IT’S not often you get to write about a new beer, and to be fair, Durham Brewery’s latest innovation isn’t completely new. But given that a white stout was last made about 200 years ago, it’s probably safe to say no one will remember seeing it before.
The idea will sound alien to ale drinkers, who are used to holding their stouts to the light and seeing deep reds and blacks.
We’re used to seeing them with adjuncts such as coffee and chocolate, matching their smokey flavours with strong dishes like heavy puddings or oysters, enjoying the bitterness of an Irish style or the sweetness of the milk variety. A ‘white’, or pale, stout would seem to go against everything we’ve learned in our long hours of ‘research’ in the pub.
But then, this sounds like the perfect way to live up to the brewery’s motto of ‘innovation with tradition’ – finding the latest cutting edge idea by reading the history books.
This isn’t some modern invention like black IPAs, but has its roots firmly in tradition. By looking at the original definitions of styles, Durham Brewery owner Steve Gibbs has gone back to the authentic meanings of words such as “stout” and realised it simply refers to the strength, not the colour.
As ambitions go, it’s pretty impressive – stripping away a couple of centuries of belief that stouts have to be dark. And although Steve expected a bit of scepticism about the idea, it makes perfect sense.
I admit that he did have to explain the concept to me several times – but then again, I am quite stupid.
But even a “beer writer of very little brain”, to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh, was able to see that the word “stout” simply refers to a stronger beer, before it was commandeered as the word for a stronger porter.
Going back to the original design means any strong beer can be stout – even a light beer, as Durham has pioneered so successfully with their white range, which Steve began 15 years ago. And at 7.2%, the white stout certainly qualifies, and as he puts it, is “a logical crown to a series of pale hoppy beers”.
“But what about IPAs – isn’t that a strong light ale?” I hear you cry (I’ve got good hearing). But if Steve had heard you too, he’d explain that the modern take on IPAs, which are traditionally strong and hoppy, often don’t have the body to match the increasing amounts of hops brewers are using.
The white stout, however, has a thicker body to match the stout-levels of hopping which are used. So while it is different to even a traditional IPA, Steve also sees it as helping to redress the bitter, unbalanced nature of some American-influenced brews.
He says: “It’s difficult to bring out a new beer because it’s all been done before. I’m just trying to realign these light, hoppy beers. I’ve got fed up with the American IPAs; a lot of the ones I’ve tasted were very, very hoppy, so much that you couldn’t drink some of them. They had fantastic aromas but with a thin base.
“Then someone came up with the idea of black IPAs. It’s impossible. They’ve taken this idea of a hoppy aromatic beer and applied it to a dark beer. There’s something wrong there. I think you need more balance in beers; more fuller bodied and not going over the top with hops. There are similarities to an IPA but it’s an antidote to these silly IPAs.
“A couple of weeks ago I went to the House of Trembling Madness in York, and I was thinking hard and something clicked. Why not do something a bit different? It’s been going in my mind for a some time. This white stout is the top of the white range.
“It’s a strong, full beer but it won’t quite have the body of a stout because that would have lots of roasts which give it body and colour. I use pale malt, wheat malt and flaked barley, so I’ve filled it out. I could get it fuller but you might start to get a protein haze.
“Porter brewers commandeered the term stout. It was a working man’s drink and the strong porters were called stout porters. Before this time, you could call anything stout.
“I’m using the term for the first time in 200 years and why not? I did expect some scepticism for this but I do have a valid reason.”
In a way, the white stout will be the antithesis of the black IPA concept, taking the best of the fullness of a stout and the light freshness of a pale ale – as opposed to a thin dark beer.
Of course, simply taking old recipes and reproducing them is not what Durham is about. What Steve is doing is being more true to the original styles, finding out how they were originally made, and then “Durhamising” them, as he calls it – bringing it up to date or improving them.
It’s strange when giving a nod to tradition becomes innovative, but Durham’s adherence to the history of a style while bringing it up to date is not the usual approach; it’s easy to find beers where the drinker could argue it is a different style from the one decided by the brewer and printed on the bottle.
An old ale needs to be kept; an IPA has to be pale and of a decent strength. While it’s great to move forward, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the past ... and Durham is a great example of that.