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Wine & Spirits

Dark, rich and creamy: California's rising stars

January 04, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

IT'S Daylight Losing Time. The days are overcast, the nights are long. It's the season for a glass of a dark, comforting ale: stout or its gentler cousin, porter. Drinking one of these brews, with their mellow coffee- or chocolate-like roasted flavors, is like curling up in front of the fire, only with bubbles.

They're more than a seasonal thing too -- they've been gathering steam around here for a while. Fifteen years ago, you could scarcely find any stout in this country but Guinness. Then craft brewers fell in love with the style, and today at least 23 California brewers make a stout (about a dozen make a porter too). On top of that, about 30 California brew pubs make their own stouts and porters.

"There's definitely a trend to roastier, darker, more full-flavored beers," says Jason Rosenfeld, owner of Naja's Place in Redondo Beach, which keeps five stouts and four porters on tap, including four California brews: Sierra Nevada Porter from Chico, San Diego's AleSmith Speedway Stout, and the Smoked Porter and Imperial Russian Stout from Stone Brewing in Escondido.

"The same people who are into tastier wines are drinking the more flavorful beers," Rosenfeld says. "A lot of my customers are drinking imperial stouts, which are almost a liquid meal -- when it pours out it looks like motor oil, with complex flavors of coffee, chocolate and licorice."

And yet these dark ales are the opposite of the traditional American lager, which has always prided itself on its lightness. The stout and porter boom is a story of the growing sophistication of our national palate.

The pioneer, as in much else about the craft brew revival, was San Francisco brewer Fritz Maytag. Having revived the moribund Anchor Brewing Co. in 1971, he boldly released a porter in 1974. It was the first modern American version of a style of ale that had nearly been forgotten -- even in Europe, where the famous Guinness brewery had recently ended two centuries of making porter.

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Brewers' favorite

CRAFT brewing started to snowball in the 1980s, and newcomers such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. often made porters. In the process, it turned out that a lot of brewers, and their customers, really preferred stout, the more strongly flavored of the two styles. Now beer lovers have a wide range of choices.

Sang Yoon, whose Santa Monica restaurant Father's Office typically has two or three California dark ales on draft and a dozen or so in bottles, particularly likes two that define that range. "Anchor Porter has nice balance," he says. "It offers lots of coffee-toffee flavor; it's not too alcoholic or too bitter or too sweet -- I think it's a classic.

"I also love North Coast's Old Rasputin [Russian] Imperial Stout, but it's not for beginners -- it's very hoppy, extremely malty, decadent, ridiculously strong, but well made." Because of its coffee-like flavor, Yoon mixes Old Rasputin (made in Fort Bragg) with tawny Port to make what he calls his "espresso."

"California stouts are generally good quality," says Yoon. "They're different from the European stouts like Guinness, though -- they're bigger, bolder, hoppier."

"I like the California stouts better than the Europeans' because they do use more hops," says Mike McCullough, beer buyer for Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, which stocks about 15 California stouts and porters. "Take Anderson Valley's Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. Oatmeal tends to make malt sweeter, but it has a dry finish, almost floral with hops. And I love North Coast's Old #38 Stout: a little smokiness with the roastiness, just a little espresso quality, a nice hop finish, fairly dry."

Many brewers admit the basic reason they make stout or porter is that they just like big, highly flavored ales.

Brew master Peter Hoey of Bison Brewing Co. in Berkeley, known for its Chocolate Stout, which underlines the flavor of darkly roasted "chocolate" malts by actually adding cocoa, says, "I'd say the main reason brewers make it is that they all personally prefer porter, stout or IPA [India pale ale, a light-colored but highly hopped brew]."

Brew master Karl Zappa of Bayhawk Ales, Irvine, makes Bayhawk Chocolate Porter. He concurs: "The porter is our most decorated beer and also our slowest seller. Sometimes I've had to think it would be the style to drop, but I'd hate to. I'm committed to it. It fits a niche in the market -- people who like porter really like it. And it holds up well in bottle, it has a good shelf life.

"Also, everybody on my board of directors really likes to drink it."

Brewers also enjoy making these distinctive brews. "It's part of the allure of brewing to be able to make so many styles," says Peter Zien, brew master of AleSmith Brewing in San Diego.

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