Beer Guru: Black Watch

In association with Living Ventures

Time to face the black stuff. It’s grown awfully sophisticated since you’ve been away.

For a time, we were lead to believe that stout was, indeed good for us. The dark beer’s had more of a history of spin than your average parliamentary personal advisor.

But, spin aside, I can report that this venerable, dark and treacly brew is back – and it tastes better than ever.

Traditionally a dark beer made using roasted malt or roasted barley (barley that’s not been allowed to germinate, or ‘malt’) the brew used to be a generic term for strong (stout simply means ‘strong’ in this case) porter-style beers.

In the 18th century, the porter style was typically brewed to 7 or 8 percent. But later, as more complex chains of sugar were allowed to develop in the fermenting process, these residual sugars would become dextrose – imparting a real sweetness into the finished ale, and ABVs began to tumble.

In time, this simple, straight up brew matured into a really complex, intriguing and endlessly fascinating new style.

Kent’s Mackeson’s was the first to add lactose, a dairy sugar, and a by-product of cheese-making, whey, into the copper stills during the boil. These weren’t allowed to ferment down, so remained in the finished product, lending a full-bodied, oily mouth-feel to the bottled stout. And a sweet creaminess that we began to take to our hearts.

These milk by-products gave their name to this new breed of beer – Milk Stout. And before long, the drink was being marketed as being ‘nutritious’. It was about this time that the stout family split – as, over in Ireland, the sweet stuff never really made its mark. There, it was always about the ‘dry’ porter style stout, as typified by Guinness, Murphy’s and Kilkenny.

But trouble was brewing. It soon became clear that, despite the marketing narrative, there really wasn’t anything nutritious about the milk stout, and so British brewers were banned from using the term ‘milk stout’.

Incidentally, Guinness didn’t get away with their claims – their oft-cited assertion that the brew was rich in iron was also found to be somewhat wide of the mark.

Over the years, the strength of Mackesons, and stout in general, has fluctuated, but it’s never really hit the heights of the 7 or 8 percent ABV brews of old. Yet, the assumption remains that this dark concoction is a filling, hearty drink.

Not a bit of it. These days, exciting new microbreweries are breathing new light, and new flavours into the most misunderstood of beers. Try Colorado’s Left Hand Brewery’s Milk Stout (the US didn’t impose a ban on the M word), which is a dark and delicious evocation of brown sugar and vanilla cream, with hints of roasted coffee. Pure, unadulterated bliss.

And, from this side of the pond, The Wild Beer Co.’s Millionaire – a velvety cocoon which finds room for high quality Valrhona cocoa nibs and salted caramel. Rich, balanced and smooth it’s everything a dessert stout shout be. Sweet, savoury and lip smackingly moreish. Try it with a wedge of chocolate cake. We serve them both at the Oast House, the Club House in Liverpool, and our Leeds and Manchester Botanists.

THE GURU: My name is Warren McCoubrey and I’m Beer Guru at Living Ventures, choosing the beers for our different brands and passing on my passion to staff and customers. I’m in the lucky position to be trying new beers from breweries old and new on a regular basis and would like to share my findings with you on this page. I’ve worked in the bar trade for over 15 years – but the amber nectar business has never looked (or tasted) better.