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BEER: May a Local Stout Bring Light to a Dark Winter Night

This city has plenty from which to choose.

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Perhaps no style hits as many notes and pleases as many palates as the inimitable and historic stout. Though quaffable year-round, breweries tend to tap their richest stouts this time of year. 

If you're one who quickly proclaims, "I don't like dark beers," please hear me out.

The dark color of a stout doesn't mean that it's stronger, more bitter or even has more calories than a yellow beer. In fact, a 12-ounce serving of Guinness sets you back only 125 calories — 15 calories more than 12 ounces of Bud Light — and 4.2 percent alcohol content. A stout has a dark color only because the malted barley used to make it has been kilned, toasted or roasted longer than malts used to make a lighter beer. The chemistry of kilning, known as the Maillard effect, creates flavors like coffee, chocolate and toasted marshmallow, even if those ingredients aren't added separately. 

And since stouts tend to celebrate the flavors of the malts, hops are not a prominent player.

Nor can you judge a beer by its color. Though not typically quite as dark as a stout, other styles that pour dark, such as a Belgian dark strong ale or a black IPA, are distinguished by other potent flavor ingredients, such as yeast or hops.

The usage of the word "stout" to describe a beer goes back to the 17th century, when it described a stout butt beer, like the once-popular term "phat," but not really. The British style sprang from porters, which also have deep roots and questionable heritage. 

Since its shady birth, the style has parented — and grandparented — a multitude of offspring, most of which can be found around Richmond. An early offspring, an Irish dry stout — think of the beer that Arthur Guinness introduced to Dublin in 1759 — uses roasted barley instead of malted barley. By skipping the malting process, breweries saved on taxes. Clearly, tax dodging is not confined to the modern world. The ploy resulted in a smooth, roasty, coffeelike taste and less alcohol.

Dry stouts play well with nitro pours, which mix draft beer with nitrogen as well as carbon dioxide, for a dramatic presentation and fluffy mouth feel. Around the same time, British foreign export stouts were more heavily hopped to take advantage of hops' preservative value and thus were more bitter than Irish dry stout. As an example, try Final Gravity Irish Goodbye — and don't let the Irish moniker fool you.

A milk stout has a sweet origin story as a drink for invalids and pregnant women. The nonfermentable lactose sugar leaves more sweetness in the final beer. Milk stouts make a tasty base for flavor additions such as chocolate and vanilla. More on that later.

Early oatmeal stouts flaunted truth in advertising, adding oats merely to claim that the beer was healthy. Brewers later realized that oats can impart a soft, rich, creamy texture and a hint of nuttiness. Two to try in Richmond include Castleburg Oatmeal with hints of chocolate, coffee or fruits and Twisted Ales Déjà Voodoo that evokes sweet cherries, Madagascar vanilla beans and subtle chocolate notes.

Imperial implies bigger and stronger, and imperial and Russian imperial stouts do pack a punch with higher alcohol content. Its heritage springs from tales of strong English porters that became popular with Russian court in the 1700s. Try Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery Virginia Black Bear. This Russian imperial stout includes high-alpha American hops. There's also Ardent Dark Rye, an American imperial stout with spicy notes from rye in the grain bill. 

The dark malts in stouts make friends with a diversity of partners, resulting in a multitude of offspring with added ingredients or aging in spirit barrels. As milk stouts make ideal partners for dessertlike ingredients, imperial stouts gravitate toward spirit barrels. 

Beside the ever-popular, trending Hardywood Gingerbread Stout and its variants, here are others to look for locally:

Isley Choosy Mother Peanut Butter Porter: There's too much overlap between stouts and porters not to include this local favorite, made with oats and PB2.

7 Hills Fantasme De Chocolat: Milk stout with cocoa powder and raw cocoa nibs. Poured on nitro for a fluffy mouth feel.

Kindred Spirit Belgian Stout: A specialty beer rather than an official style, the Belgian stout adds the fruity, spicy notes of Belgian yeast.

Center of the Universe Brewing Co. Orange Is the New Stout: An imperial chocolate stout crafted with oranges and sea salt, to be released Dec. 2.

Triple Crossing Long Bright Dark: imperial stout brewed with coffee and vanilla beans.

Andalls at the Answer Brewpub: Stouts are regularly infused with a variety of creative complementary flavors, such as coconut, maple syrup and nuts.

Väsen Walrus series: The base stout imparts flavors of rich milk chocolate, roasted malt and figs. Variants include the Crimson Walrus with red raspberries, the Sour Walrus with a touch of tart and the Wired Walrus with Blanchard coffee beans.

Blue Mountain Dark Hollow: My all-time favorite barrel-aged imperial stout comes in a smaller 375-mililiter bottle, unlike most big beers, which typically come only in large bottles.

Starr Hill Box of Chocolates: Starting with the Double Bass stout with cocoa additions, the series includes peppermint, chipotle and mocha. S

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