Ireland, sipping this rich, creamy liquid that was somehow reminiscent of dark chocolate and freshly baked bread and a hot cup of coffee at the same time. That beer was my gateway stout and since that first one, the category has changed as much as I have as a beer drinker.
“Stouts are timeless because they are so versatile,” says Sarah Flora, a homebrewer and founder of Flora Brewing. “There’s a stout for every occasion: cozying up by a fire with a 10% ABV imperial that’s going to put you to bed or mowing the lawn with a 5% ABV Irish stout that you can drink all day.” While there is a time and place for the classics, the beer world has been most recently infatuated with bigger and bolder beers, such as the barrel-aged or pastry stout or even barrel-aged pastry stout.
While a trip down today’s beer aisle can easily result in a four-pack of s’mores beers or a six-pack of something that could be mistaken for chocolate milk, it’s important to remember where the style started. “When I reach for a stout, I am looking for a beer that has incredible depth of flavor and complexity from the wide array of kilned and roasted malts that make this style what it is,” says Averie Swanson, master cicerone and founder of Keeping Together. So whether you want a simple sipper or something that can act as an after-dinner treat, these are some of the best stout beers to savor right now.
Best Overall: Half Acre Original Reaper
While the stout may be one of the most versatile beer styles, with the ability for brewers to treat it like a blank canvas, filling it with everything from marshmallows to chili peppers, this practice has also meant that the stout, in its truest form, is something of a relic. Enter Half Acre Original Reaper, a newish addition to the Chicago brewery’s regular offerings. This stout is simply that: a stout. At 6% ABV, it's an artful combination of roasty malts and bitter chocolate with just a whisper of booziness.
Best Milk Stout: Evil Twin Even More 8 LB 6 OZ Newborn Infant Jesus
If you’re looking for the milk stout that brought the milk stout to the masses, look no further than Left Hand. However, in the decade since the Colorado brewery introduced this creamy beer to the market, others have entered the game. “Evil Twin is a top-notch brewery,” Flora says. “One thing I love about them is they cleverly name all their stouts as some variation of ‘Even More Jesus.’ This milk stout has the lactose sweetness on the front end but then finishes with distinct hop bitterness.”
Best Oatmeal Stout: Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout
“A great example of the style, Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin presents with flavors of hazelnut, cocoa powder, and an easy roast coffee character intermingled with notes of vanilla and toasted pecan,” Swanson says about the California brewery’s classic oatmeal stout. “This beer is brewed with a hefty amount of oats which create a lovely silky texture on the palate. It is medium-full in body, but not overly sweet, making it highly drinkable.”
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Best Coffee Stout: Stone Xocoveza Stout
Roasted coffee beans and roasted malt are made for each other. While stouts often exhibit coffee flavors without the addition of the dark stuff, many brewers amp up this quality by adding coffee in liquid form or aging on coffee beans. Stone Xocoveza is a “mocha stout” that gained a cult following after the recipe for the beer won the brewery’s annual homebrew competition. Since then, the Mexican hot chocolate-inspired stout brewed with coffee, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate has made its way into the brewery’s regular rotation.
Best Dry Irish Stout: Guinness Extra Stout
While Guinness Draught is the more commonly known version of the iconic brew, Guinness Extra Stout is actually the original. A take on Guinness’ archival recipe dating back in 1821, this beer brings the malt flavor to the forefront yet still maintains a clean, crisp finish. You can also get the creamier Guinness Draught in bottles and cans, but it’s something best enjoyed fresh from a tap… preferably in Ireland.
Best Oyster Stout: Flying Dog Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout
Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout was originally a limited release from Flying Dog last year, but because of its popularity, is now brewed year-round, and is one of the few oyster stouts that are readily available to a wide audience. This seldom seen stout style is so rare because it's made with real oysters, an addition that can impart a bit of brininess while also turning off some drinkers. In this case, it’s brewed with Rappahannock River Oysters.
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Best American Stout: Deschutes Obsidian Stout
“Deschutes Obsidian Stout is a classic example of an American stout—complex flavors of dark roasted coffee, chocolate, and caramel with soft background notes of black licorice and dried figs,” Swanson says. “American stouts characteristically exhibit aromas and flavors of citrus or pine resin from the use of American hops, and this beer integrates those hop flavors seamlessly.”
Best American Imperial Stout: Prairie Bomb!
To earn the “imperial” modifier, a beer traditionally has an ABV above 8%. These days, most stouts fall into this category, with breweries upping the booze to match the bold flavors. For Prairie Bomb! those flavors are coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chili and the ABV is a whopping 13%. The chili peppers add just the slightest heat to balance out the bold coffee and chocolate flavors. Living up to its name, this bottle is a flavor bomb, indeed.
Best Russian Imperial Stout: North Coast Old Rasputin
Contrary to what its name suggests, the first Russian imperial stout was brewed in England as a gift for Emperor Peter the Great of Russia. The style’s trademarks include a higher alcohol content and full-bodied flavor. “This has been my go-to stout for years,” Flora says about North Coast Old Rasputin. “It’s strong as hell, but it’s so drinkable that it’s dangerous. It’s extremely well balanced, just sweet and bitter enough to not tire your palate. It’s almost chocolatey in taste and aroma.”
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Best Barrel-Aged Stout: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
When committing to a barrel-aged stout—a beer that delivers a one-two punch of flavor and ABV—look no further than the beer that started it all. Goose Island pioneered a new category when it released the first Bourbon County Stout in 1992. Since then others have reached similar fame—such as Perennial Abraxas and Three Floyds Dark Lord—but Bourbon County remains the patriarch of the category, while also benefiting from wider distribution and availability in recent years.
Best Session Stout: Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
The words “session” and “stout” are seldom seen together. If you’re looking for a stout that falls below 5% ABV, your options will be limited. Fortunately the historic Samuel Smith’s Brewery has made its gold foil-topped Oatmeal Stout available across the pond. Brewed with well water and fermented in stone vessels using a yeast strain that dates back to the 1800s, this classic beer balances its delicate sweetness with an equally subtle roasted malt quality.
Best Pastry Stout: Hardywood Gingerbread Stout
Dessert-inspired, or “pastry stouts,” rose to popularity in 2018, and most didn’t stick around for longer than a year. However, Hardywood proved the style has staying power with its Gingerbread Stout. Made with baby ginger and wildflower honey from nearby farms, this stout has been around since before pastry stouts were even a thing. First brewed in 2011, the beer bursting with vanilla, cinnamon, and snappy ginger put this Richmond brewery on the map.
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.