Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tropic Thunder

Ah, summer—the whirring sound of a lawn mower down the street; kids laughing and splashing in the neighborhood swimming pool; the smell hot dogs and hamburgers, steaks and chops, grilling on so many backyard barbecues. The mercury is rising and the humidity is covering Albany like a wool blanket. What better opportunity than a day in the upper 80ºs to grab a nice pint of stout. To which you reply, surely you mean IPA or Pilsner or even Kölsch? Nope, I mean stout, good old, black-as-night, stout—and the closer you get the equator, the more people are going to agree with me.

The stout I'm talking about is Foreign Extra Stout, or as it is sometimes referred to—Tropical Stout. The idea of dark beer consumption in warm climates, isn't as far fetched as it might sound. The whole thing started in the early nineteenth century. As Britian's empire expanded, so did it's demand for beer, and brown beer was no exception. We all know the story of IPA's trip around the globe, but Porters and Stouts also got their vacations. In fact, during 1860 nearly 30% of Whitbread & Company's, London-brewed porter was made for the, rather steamy, Indian markets. Don't believe me? Go spend the next few weeks perusing Ron Pattinson's site Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, and see for yourself. Historically, the main difference between domestically consumed stout and those stouts produced for foreign exportation, was the amount of hops. Extra hops in the boil and dry hopping gave the beer more preservative power, as well as a nice zing on the tongue. While IPAs have become arguably, the most recognizable "export" style, FESs have gained and grown in popularity, especially in sultry, tropical and subtropical areas. In some cases, breweries were established in those sun-baked countries, and the characteristics of export stouts—medium-high gravities*, pronounced bitter sweetness and a slight sourness—became the standards for locally produced versions. These stouts are now being produced globally, in countries as far-flung as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Argentina, Bulgaria and Japan—as well as the U.S. and Europe.

In the best interest of my readers, I took it upon myself to test the theory that ebony hued beers can be just as satisfying in the 80ºs as the 30ºs. I went with stouts from three different breweries, two from warm climates and one produced by an obscure brewery, on a little island in the North Atlantic— first Cooper's Best Extra Stout from Leabrook, Australia; then Dragon Stout from Desnoes & Geddes of Kingston, Jamaica; and finally the grand pappy of them all, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout—from that little island in the Atlantic. I'm not going to review all three, but I am going to give a general overview of the style, picking out points from each.

All of the stouts poured essentially, black with coffee-colored heads. The Coopers had a noticeable fruity, cocoa aroma, however the Guinness and Dragon leaned more earthy. The Dragon was the sweetest, with a molasses and anise quality. The Coopers had mildly tart, plum-like bitter sweetness, while the Guinness was, by far the most sour—bringing just a slightly sweet, leathery-charcoal cocoaness. They all had a good amount of bitterness, although the Guinness had significantly more, than the first two. All three, while flavorful and complex, are surprisingly light bodied, rich and involved, but not thick. The ultimate test of the style however, would come to the Guinness. The temperature, in Albany yesterday, reached the high 80ºs by dinner time. The humidity was causing the moisture on our house windows to condensate. Add the heat radiating off of my outdoor grill and you've got the the perfect, Malaysian rain forest-like, conditions to test the mettle of these beers.

That beautiful Irish lass came through.

Yes, these beers are dark and yes they have a ton of flavor, but none of them are heavy. I'd take a guess, that most Americans expect all stouts to be the "served off nitrogen–thick and creamy–wait for the head to settle out" kind. These stouts are nothing like that and honestly, I wouldn't want a Guinness Draught in August, either. These stouts aren't just thirst quenchers, either—that would be too boring for these beers. I've seen descriptions of them as just beefed up dry stouts—that's like calling a Porsche 911 GT2 RS, a beefed up Volkswagen. Theses beers come from the idea that embracing the heat, will cool you down—like hot chilies in curry. They're big and bold and they wrestle with the you, saying, "Yeah, it's hot. Guess what? It's gonna be hot tomorrow too. Grow a set and deal with it." Whatever you want to call it—Foreign Extra, Export or Tropical—the next time you can't stand the heat, put back that can of lawnmower beer or bottle of Euro-lager, and go for something black, because you know what they say... you'll never go back.

*As a note of clarity: I've seen online, a number of sites stating that FESs originally used more hops and had higher gravities "... to survive their long journeys..." I didn't think that was completely true—the hops yes, but not the gravity part. As usual, the good Doctor Pattinson was able to straighten things out. He let me know that, the final gravity (1.075ish) of these stouts was on par with domestically produced stout until the outbreak of WWI. At that point domestic stout gravities dropped, while FES stayed higher. All of that is neither here nor there, when it came to beer freshness and exportation. What was crucial to staving-off spoilage was making sure that the beer was fully fermented before it was put on the ship. Un-fermented or partially fermented beer was more susceptible to a yeast infection or developing off-flavors, especially when the ships carrying it reached warmer climates.     


  1. Reminds me of my honeymoon in Aruba. The first few days I had to make due with the only 2 (and way overpriced) beers in town- locally brewed Balashi, and Heineken. That is until my first sojourn into the hotel gift shop. In the cooler section were beautiful 4-packs of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout! A delicious coffee flavor with an alcohol sweetness I was not used too (about 8% abv!). Needless to say that was the preferred beverage of choice for the rest of the week and the sweet taste of a Guinness FES will always bring back great memories!

  2. I could very easily see myself drinking any of these on a Caribbean beach, somewhere. Although it would only be one or two in a sitting, or else I'd be sleeping on a Caribbean beach, somewhere! These stouts are definitely not session beers!