JACK HARRIS co-founded Fort George Brewery in 2007. He began his brewing career at McMenamins Cornelius Pass Roadhouse in 1990, and it was there in Hillsboro that he organized his first Stout Month, which featured four varieties. When he brought the event to McMenamins Lighthouse Brewpub in Lincoln City, the stout count climbed to six. For this year's annual Fort George Stout Month, the Astoria brewery will offer 60-plus stouts—including more than a dozen house-made variations ranging from bourbon barrel aged, to beers infused with coffee or oysters, to a WTF-inducing PB&J imperial stout.
"Stout is remarkably conducive to experimentation," says Harris. "It's vague enough for creativity and specific enough that you know when you're drinking one."
Tickets to Fort George's premier Stout Month event—the Festival of Dark Arts on February 13, a mega-celebration of stouts hailing from 45 breweries—have once again sold out.
Between Fort George's February extravaganza and Lompoc Brewing's Side Bar hosting the fourth annual Black Out Beer Fest on February 19—which features more than 25 beers from breweries across Oregon—it might seem like dark beers are the darlings of the beer world. Or is it just a fleeting fascination that will fade with the first whiff of spring?
He Ain't Heavy, He's My Porter
As far back as the '80s, the Northwest produced such early classics as McMenamins Terminator Stout, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout, and Bert Grant's Imperial Stout from Yakima Brewing. Dark beers come in all sizes and flavors. The most common are porters and stouts, but even there there's a taxonomy.
There are English-style brown porters, fuller robust porters, and corpulent imperial porters (along with the endangered Baltic porter that's actually a type of lager). On the stout side, you're as apt to find an Irish dry stout as a Russian imperial stout. Oatmeal and "milk" (meaning milk sugar) stouts are also popular. Beyond these, there are the little-seen German lagers schwarzbier and dunkel (schwarz means black; dunkel means dark). There's the sessionable British mild ale, spicy Belgian dark strong ale, and something called a Kentucky Common that's frequently made using a whiskey-style sour mash, though it's infrequently found at all. But for simplicity's sake, there are stouts and porters.
As far as distinguishing porters from stouts, the former tends to use caramel and chocolate malts for a smoother, rounder palate, while stouts always use roasted barley and smack of coffee beans and dark chocolate. Most people are afraid of dark beers. They refer to them as "heavy." (Guinness Draught Stout has fewer carbs and calories than Budweiser.)
According to market research group IRI, stouts and porters cumulatively make up $167 million in sales a year, declining sales of Guinness in America notwithstanding (from 3.3 million barrels in 2006 to 2.4 million barrels in 2014, and let's assume those millions and millions of pints weren't all on St. Patrick's Day alone).
I asked Chris Ormand, the beer buyer at venerable bottle shop Belmont Station, to crunch some numbers for me. He discovered that 11.5 percent of his beer customers in 2015 bought stouts or porters. That includes everything from regular porters like Laurelwood Tree Hugger to exotic Base Camp S'more Stout. Of that collective 11-in-every-100, seven were boozy imperial stouts like Crux Tough Love, Fort George Cavatica, and North Coast Brewing's anniversary version of Old Rasputin. All are aged and fortified in bourbon barrels.
"If there's one quick take-away from this," says Ormand, "it's that people love their dark beers to be aged in bourbon barrels and/or crammed full of shit like coffee, chocolate, or other coffee." The reference is to more of the store's popular brands such as Caldera Toasted Coconut Chocolate Porter and Heretic Chocolate Hazelnut Porter.
From Porter to Oort
As far as supermarket finds, both Fort George and Deschutes gave me a glimpse of their sales reports for their easy-drinking dark beers. Fort George's Cavatica dips in sales each June or July, but it sold better in July 2015 than it did at its peak in October 2012. Deschutes' Black Butte Porter—the best-selling porter in the country—actually spikes in the summer when most beer drinkers are ordering lagers and IPAs. Black Butte was created by legendary Oregon brewer John Harris (no relation to Jack at Fort George), who founded Ecliptic Brewing in 2013. Harris also created Deschutes Obsidian Stout, which packs a flavorful taste thanks to bitter and burnt coffee flavors.
At Ecliptic, Harris says his Capella Porter "sells as our everyday house beer." But Oort, his imperial stout, "flies out the door." He believes that there are simply dark beer fans who eschew hoppy beers and that "they're much more approachable than IPAs."
Having said that, Harris says, "They're here to stay, but you'll never hear, 'Oh my God, stouts are taking over the planet.'"