Summer School: The Blind Leading the Blind
Cicero’s Beer School has been on break since May and while that is only two months on the calendar, it is an eternity in beer years. Finally we have reached the beer oasis of this extremely hot and dry summer and just in time, because I’m parched. Mimi and I love to have blind beer tastings at home, but unfortunately someone always has to have the answers. Lucky for us Summer School is all about blind tastings, with someone else holding the answers for once. Tonight’s class is all about stouts. Yes, you heard me correctly, stouts. Isn’t that what you drink when the mercury tops 100 degrees? Well evidently Mike Sweeney does just that and he decided that we should all join in by sampling 4 different styles of stout.
Who is Mike Sweeney?
This is a question you hear at least a dozen times a day, right? So let’s just set the record straight right now. You know that informative St. Louis craftbeer website called STLHops? Well Mike claims to be involved with it in some fashion. Ok, who are we kidding, he’s the founder, owner and head guru at STLHops as well as the creator of St. Louis Craft Beer Week. Back in 2007 Mike took his passion for craft beer to the internet and started spreading the good word about the St. Louis craft beer scene. Along with blogs about local events and breweries he also provides a list of current tap selections at many area pubs, including Cicero’s. In June of 2011, Mike went to work as the Craft Beer Manager at Lohr Distributing Company. Lohr is responsible for distributing some really great beers around St. Louis like; Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Perennial, and Ferguson among many others. Mike graced the beer school stage last summer with a blind sampling of saisons and he must have made a good impression because students are squeezed into every corner of the Cicero’s Venue tonight.
Do We Need a Blindfold?
Mike Sweeney is a brave man. He is willing to go into this tasting just as blind as the rest of the class. No cheat sheet for this beer geek. He even has a tip for the rest of us…”Don’t pound IPAs before a blind tasting.” Evidently that could cause you to guess incorrectly and even mistake your favorite brew for something else. And if you are questioning the choice of stouts for a hot day Mike has an answer for that too. “There’s A/C inside…drink up.” Any more questions? I didn’t think so.
What is a Stout?
In order to understand what we are sampling, Mike pulled out the beer dictionary and read the descriptions for a stout vs. a porter. Turns out they are nearly identical. At some point in beer history porters with stronger ABVs were called stout porters. Eventually, mostly because people are lazy with the language and like to take shortcuts, these beers were simply called stouts. Today stouts come in a wide range of ABV from 4% up to 15% plus. The main characteristic is a near black appearance with a strong malt flavor, but even that is up for debate. Mike pointed out the sub categories for stout are: Dry, American, Oatmeal, Sweet or Milk, Russian Imperial, and Foreign Extra. With that in mind let’s try some beers.
Mystery Beer #1
The color will not help us tonight because they are all black to extremely black. The head shows tiny bubbles which leads me to think nitro pour. The mouthfeel confirms my guess about the nitro and I begin to think this is a Guinness. Fairly thin on the finish with a roasted malt taste. The smell is sweet malted milk so now I am leaning to Milk Stout from Left Hand. Stay tuned for the results.
Mystery Beer #2
Again we are greeted with tiny bubbles and the clue of a nitro pour. There is no aroma to speak of, but I keep searching for a clue with my nose. The sample pitcher was thick with a tan colored head so we know this beer comes with a nice stack of foam. Extremely dry. It almost disappears in my mouth. Super thin and almost watery. Very soft and nothing lingers, just a quick finish. In a blind tasting my mind changes with every round, but this time I know I have just tasted Guinness. Even if you only consume one Guinness a year like Mike Sweeney you can indentify that beer. I am confident on this one.
Mystery Beer #3
As I lean into the sample I can already tell that this beer has a higher ABV. The boozy aroma greets your nose and your eyes find a beautiful dark head. Sample 3 is stronger in every way. The malts, the hops and the alcohol are all elevated. The finish is all hops for me, especially after the first two beers. This almost feels like a Black IPA, oh wait Mike just shouted “Black IPA, no such f-ing thing.” I am stumped at this point. Mostly because I am going over the Cicero’s tap list in my head and can’t come up with something this strong. I will guess The Poet by New Holland, but I don’t feel good about that guess. I don’t remember the hops being that big in The Poet in the past, but I can’t come up with another answer at the moment. (After class we discovered this beer has 75 IBUs, and it’s not The Poet)
Mystery Beer #4
The last beer provides us with the biggest head of the night. It is a magnificent looking beer, but it is lacking in taste. It falls somewhere between 1 and 3 on the malt scale and the flavor intensity scale. Not getting much of a flavor after that last boozy stout. Nice and smooth, with no linger. Nothing jumps out on this one, and it comes across as a medium ABV maybe around 6%. After trying all 4 I would have to say this seems more like The Poet than #3, but then what is #3?
Drum roll please……
#1 Milk Stout, Left Hand Brewing in Colorado
#2 Guinness Dry Irish Stout
#3 Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, North Coast Brewing in California
#4 The Poet Oatmeal Stout from New Holland Brewing in Michigan
Mike was correct on all 4 guesses and we didn’t do too bad either with 3 out of 4. I encourage you compare and contrast these 4 beers. You might be surprised by the results when you drink them side by side.
The Last Sip
While on the subject of stouts we wanted to let you know about the blind tasting we did with Tyler, Mimi’s thoroughbred horse. Don’t worry he is over 21 so it is legal. This summer has been incredibly hot, in case you haven’t noticed, and Tyler seems to have a new problem of not sweating. So it was suggested that we give him Guinness to promote the sweating he so desperately needs. He wasn’t too interested in the first can, but after Mimi mixed it with his food he drank it down. Last week we decided to mix it up and try Schlafly Oatmeal Stout. Tyler must be a fan of local beer because that is his favorite and he slurps it down quickly every time we pour it for him. Not sure if it is helping the sweat problem, but it’s always good to have another craftbeer lover in the family. Cheers!
About the Authors: Husband and wife Eric and Mimi have been attending beer school for about3 years now and love every minute of it. Mimi was born and raised in St. Louis. Besides sitting down with a fabulous pint of beer, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her horse. Eric was born and raised in Texas. He enjoys sports, homebrewing and searching for the next great beer. A search he says he has been on for nearly a decade and one that will certainly never end. Mimi, on the other hand, has more recently discovered flavorful beer and is now proud to be called a hop-head. After having moved away for a few years, in 2007, this happy couple moved back to St. Louis and is enjoying all the St. Louis beer scene has to offer, especially Cicero’s Beer School. Cicero’s is lucky to have such an enthusiastic couple writing the beer school blog!