Are Stronger Stouts Better Stouts?

Alex Fossi, August 13, 2013

You're at the beer store. You're looking for a stout, but not something you've had a dozen times before -- today, you want something new. Thanks to the amnesia that causes all of us to immediately forget all of the beers we've been meaning to try the second we walk into the beer store, you have no clue what you're looking for. In a moment of doubt, you decide to simply go for the highest alcohol by volume you can find. After all, stouts are heavy, warming beers. A higher ABV is probably the way to go, right? Did you choose the right adventure?

If you're just trying to find yourself a solid beer that won't end up being sub-replacement level, then the answer is almost certainly yes.  Generally speaking, you're unlikely to find a great stout at below 6% ABV.  Take note of the following chart, showing where American stouts come in by BAR and ABV:

Of American stouts below 6% ABV, 17 of 29 have negative BAR. Just one (Kuhnhenn's Creme Brulee Java Stout) comes in above 4 BAR; only three others even surpass 2 BAR.  The average BAR for these beers is -.226. That's a pretty weak group. You're more likely than not to get a beer that you might not even want to finish. Even if you happen to hit a decent option, there's little upside.  Maybe it's easier to look at it in buckets; here's a chart showing the average BAR for American stouts for each ABV% range.

Now, it's worth noting that I limited the selection to American stouts there. In this scenario, we're looking at how to select a stout with no information other than what you read off the bottle, so I'm assuming A) that you're not looking to spend a large amount of money on an unknown and B) that it makes the most sense to look at beers with a wide availability. For those purposes, American stouts fit the bill.

But hey, maybe that's not you. You're a high roller, willing to drop fat stacks at your local beer store, which just happens to have an amazing selection of high-end stouts.  Cost and availability are no obstacles to you.  In that case, a glance at the leaderboards should be enough to tell you that you aren't looking for an American stout.  On the first page, you won't see any American stouts at all.  What you will see is a lot of double/imperial stouts.  The top four stouts?  They're all double/imperials, none with an ABV below 11.2%.

Looking further down, our top American stout is The Bruery's Chocolate Rain, which comes in at 9.27 BAR and 19.5% ABV.  You'll notice it's not included in my analysis above.  It would be an extreme outlier, and I have my doubts that it shouldn't be categorized as a double/imperial stout.  The 2nd best American stout?  Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout.  That carries a 6.73 BAR...and a 13.0% ABV.  Maybe there's an issue with how some of these strong stouts are categorized. 

So, what's the takeaway here? Don't buy a stout below 6% ABV unless you know what you're buying. According to our data, you'll likely be disappointed. If you want a great stout, you're going to want a double/imperial -- they aren't universally awesome, but almost all of the best stouts fall into this category. The ones that don't...well, maybe they should.  All in all, not really an unexpected finding there.

Now, what's still unclear is whether there's a limit.  Sure, there are some high ABV double stouts up top, but is it too simple to expect a higher ABV to always be a better beer?  It's not like anyone's adding Everclear to their beers to improve the quality.  Yesterday, Matt Murphy showed us that you can actually have too much alcohol, at least in pale ales. 

There's also one more item that might lead us to question whether the strongest stouts are always the best.  I mentioned our top four stouts being double/imperials.  Number five is different.  That's Guinness Draught, which is an Irish Dry stout, coming in at just 4.3% ABV.  Do we have to reconsider our thinking, given that it's clearly possible for a low-ABV stout to succeed? 

Next time around, I'll be looking more at both extremes of the spectrum; we'll examine the value of extremely high-ABV double stouts, and take a closer look at Guinness Draught and how it earned that #19 spot on our leaderboards.  Let's just say I have a few doubts, myself.  Don't touch that dial.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.