Irish stout, like a leprechaun, can fool you. It looks dark and stark, but is actually light, friendly and refreshing. As Garrett Oliver points out in his book The Brewmaster's Table, the alcohol content of Irish stout is usually below 5 percent by volume, and that is lower than the typical American lager.
Roasted barley and malts give the stout its rich, black color. Cans of stout now come equipped with a rattling widget that, when the can is popped open, helps dissolved nitrogen bubbles form the classic creamy head.
Stout does have a bite. Depending on its brewer, a stout's finishing flavor can resemble either an espresso or a latte. I lean toward the espresso.
If you don't like coffee, chances are small, I think, that you will warm to Irish stout. Perhaps you should try an Irish red, a beer with less bite.
A glass of stout goes well with a plate of oysters or with salty foods such as ham. Its light body and smooth mouth feel make it easy company during a day of song and merriment. In other words, it is a good beer to drink on St. Patrick's Day.
As March 17 approached, I tasted cans and bottles of the big four of Irish stouts: Beamish, Guinness, Murphy's and O'Hara's.
Murphy's Draught Style Stout:
Cork, Ireland. 4 percent alcohol by volume. $8.99 for a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans. Maryland distributor: Republic National.
This black beauty starts smooth, goes down easy, then finishes with an espresso bite. A great partner with an oyster casserole.
O'Hara's Irish Stout:
Carlow, Ireland. 4.3 percent alcohol by volume. $9.99 for a 4-pack of 11.2-ounce bottles. Maryland distributor: Legends.
This was the only stout I tasted that was poured from a bottle. Its head filled with big, beautiful mocha bubbles.
This is a pleasing pub ale with a crisp finish, and it also cozies up to oysters.
Beamish Draught Irish Stout:
Cork, Ireland. 4.3 percent alcohol by volume. $9.99 for 4-pack of 14.9 ounce cans. Maryland distributor: Bond.
This was an extremely smooth stout, with a milky, almost lattelike finish. So easy on the palate, it is hard to believe it is a dark beer.
Dublin, Ireland. 4.2 percent alcohol by volume. $8.99 for 4-pack of 14.9-ounce cans. Maryland distributor: F.P. Winner.
The standard bearer of Irish stouts, it pours perfectly and looks gorgeous, but was a bit too light for my taste. Somehow, it tasted better when I drank it in Dublin.