Winter’s chill brings out the best in dark beers and restaurants touting hearty menu pairings.
While hops and IPAs in their myriad forms remain a huge part of consumer interest right now, there continue to be both year-round and seasonal audiences for dark beers, and stouts in particular. That interest is piqued even more when the selection is a little harder to come by. Bringing guests’ attention around to these beers will generally be best rewarded in the cooler months, and the current craft beer boom means there are an increasingly wide number of different-volume stouts to choose from. In event planning and beer-dinner themes, slotting stouts in the winter can keep things fresh.
At the World of Beer location on Dr. Phillips Boulevard in Orlando, Florida, the full-service restaurant recently hosted its second annual Stout Out to highlight the darker side of the beer spectrum. “This is the time of the year where a lot of the seasonal stouts come out, typically between November and March,” says Zach Carter, the location’s director of operations. “You’re getting into the cold months, where everyone’s coming out with their different rare or seasonal, or once-a-year stouts. So what we did was put them together to have an event.” Voilà: the Stout Out.
For them, it’s a combination of both customer interest and beer availability. “In the summer, obviously, you don’t want to sit on the patio and drink a really heavy stout,” Carter notes. “I mean, some people might, but you just don’t think of that in the summer.” Sourcing higher-ABV, limited-release options that are likely to help draw a crowd for an event like Stout Out is easier in the winter months, though the restaurant also sets aside kegs months in advance, particularly beers that can age. (Stouts tend to be more forgiving here than hoppier styles.)
Seasonal availability of different stout options will definitely vary depending upon geography and distribution, with cooler parts of the country, generally speaking, being a bit more likely to have higher-alcohol, year-round stout options. For restaurants in a similar situation to this World of Beer spot in the temperate Sunshine State, smartly sourcing crowd-drawing beer in advance can help.
The latest Stout Out had around a dozen draft examples, including Marshal Zhukov Russian Imperial Stout from Cigar City and two rare offerings from Funky Buddha Brewery. These are basically two of the hottest breweries in Florida right now, along with Cycle and J. Wakefield breweries.
The format of Stout Out is pay as you go, with various sampler flights being offered as well. The bulk of promotion for the event was through in-house marketing efforts and social media, and it did a nice job of positioning the restaurant’s bourbon-barrel event that was two weeks later—also featuring mostly stouts.
“Barrel-aging is huge right now,” Carter says. He points to more impactful flavor profiles in general as being major points of interest for the consumer as of late, and the variety of stouts in the marketplace has never been higher. For instance, some of the special flavor profiles that come to mind include coffee, chocolate, oyster, oatmeal, vanilla, salt, caramel, chili pepper, pretzel, cinnamon, kaffir lime leaf, coconut, and graham cracker—and pairing opportunities can vary nicely.
Stout and Steak
There are diverse options out there for stout-focused pairing promotions. For instance, the Traveler Montlake in Seattle hosted a beer dinner in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, with a five-course pairing menu. For $55 apiece, guests started simple with Guinness Draught paired with lamb stew, before progressing into headier options like Samuel Adams’ Thirteenth Hour—an oak-aged, Belgian-style stout with a spicy yeast character—served with wild boar medallions on gnocchi.
At an October event at Beef & Barley in Chicago, the gastropub dug into its private stash of aged Goose Island Bourbon County Stout bottles, organizing a three-course meal around them. The popular 14.2 percent ABV bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout is released with various barrel treatments and special-ingredient versions each year. For the Beef & Barley event, the main version was served in 5-ounce portions, with additional pours available for purchase.
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant—with 12 locations throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—runs an annual Steak & Stout event throughout its restaurants to promote the seasonal availability of its Russian Imperial Stout. (By the way: Its RIS has won a rather impressive seven medals at the Great American Beer Festival.) The Steak & Stout promotion, typically runs for around 10 days starting in late February and revolves around a set of five steak options intended to pair well with the award-winning stout. The Steak & Stout promotion, with the aptly chosen slogan: “A beer fit for a steak,” prices the entrées from $21.95 to $34.95.
In addition to the pairing promotion, Iron Hill sells its award-winning RIS to-go in 16-ounce four-packs, for $22. The restaurant also offers the beer in a 22-ounce bomber format as part of a holiday gift pack, which boasts two other Iron Hill beers, the Wee Heavy and The Cannibal, a strong Belgian-style ale. The three-bottle gift set sells for $50.
One of the best reasons to program a beer menu with stouts is that there’s huge diversity here, despite a drinking population that still generally thinks of stouts as heavy and meal-like. Guinness? It’s actually a lighter-bodied beer in the grand scheme of things.
“That name stout just suggests that it’s going to be—in some cases—overly big in flavor and, you know, just going to hammer you. And it’s really not the case,” explains Bubba Love, Left Hand Brewing Company’s ambassador at large. “There really is a wide spectrum of intensities and extremes when it comes to stouts.”
With that in mind, a key focus for Left Hand is its Nitro Milk Stout: a highly approachable, 6 percent ABV stout, sweetened with lactose and given its bubbles by nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide. Left Hand became the first craft brewery in the U.S. to bottle a nitro beer, back in 2011, and the creamy-textured, chocolaty stout has been finding a receptive audience ever since. “About half the beer we make is Nitro Milk Stout,” Love says.
Left Hand, which also worked in tandem with Rogue Ales and Spiegelau to craft the latter’s Stout Glass, offers a variety of stouts throughout the year, including an imperial version and a recently released imperial coffee milk stout called Bittersweet. The majority of brewers will typically offer at least one chocolate-forward, roasted stout-like option, if not more. Comparing the imperial stout versus the milk stout, Love adds: “It’s a totally different drinking experience.”
Increasingly, what appeals most to diners is just that: a totally different experience. Special events highlighting the diversity in stouts can provide a break from all the hops—and bring guests back around to the beer menu’s dark side, and a ton of pairing potential.