During summer, beer drinkers typically favor light and refreshing lagers, but as the days get colder many gravitate towards stronger and darker beer. Stout, long defined as a robust black beer has come to be seen as a seasonal beer style strongly associated with winter. This is something of a disservice to stout since the only commonality across the style is the dark color and relatively high alcohol content. Looking beyond these similarities reveals an entire range of dark beer suitable for enjoying at any time of year. As Michael J. Lewis says in his definitive book on stout “no other beer style in the world more closely embodies the ideas of quality, value, and flavor than does stout.”

The four seasons as they occur in the Northern Hemisphere, offer an opportunity to beer drinkers; A chance to forgo the traditional summer, fall, or winter beer styles and instead, sample a diverse range of stout over the course of the year. Whether it’s spring, summer, autumn, or winter; there is a stout for every season.

Spring – Chocolate Stout

When it comes to beer, chocolate usually refers to chocolate malt, a term for germinated barley that has been heavily roasted so that it provides deep color, and rich notes of coffee and cocoa. When it comes to stout however, chocolate increasingly refers to actual cocoa being used in the brewing process. The particular character of the cocoa that comes across in a chocolate stout depends on other variables of the beer’s production including how the cocoa was processed, what the other ingredients are, and the quality of the cocoa beans. Brass Castle Brewery’s Trinitario Chocolate Stout allows the bitter notes of single origin cocoa from Trinidad to compliment the similarly bitter and floral flavor of hops. The company also once brewed a decadent dessert stout inspired by Black Forest Cake using chocolate and cherries. These two chocolate stouts from the same brewery are different enough to offer some insight into the diversity to be found in chocolate stout.

You may be wondering; What does chocolate stout have to do with spring though?

In several ancient civilizations, beer had a close connection with spring festivals and harvest deities. A mysterious psychedelic beer called Kykeon was part of a Roman tradition dedicated to the spring goddess Persephone and the agrarian goddess Demeter. Similarly, Dionysus, a Greco-Roman god and his Egyptian equivalent Osiris were associated with fermented beverages and resurrection. Scholars argue that this resurrection motif was originally symbolic of grain being malted and beer being fermented in the dark.

Early Mesoamericans shared a similar view and associated both the germination of corn and the fermentation of cacao with spiritual traditions and springtime. Anthropologist Cameron L. McNeil described cacao and maize as “an important ritual pair in Mesoamerican cosmology” that was “combined in ritual beverages with sacred water to feed the gods and ancestors so that they will work to provide agricultural fertility.” She describes several primitive beers that were enjoyed in pre-Columbian Central and South America that used ingredients like annatto, vanilla, and chili peppers. Dogfish Head Brewery made such a beer for their Ancient Ale series based on the analysis of residue from a brewing vessel discovered in Honduras. Although this was not a stout, many craft breweries have released seasonal stouts inspired by Aztec and Mayan brewing traditions, the most famous of these was possibly Chocolate Chili Stout from Sierra Nevada.

Chocolate stout as a spring tradition also offers an opportunity to experience traditional Easter candy in liquid form. It’s the golden goo-beer-lee, a collaboration between Cadbury and the Goose Island Beer Company is probably the most famous example of this. Smaller companies however, sometimes give their standard milk stout a chocolate boost and serve it on tap while hosting an Easter egg hunt at the brewery.

Brass Castle Brewery Trinitario Chocolate Stout
Brass Castle Brewery Trinitario Chocolate Stout

Summer – Tropical Stout

After their trip is over, vacationers to the Caribbean often reminisce on days spent on the beach enjoying bottles of light lager garnished with a slice of lime. Those that step off the beaten path in the English-speaking West Indies however might realize that among local drinkers, Guinness happens to have a cult following. From Guyana to Jamaica, it’s common to see the iconic harp logo emblazoned on the walls of rum shops and small groceries.

The relationship between Guinness and the Caribbean began in late 1801 with the first reference to a product called “West Indies Porter” in a brewery notebook. The recipe called for a combination of fifty parts pale malt, and seventy-five parts black malt with a small amount of brown malt. It was also brewed with extra hops and allowed to rest in oak vats in order to preserve it during the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. This product was instrumental in Guinness growing into a notable beer brand all across the English speaking world and it’s generally considered to be the predecessor to Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

Today, Guinness Foreign Extra is brewed all across the globe through partnerships with beer companies in different countries. The brewing methods differ but they all use a concentrated essence called “Guinness Flavour Extract” that’s made from barley roasted at the original Guinness Brewery then brewed, matured and concentrated on site. As Fergal Murray, the former master brewer who also worked at first factory designed to produce Foreign Extra Stout beyond the British Isles put it “You have to make sure the beer meets the same standards as in Dublin.”

