Stout was my first love among beers.
One winter's night a quarter of a century ago, a friend offered me a pint of Guinness in a Vermont pub, and in a matter of hours, I went from teetotaler—mostly— to talented tippler.
The jet-black Irish stout's rich flavor and smooth finish were its chief attractions, but at the time, it was also considered a rare beer to find on tap in the U.S.. Beer drinkers more familiar with Budweiser or Coors eyed the import with the same kind of grudging respect smokers of Marlboros or Winstons gave Europeans who rolled their own cigarettes. Stout drinkers were treated with reverence as epicures who could take the beverage's full bitter blast on the chin and come back swigging.
Hunkering down over the thick, rich drink with a group of college buddies in our favorite watering hole became a favorite weekend occupation. With bowls of peanuts or popcorn at our sides, pint glasses in one hand and a deck of cards between us, we forged friendships that lasted long after graduation.
Today, Guinness is no longer rare in American bars, but it sometimes seems as if these long, languid nights of deep discussions accompanied by a steady flow of good beer are on the wane. It's not the people who have changed so much as the beer.
Despite its reputation as a heavyweight amongst beers, Guinness is actually relatively low in alcohol. Rather than anything having to do with manly stamina on our part, the reason my college buddies and I were able to consume so much and still stay semi-cogent all night long was that at about 4.2 percent alcohol, Guinness is comparable to some light beers. Twenty years ago, few American beers far exceeded 5 percent. Now it's not uncommon to see beers that have closer to 8 or 9 percent (or more) alcohol in them.
Forever in search of variation and new superlatives, American microbrewers have been gradually elevating the alcohol levels of their drinks. Sometimes these high levels of booze are a side effect of a new quest for a unique flavor, but often adding the extra zing is the point.
"Imperial" is a new term typically given to stouts and India Pale Ales that are twice as intense as their more benign equivalents. Conversely, aficionados have been using the term "session beer" to describe those brews that can be consumed in multiples during one sitting.
According to the Beer Advocate, the term "session beer" originated in England during the first World War. The story goes that employees working on making the artillery shells were restricted to two time periods when they were allowed to drink. So as to not affect their performance away from the bar, these patriotic drinkers chose milder beers.
The story may be apocryphal—beers back then rarely packed the punch some do today, and it's hard to imagine Brits fine-tuning their consumption to such a degree—but the use of the term these days certainly is an indication of how uncommon beers with an ordinary alcohol level have become amongst American micro-brewers.
I was lamenting this trend toward more powerful beers recently with Sam Braudis, the owner of TruBeer in Easthampton. For the most part, he agreed that too much alcohol affected both the taste and the tenor of an evening's drinking, but he wasn't prepared to write off Imperial beers entirely. He recommended two stouts: Black Cauldron by Grand Teton Brewing (8 percent) and Old Rasputin by North Coast Brewing (9 percent).
The alcohol wasn't immediately obvious in either drink, and both had unusual, strong characters. Black Cauldron was sweet and had a pleasant chocolate finish, but I preferred the other stout. It had more bite and was more bitter, its flavors more complex.
Named after the Russian monk some say helped precipitate the fall of the last czar and his empire, Old Rasputin is popular. It's been recommended to me many times before, and even its label boasts the beer's cult following. While it certainly was tasty, even after having split the bottle with a friend, the mad monk took his toll on my drinking session.
My friends and I soon moved on to other, less potent beers, but the damage had been done. I felt compromised. The night was still young when I began to feel my own attentiveness flag. As he'd done to the Russian empire, the mad monk toppled me, forcing me into a fitful slumber. I'll make a point of avoiding the holy man in the future.