The Session #119: Discomfort Beer

The SessionIt’s the first Friday of 2017 and for this new year the one hundred and nineteenth edition of The Session is hosted by Alec Latham who writes the mostly about beer…….. blog based in England. Alec has come up with the idea of Discomfort Beer to write about this month, relating the story of tasting his first Black IPA:

Black IPA is now one of my favourite styles but it could have gone the other way.

And does a Black IPA still get me blinking at the floor in a state of disquiet? No. Neither does the astringent character of Brett nor the dry bite of Lambic. All styles have been comprehensively “locked in”. Ultimately, familiarity devours discomfort.

For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

I think this could be a good archive for people researching fads, the origins of styles and the dearths of others – but especially how new ones were initially perceived.

I’ve been drinking beer for a long time now, and I’ve always tried to be open to new styles and flavors. It’s rare that I encounter something truly discomforting to me—but yes, I have a style in mind, and it’s in a similar vein yet opposite to the Black IPA experience described by our host: White Stout (also known as Pale or Blond Stout).

Now historically, “Pale Stout” existed, though technically it was just “stout” which meant “strong beer.” (“Brown Stout” was what they called the type of beer that evolved into what we think of today.) Okay, that’s fine, I suppose if you somewhat archaically called a strong ale “pale stout,” it might seem a bit eccentric but I’d have no quibble if you meant it in the “strong” sense.

But, in today’s modern counter-cultural, gimmick-driven beer world, brewers have taken up a similar challenge with White or Pale Stout as they did with Black IPA: make a beer that tastes like a (dark) stout but make it look like a pale ale.

Of course what gives modern stouts their characteristic color is also a flavor driver: dark malts. Roasted, chocolate, black, dark caramel malts—they all contribute those roasted, coffee, chocolate, burnt bread crust, charcoal, bitter flavors. There are no malts in the pale spectrum that truly contribute similar flavors, so brewers turn to other additives to emulate them. Ingredients like coffee (beans) and cacao nibs, and maybe others.

I have to say… they don’t really work for me, and hit that “discomfort zone.” The first such beer I tried was by Cascade Brewing, their Oblique Black and White Stout which is brewed with whole roasted coffee beans. It was at the Oregon Garden Brewfest and I’d been reading about this “blond stout” which had people talking (and liking), but it just really didn’t work for me:

Their Oblique Coffee Black & White Stout was, well, weird—that’s the best I can describe it. I know the “coffee IPA” trend is ramping up but I don’t know about the “white stout” trend… if I closed my eyes I couldn’t really say this had a “stout” character, just more of a bean/wheat/coffee character with a medium body. Notable for the gimmick character maybe, but, well, weird.

And this year (or rather, last year now) at the Holiday Ale Festival I sampled Loowit Brewing‘s Snow’s Ghost, a pale stout that sounded as much like a dessert beer, brewed with coffee, cacao nibs, and lactose as a base:

Snow’s Ghost is a deceptive stout made without any dark malts; it may look light and clean but underneath, it is a rich stout with flavors of coffee, roast and chocolate. To add to the complexity of this seasonal gift, Loowit added toasted marshmallow and coconut. As you huddle up on a wintery night watching big snowflakes mask the ground, grab a pint of Snow’s Ghost to keep you warm during the dire hours of a snowy night. [via RateBeer]

I will admit I was leery about trying it but I had some extra tickets to use; and I’m pretty sure I had not tried a “white stout” since 2013 at the OGBF I mentioned above. But?

Same reaction—weird. To be sure there was a lot going on with those other ingredients in there, but the coffee added to the pale base (I don’t know if Loowit’s used whole beans like Cascade’s did, or if they brewed it first) contributed a… “beany” character to the finished beer that for me is neither stout-like nor really altogether coffee-like.

Neither of these beers were defective or compromised, I believe they are how the brewers intended them to taste. And I’ve had coffee-infused pale beers which do work—most of the coffee IPAs I’ve tried (admittedly not many) pull this off fairly well, for instance. (Fort George Brewery‘s Java the Hop was probably my favorite.) But there is just something about trying to emulate a stout in a pale beer that, thus far, has not worked for me. Perhaps it’s the coffee in the two beers I’ve tried, which technically weren’t bad beers, and perhaps there is a “white stout” brewer out there who is experimenting with other additives to recreate those dark malt flavors that I would really like.

For now, though, this white/pale/blond stout “style” is definitely out of my comfort zone, and not one I am in a rush to sample again anytime soon.