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout at Bubble Beach in Dominica
Guinness Foreign Extra Stout at Bubble Beach in Dominica

From the earliest days of stout’s popularity in the Caribbean and the wider British Commonwealth, there was competition from local brands. Early British reports described this phenomenon as Colonial Stout, which consisted of brands like Jamaica’s Dragon Stout, and Trinidad’s Royal Extra Stout, both of which are still produced today. Sweet stouts also had some popularity in the region during the last century, with Murray’s Milk Stout and Mackeson Milk Stout once being imported into Barbados and Trinidad respectively. This history shaped a rich brewing tradition and a class of dark beer now referred to as tropical stout.

These beers, defined by the use of lager yeast and local ingredients like cane sugar and cassava is generally seen as a sweeter version of Foreign Extra stout that emerged over time. They’re often described by as having notes of molasses, licorice and dried fruit and according to the stout style guidelines of the Beer Judge Certification Guidelines, being “surprisingly refreshing in a hot climate”.

Mackeson Stout
Mackeson Stout, one third of the Trinidad Stout Trinity

Tropical stouts are ideal for summer but they are not easy to find since they are rarely brewed outside of the Caribbean and certain parts of Asia and Africa. Luckily, they’re stocked in the West Indian or Asian food section of many supermarkets. Additionally, Guinness Foreign Extra is becoming increasingly available, and there is now a modern interpretation of Guinness West Indies Porter in select markets. If finding one of these fails, a Black India Pale Ale might manage to come close. Lost Highway IPA from Mother Road Brewing Company has the sour notes and coffee-like character of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, a familiarity that is particularly appreciated in the Arizona heat.

Autumn- Pastry Stout

There is perhaps no season more steeped in beer tradition than fall, with the events that define how Autumn beers are seen today having occured hundreds of years ago.

In sixteenth century Bavaria, an ordinance was established that limited the brewing of beer from the end of September until April of the next year. The result of this was that beer brewed in March was liberally consumed at the end of September to clear the cellars for the new season’s beer. Due to this, early October became strongly associated with binge drinking beer. As a festival, Oktoberfest was only formally established in 1810 to celebrate a Royal Wedding, but by then, Marzbier a dark and malty lager brewed in March and matured over the summer was already liberally drunk in October. As drinking culture changed, the official beer of Oktoberfest would evolve into a slightly lighter style called Festbier.

Autumn is also Pumpkin Spice Season, and while Pumpkin Spice Lattes might be a recent phenomenon, Pumpkin Ales feature fairly early in American History. When the pilgrims made their famous journey to North America, dwindling stocks of beer played a prominent role in their decision to land at Plymouth Rock. Among the first structures built in their fledgling colony was a brewhouse, and the settlers enjoyed corn beer with the Wampanoag people on the first Thanksgiving celebration. The Wampanoag Indians taught the pilgrims how to live off of the land, and even how to use local plants in brewing.

Beer historian Gregg Smith wrote of early English attempts to brew beer from corn in 1584. Among them was a report of a colonist in Virginia who “found a good way to make a good drink from Indian corn, which he preferred to good English beer”. Pumpkin also found some popularity as a beer making product. A verse from the 1630s described the use of “pumpkins and parsnips, and walnut tree chips” to make beer when malt was insufficient. Two hundred years later, a beer using similar ingredients was still being brewed but after the creation and consolidation of American beer companies as well as the effects of Prohibition; Pumpkin beer would go extinct.

When resurrected as part of the modern craft beer movement, pumpkin ale would become a catch-all autumn beer that combines the sweet and malty notes of a Marzen, the creaminess contributed by pureed pumpkin, and the spices traditionally associated with pumpkin pie. This combination of characteristics means that pumpkin spice ales may come across like liquid pumpkin pie, one of the reasons why the style remains so divisive among beer drinkers. Many breweries often push the envelope when it comes to getting their autumn ale to resemble a seasonal dessert. Funky Buddha Brewing’s Sweet Potato Casserole Ale is brewed with sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and vanilla and is ideal as dessert after a Thanksgiving dinner.

