Going dark

Beers to get you through winters’ final nights

By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Three great porters from Michigan and Ohio breweries: [l to r] Bell’s, Rivertown and Great Lakes

Winter might be drawing to a close, but now is the perfect time to savor dark, rich beers before the light, bright springtime ales start edging out shelf space. We’re talking stouts and porters, the perennial winter favorites. While these beers lack the Christmas cookie spice of holiday ales, their rich coffee and chocolate flavors warm the body and soul, even if late winter’s chill still hangs in the air. And luckily, we brew some world-class examples of these beers brewed here in the Midwest.


When many people think of stouts, they think Guinness, with its tan, cascading head. While the Irish brew is certainly iconic, it is far from the only, or the best, example of a stout. Stouts come in several varieties. Guinness and Irish-style stouts are dry stouts, with an emphasis on a medium body and dry, bitter flavors from roasted barley. Many people may have heard of oatmeal stouts, which are brewed with oatmeal as part of the mash. Oats give the beer a fuller body and a more complex flavor. Sweet stouts are similar in composition to dry stouts but include lactose, an un-fermentable sugar that sweetens the beer. Lactose is derived from milk, so these beers are often also known as milk stouts. Imperial stouts are the bigger, tougher older brothers of dry and sweet stouts. These beers tend to be huge, with a lot of alcohol (usually 10 percent ABV or more) and rich, dark flavors. Coffee flavors are usually present, but big, dark malts create funny combinations in high concentrations, so drinkers may also note dark chocolate and ripe pit fruits, such as cherries and plum, in these bigger beers.

New Holland The Poet – An oatmeal stout brewed in Holland, Mich. This raven-black beer is full on flavor, but low on alcohol (5.2 percent ABV), with a smooth character that makes it a nice bet for a session beer. The Poet is a nice St. Paddy’s alternative for those looking to drink locally.

Founders Breakfast Stout – A coffee-lover’s dream, this Grand Rapids brew melds flaked oats, Sumatra and Kona coffee, and bitter and imported chocolate. As the beer warms, the chocolate and coffee roasts dart in and out of each others’ shadows, daring you to pinpoint where one flavor begins and the other ends. A great choice for breakfast, but limit yourself to weekend brunches where you don’t have much to do afterwards, as this beer clocks in at 8.3 percent ABV.

Hoppin’ Frog B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher – The name stands for “Bodacious Oatmeal Russian Imperial Stout,” and the beer is as big as its moniker (9.4 percent ABV). The robust and roasted dark malts create vibrations of rich, ripe pit fruits on the palate, while the nose is a burst of malt and aggressive hops. Little wonder this beer has taken a gold medal twice in the past five years at the Great American Beer Festival.


Porters are brown beers with a long history in England. Porters and stouts come from the same stock, and at one point would have been indistinguishable from each other. Today, it is usually the use of roasted barley that distinguishes stouts from porters. While stouts evolved, around the middle of the 19th century, demand for porters died off. By the two world wars, the beer style was virtually extinct. Several decades later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, porters saw a revival. This was especially true in the States, where microbrewers resurrected the dormant style.

As with stouts, porters come in several varieties. Brown porters tend to be lower in alcohol and a tad sweeter, with more caramel flavors, than other porters. Robust porters tend to be bigger, with more roast character. Baltic porters are the second cousins to Russian Imperial Stouts and tend to be over the top in terms of alcohol and malt flavors.

Rivertown Roebling Porter – The Cincinnati brewers tried an approach similar to some of the stouts listed above, using organic vanilla beans, Peruvian coffee beans and raw cane sugar. The beer tends to be a bit more coffee forward than most porters and clocks in a little lighter than the stouts at 7.8 percent ABV.

Great Lakes Brewing Company Edmund Fitzgerald Porter – This Cleveland beer packs a flavor wallop, with a huge roasty character and a nice bite. With such a big flavor, one would expect a more dominant alcohol presence, but this beer clocks in on the low side (5.8 percent ABV). To many, Edmund Fitzgerald is the perfect representation of an American porter.

Bell’s Porter – For years, this Kalamazoo, Mich. beer has been my “desert island” beer, that brew I would drink if I were stranded in the Pacific with nothing but a magical keg of beer (that continued to refill itself and stay at the right temperature). Try this one with a Dewey’s Bronx Bomber pizza. The roasty bite pairs nicely with the spice in the tomato sauce and cuts through the oils from the pepperoni and sausage. And at 5.6 percent ABV, try a couple.

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