Good Beer Hunting

An Opaque Truth, Pt. 2 — Surveying America’s Stouts


As beer has diversified in production and flavor, all while becoming more local, it’s become increasingly difficult for any singular brand to lay claim to an entire style category. National footprints have helped breweries like Sierra Nevada take over Pale Ale, Lagunitas own IPA, and Blue Moon hold court over Wit, among others. But that isn’t stopping some breweries from trying.

Stout isn’t the most popular craft style in the U.S. thanks to IPA’s dominance, but the lack of one clear leader in recent years has left the door open for Left Hand Brewing to market its Milk Stout and Milk Stout Nitro as “America’s Stout.” In part one of this series, we looked at what that meant when comparing to other category leaders, especially New Holland and its Dragon’s Milk bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout. There are, of course, other brands worth considering.

Examining the claim for America’s Stout presents additional options if we consider a variety of brands that received varying levels of drinker interest between 2016 and 2017. Dragon's Milk is, again, a top brand in percent of dollar sales growth, but Belching Beaver's Peanut Butter Milk Stout and Great Divide's Yeti Imperial Stout both show a strong growth spurt. Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro is there, too, but its already sizeable sales footprint may hinder those percentages.

For comparison’s sake, here’s the volume and dollar sales growth of a collection of top U.S. Stouts:

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And all this hasn’t even gotten into the potential argument of how America’s Stout should reflect America’s palate, which is known for its preference for big, bold flavors and a lack of subtlety. For the beer rating crowd, this shows up online, not necessarily in IRI-tracked dollars.

Across beer rating sites, flavored Stouts take up large portions at the top of “best” beer lists, whether accounting for all beers or just the Stout style. A big part of this has to do with the rarity of these top beers, which has the potential to impact perception and ratings, but also the type of adjuncts included in recipes that can make these Stouts taste more like your favorite doughnut than the style’s classic experience of chocolate and roasted malt.

Whether on BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, or Untappd, Stouts, which are often barrel-aged and influenced by additions of vanilla, coffee, maple syrup, are considered the best of the best among the aficionados that use these platforms. Even Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout which, in 2017, sold less than a third of Old Rasputin, about 20% of Dragon’s Milk and 17% of Milk Stout Nitro volumes, was the ninth-most checked-in beer on Untappd last year. Clearly there’s an attraction for some on social media to brag among friends when it comes to specialty beers.

Milk Stout Nitro may have some novelty for its gaseous serving style, but New Holland, boosted by its distribution partnership with Pabst, has openly stated its hope to turn Dragon’s Milk into not only the Stout of choice for American drinkers, but the barrel-aged one, too. The brewery has even dabbled in extending the line through its “Reserve” series, making variants of Dragon’s Milk that have included Vanilla Chai, Coconut Rum Barrel, Mexican Spice Cake, S’mores, and Raspberry Lemon. Dragon’s Milk does fine on its own, but each of those flavor combos plays into consumer interest for new and adventurous tastes.

Also worth keeping an eye on is Founders Breakfast Stout, labeled as a “double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout.” It was finally unleashed from its seasonal status, and 2018 will be its first time as a year-round offering. Through nearly all of February, it had already amassed about $388,000 in sales. Whether that pace will keep through the warmer days of summer is unclear, but Breakfast Stout is on pace for more than $2 million in IRI MULC dollar sales.

Across 7,916 businesses that use to post their tap list, Breakfast Stout was the second-most popular brand in the category in 2017, accruing nearly 44% more servings than Dragon's Milk, which was ranked third. Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro and its regular version took the number one and six spots, respectively.

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Also noteworthy? Breakfast Stout is already the most checked-in Stout on Untappd not named Guinness. As a beloved seasonal release before 2018, it certainly had cache that could have boosted drinker interest to ensure check-ins. Its rarity and popularity among enthusiasts using the app helps it tick up in numbers. That effect can be seen in 2017’s most checked-in beers, which included a variety of national, year-round releases and…Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, which also appears among the most checked-in Stouts all-time on Untappd.

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All of which is to say: while there's no 100%, clear-cut consensus pick for “America’s Stout,” Left Hand is making the best claim with its Milk Stout. There are other breweries and brands that are worth watching as they try to take the crown, which could at least provide some marketing boost for a style category that isn’t even in the top-10 of IRI MULC craft brands.

And every pour counts, especially on the one day a year synonymous with Stout, when so many drinkers are seeking a glass full of the dark stuff. Sláinte.

—Bryan Roth

Read "An Opaque Truth, Pt. 1."