With milk stout and chocolate stout being well-established categories, the ethos of a beer inspired by a dessert was a logical step for stout to take. The result of this is the Pastry Stout, a style generally defined as a dark beer fashioned after bakery treats, done by adding ingredients like marshmallows, bananas, or coconuts to the brewing process.

Well done pastry stouts are dark, decadent and delicious, managing to be both dessert and digestif in a single glass, proving to be the ideal post-dinner beverage. While divisive among beer snobs, this style has helped some independently owned craft beer companies widen their fanbase. Josh Pena of Islla Street Brewing says that J.Wakefield Brewing has set “the gold standard for pastry stouts” and considers their banana pudding inspired Nanner Hammock one of the best ever, while Historic Brewing Company calls their Piehole Porter “the one that put us on the map”. The diversity is almost never-ending, as brewers channel chocolate cakes, s’mores and macaroons when brewing these stouts.

Piehole Porter
Piehole Porter brewed by Historic Brewing Company in Flagstaff, Arizona

Winter – Imperial Stout

From as early as the 1780s, London brewers would export a strong dark beer to the Russian Royal Court, earning it the moniker Imperial Stout. The high alcohol content allowed it to survive cold weather without freezing while also giving drinkers a sweet, warming sensation with each sip. Even then, Imperial Stout was considered to be a luxurious beverage worthy of savoring on cold winter nights. Beer writer Michael Jackson describes the style as having “the tarry sweetness of Pedro Ximénez sherry”. He continues “there is a suggestion of cocoa, or strong coffee on a winter’s night. The fruitiness is reminiscent of the burnt currants on the edge of a Christmas cake that has been removed from the oven, or the Christmas pudding traditional in Britain, heavy with dried and candied fruit.” It’s easy to see the appeal of Imperial Stout as a Holiday beer.

Centuries after the emergence of this style, Goose Island Brewery would add another chapter to the story of Imperial Stout and further establish it as a winter beer through a seasonal release that will come to define the company. This was in the mid-nineties, when both bottled Imperial stout and barrel aged beer were almost non-existent on the American craft beer landscape. Brew master Greg Hall had both in mind when he envisioned what his one thousandth batch of beer would be. A chance meeting with sixth generation bourbon distillery Booker Noe in 1994 granted him access to some six year old oak barrels that previously held Jim Beam whisky. He promptly filled those barrels with what he considered to be “the most robust imperial stout imaginable”.

Over the course several weeks the stout soaked into the charred wood, coaxing from it notes of leather, espresso, and intense oak. One hundred days later, a rich woody stout redolent with notes of espresso and fudge would come out of those barrels. Bourbon County Stout was born.

By annually releasing each individually numbered black bottle on the day after Thanksgiving, Bourbon County became a Christmas Beer by default. Many buyers would also cellar their coveted bottles for a year to allow some of the aggressiveness to mature into approachability. This also made it a New Year’s Eve beer by default since drinkers would often open a bottle on the last night of the year to reflect on the trials and tribulations of the previous three hundred sixty-five days.

According to Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing and Lost Abbey, “Goose Island Bourbon County Stout proved that big beers could marry the huge flavors of American whisky and skillful beer production.” The company played an important role in the development of the Chicago craft beer community, and their iconic barrel-aged beer has inspired similar stouts all across the country. Hunahpu’s Stout from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa is inspired by the connection between Maya mythology and chocolate, and brewed with Central American spices, cacao, and three types of chilies; ancho, pasilla, and guajillo. Released during March and April, it’s a zesty chocolate stout ideal for spring. When allowed to rest until December however, the flavor changes significantly. The cinnamon and vanilla brings together the cacao and chilies and the beer now closely resembles a complex Amaro liqueur.

On the other side of Florida, J Wakefield Brewing also pushes the limit of stout styles. Boss Tycoon is brewed with cocoa, macademia nuts and marshmallows, while Boutit Boutit is infused with Tahitian vanilla, cocoa nibs and maple syrup.

Boss Tycoon from J. Wakefield Brewing

These examples from Florida challenge the concept of stout classification, since they can be considered chocolate stouts, dessert stouts, barrel-aged stouts, and Imperial stouts. As Michael J. Lewis put it, there is no logical continuum between “one brewery’s oatmeal stout and another’s imperial”. Adjectives are helpful in understanding a stout since they convey useful information, but ultimately stout classification is flawed. Perhaps it is better to define stout by the time of year that it’s most suitable, a stout for each season.