Editor’s note: This “Beer Me” column first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #147, published in February 2010. Words by Alastair Bland. Photo by Justin Steiner.
As the sun first peeks over the eastern skyline, coffee pots beyond counting begin to gurgle throughout the time zone.
But beer at dawn is taboo. Even a mid-morning pint defies the expectancies of our drinking culture, and in the most conventional circumstances “Miller time” arrives at 6 p.m., when the feet kick up, the tube turns on and yellow lager flows by the acre-foot down the gullets of America. But what about so-called “breakfast beers.” Is this just a crude joke? An oxymoron? No way. Monks in Belgium endure fasts for days on end, consuming ale dawn to dusk as their only sustenance. And in parts of central Europe, beer is considered valid nutrition and a part of every meal.
So we take this approach to the American breakfast table, where the newspaper lies freshly opened and the first shafts of sunlight strike gold among the granola, coffee, juice and toast. Stouts will take the stage here. This style, as most know, tends toward the heavy and the hearty. Stouts may be thick and naturally creamy, a texture that can meld gracefully with oats. Brewers almost 200 years ago saw that connection, and the oatmeal stout was innovated in the mid-1800s in England as a nutritionally enhanced beer, sometimes even brewed with milk, and was recommended for lactating mothers and the ill—even children. The style vanished in the mid-1900s before the venerable Samuel Smith brewery in Tadcaster, England, reintroduced it in 1980. This example remains a classic among oatmeal stouts today. Others that are well-liked include those of Anderson Valley, Young’s and Wolaver’s. The coffee stout is another recurring sub-style. The beers’ natural bitterness complements that of coffee, and vice-versa—thus the marriage. Lagunitas, Lakefront, Meantime and many other breweries feature black coffee beers in their repertoires.
Finally, as the birds sing to the rise of morning sun, we drink. We start at the deep end with the mightiest of breakfast beers, the breakfast beer of champions, an ale not the least bit shy about bulling to the table and serving itself at sunup: the Breakfast Stout from Founder’s Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. 8.3 percent ABV and billed as a “double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout,” it pours out thick and creamy, and a thick mocha-brown head balloons on top before settling. A strong aroma of hot espresso wafts from the glass, and the dark flavors explode in the mouth—fudge, burnt molasses and coffee. It goes down easy over a smoothness like porridge.
Made in Sonoma County, California, with a pound of coffee per barrel of beer, Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Cappuccino Stout runs 9.3 percent and a shade below black—more like dark cola. Tart coffee gnashes with thick, sweet barley malt, and thoughtful drinkers may identify flavors of candy, cayenne, ash tray and, especially, Tootsie Roll—delicious and drinkable.
The huge and aggressive Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout from Stone Brewing Company in San Diego was made as a one-time release in July 2008, a beer to celebrate Stone’s 12th anniversary. Twenty-two ounce bottles are still traveling through online trading posts, and if you should lay hands on this one, don’t let go. Tasted at 18 months of age, the 9.2 percent beer poured black as engine oil and carried a dominating bitterness of coffee, hops and chocolate. A huge mouthful, it’s best shared among three.
And finally, in tribute to the softer and gentler of breakfast beers, we backtrack through the throngs of clamoring craft breweries and their outlandish black ales, to fill a glass with the modestly superior oatmeal stout from Samuel Smith. A cola-brown beer under a thick layer of foam, it smells of molasses, brownies, floral honey and mead. The stout tastes sweetly of Christmas spices, nougat, soft caramel and grain; is light yet hearty and satisfying; and goes down smooth and foamy, just like a bowl of oats should.
The old-timers might say, “Hey, it’s 5 p.m. somewhere” to justify an early beer, but when we’re faced with beers as smooth as oats or black as French roast, a modified mantra still rings true with, “Sun’s up, let’s drink.”