Deep brown to black. A resilient head of tan foam. The slightest hint of a nutty, oatmeal taste. A hint of berry undertones. An earthy aroma, with only the most subtle levels of hoppiness. If you’re getting thirsty reading this, you might be predisposed to the inherent pleasure of an oatmeal stout. And you, my friend, are in good company.
The stout – in its various forms – has a long and storied past (which we’ll touch on in just a few beats) and its oatmeal variant has enjoyed a number of revivals, most recently in the last few decades. So, with all that in mind, let’s take a few minutes to show our appreciation for that delectable treat which is the Oatmeal Stout.
History of the Stout (Well, a ‘Cliffs Notes’ Version, Anyway…)
As the 17th century wound to a close, dark brown beers were all-the-rage across Great Britain. And of these smokey, barley-malted brews, the name ‘Stout’ was assigned to the more intense flavor profiles which – by today’s standards – might be most closely associated with the English Brown Porter. Over the next century, the evolution of brewing would refine the definition of what a stout was – with the moniker all-but-replaced (in most circles) with ‘Porter’ or ‘Stout Porter’. At the time, it was viewed as representing the palate of the British working class, but its appeal would soon transcend borders- finding popularity in such foreign landscapes as Russia and India.
That said, it was the reception of the ‘Stout Porter’ in Ireland which inspired one of its biggest evolutionary leaps. Reducing the water content used in the brewing process (with the goal of increasing potency) the recipe would become known as ‘stout butt beer’ before being simplified to a ‘stout.’ Of course, this was merely in Ireland, as the term and recipe wouldn’t gain wider acceptance until almost twenty years into the 19th century.
The availability of a more diverse selection of flavored malts and the introduction of the drum roaster further changed the brewing game. The drum roaster, invented by Daniel Wheeler to eliminate the exposure to fire, reduced the smoky taste associated with the classic stout, creating a taste even more widely embraced. And of course, there were diminishing restrictions on brewing components, as well. In 1816, for example, brewers were limited to the use of malt, water, hops, and yeast. Unmalted grains were a big no-no in many areas, but that restriction would fade away – only to be fully abolished stateside in 1880.
Not that the use of oats was anything new. In fact, they had been a major component of documented brewing dating as far back as 1086 (and undoubtedly further). From ‘rotbier’ to ‘hoppenbier’ to ‘Koyt’ beer, oats made up as much as 80% of the materials utilized in early brewing. Due to economy and availability, rice would gain favor in many parts of the world, evidence that times changes all – so, in telling the story of oats, we find ourselves skipping right back to the 1800s.
Above we had mentioned the impact of the drum roaster in 1817. Aside from the reduction of smoky accents, it also helped to streamline mass production and ensure greater control over the process and consistency of the products. This would, of course, only increase the appeal and demand for stouts (one that’s still felt today, via such recognizable brands as Guinness) and they would soon become the subject of mass-marketing, albeit with a twist. Milk stouts, for example, were marketed to expectant mothers with the claim that the lactose component of the recipe would strengthen a mother’s ability to nurse their child. Interesting, to say the least…
One of the most popular anecdotal references as to the re-emerging impact of the Oatmeal (then referred to ‘Oat Malt’) Stout comes from a late-19th century advertisement found in the Aberdeen Journal, a Scots publication. Citing it as “nourishing and strengthening” and “strongly recommended for Invalids” this approach to early marketing might not hold up in the eyes of modern medical science and social taboo, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
It’s really no surprise that the surge in popularity at the time had forced breweries into a competitive race with one another, each looking to make the most of the newest trend. In turn, it’s with an equal lack of surprise that we find these breweries had battled one another over patent attempts, each one looking to claim credit for themselves. There’s even historical documentation that someone tried to patent oatmeal itself – possibly in the interest of controlling inventory and/or demand, one might assume. Needless to say, the oatmeal stout had reached a peak point in its early popularity.
And that popularity would endure until the mid 1950s, when changing palates (especially stateside) would begin to favor mass-produced brand beers, appreciating their simplicity, easy drinking, and relative affordability. It would be another few decades, fueled by the growing interest in craft beers before the oatmeal stout would make any kind of notable comeback – especially stateside. But today, the lion’s share of breweries take great pride in the creation of unique stout recipes, often held in high regard and brewed in heavy demand.
Properties of Oats (& Oatmeal) in Brewing
When raw oat grains are cooked, they become gelatinous and, once dried and flattened, they are receptive to breakdown by enzymes (such as those present in barley). As an ingredient in modern brewing, they are used far more sparingly than in the 11th-century recipes we mentioned above (to the tune of 5-10% of the grist), but their presence is both impactful and appreciable in the finished product.
Protein is among the key dietary attributes of oatmeal grains. When used in brewing, they serve in the creation of a thick, foamy head and help to create a darker, thicker appearance due to their resistance to fermentation. Another characteristic evident in oatmeal stouts is a silky, slick feel, resulting from the high concentration of oils.
The combination of oats and more modest levels of hops shifts the focus to bittering flavor as opposed to aromatic strength. Offering a multi-dimensional flavor without the risk of overwhelming the palate, the oatmeal stout is a celebrated favorite among stout lovers. That, combined with an ABV that normally falls in between 5-6%, makes it little surprise that the popularity of oatmeal stout has continued to grow since its most recent resurgence (especially as a seasonal favorite in some regions).
Other Types of Stouts to Explore
Oatmeal is just one of the eight primary styles of stout (including porters) – each with their own unique attributes in terms of both flavor and alcohol content. Of course, recipes and results vary from brewer to brewer, but here’s a quick run-down of seven other kinds of stouts for the benefit of anyone interested in exploring stout options.
- Porter: these would be the modern offshoots of the dark beers favored in Great Britain, and inspiring the creation and evolution of the stout.
- Irish Stout: evolved and perfected in Ireland, the most notable example would be Guinness.
- Milk Stout: brewed with unfermented milk sugars, a milk stout is known for its well-mannered and sweeter flavor profile.
- Chocolate Stout: arguably misnomered, the ‘chocolate’ is in reference to its color more than its flavor (although many brewers have utilized actual chocolate to enhance its flavor).
- Oyster Stout: yes, brewed with actual oysters.
- Imperial Stout: Dark in color, and high in terms of ABV, an Imperial Stout finds its roots in the brew once favored by the court of the Russian Tsarina.
- Baltic Porter: an offshoot of the Imperial Stout, popular within Eastern European regions.
Do you enjoy an Oatmeal Stout, or do you prefer another style of Stout or Porter? You can come into Fort Brewery and enjoy our Moonrider Oatmeal Stout!