There's no denying it -- St. Patrick's Day is closely identified with beer, particularly stout. But it can be pretty tough to find a locally produced traditional Irish "dry" stout of the type made famous by Guinness. Microbreweries tend to shy away from head-to-head comparisons with the dry stout because Guinness has such a stranglehold on most drinkers' perceptions of the style.
Madison's House of Brews offers an oatmeal stout, though, one with the pub-friendly name of Snug. This English-inspired style can be just as enjoyable. The oatmeal version offers a little more body and emphasizes malty sweetness, while the Irish version is mildly bitter and drier. Both have a deep black color that makes it hard to tell the difference between the two just by looking.
What is it? Snug Oatmeal Stout by House of Brews of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The oatmeal stout has a modest malty flavor, often with hints of caramel and chocolate. Overall, the maltiness should be smooth and not bitter. While commonly deep black in color, the beer can be medium- to full-bodied. As the name indicates, what distinguishes the oatmeal stout from other versions of the style, such as the dry stout made famous by Guinness, is the addition of oats to the grist. The oats provide softness to the mouthfeel, giving it more body than the traditional dry stout. The amount of oats used can also affect the thickness of the beer's head and how long it is retained, so these beers often have thin to thick bubbly heads. In the late 1800s, oatmeal stouts were quite common and considered table beers for meals. At that time, the use of oats gave the impression the style was a healthier beer than others. Oatmeal stouts range from 3.8% to 6.0% ABV.
Background: House of Brews owner and brewmaster Page Buchanan says he drew inspiration for this beer from a snug, the word used to describe a very small and private enclosed booth in a bar or tavern. More specifically, it was the snug in the Coopers Tavern in downtown Madison that inspired Buchanan with the name of this beer.
Snug is made with seven different types of malt, so there is a deep color and firm malty sweetness. About 7% of the total grist is flaked oats, which add silkiness to the body. Snug finishes around 6% ABV. It sells at the brewery for $4.50/glass or $12/growler (refill).
House of Brews currently does not bottle its beers, so the best place to find them is at the brewery's tap room, where they are served by the glass or growler. Its beers are also available on 25-30 taps around Madison, and can often be found at the city's dedicated beer bars. Snug itself is frequently available on draught at the Villa Tap on Packers Avenue, where it is a favorite of requlars. Later in the year, though, Buchanan is hoping to offer a few of his specialty creations in 22-ounce bomber bottles.
Fans of stouts should pay attention House of Brews. Buchanan periodically offers a bourbon-barrel-aged version of Snug that ferments in barrels from Heaven Hill Distilleries for about four months before being released. Once Buchanan increases production, he plans to name it "Rickhouse," a reference to the structures that bourbon barrels are stored in while aging. This is one beer that Buchanan hopes to offer soon in bombers. In addition, he's working on a new recipe for a chocolate cherry oatmeal stout based on Snug, and he anticipates fermenting some of that in bourbon barrels. Also in the works: a Russian Imperial Stout.
House of Brews is still pretty new to Madison, having launched in 2011 and opened its tap room last summer. The east-side brewery is tucked away in a business park at 4539 Helgesen Drive, located across Stoughton Road from Farm & Fleet.
Do check out the tap room. Buchanan is very accommodating with a tour when he's not brewing. And if he is, you can just sit with a beer in hand and watch him through the large glass doors that open into the brewhaus. Its hours are updated regularly on the brewery's website as well as on Facebook.
When you visit, you really get the feel of what "small" and "micro" mean to a microbrewery. Buchanan does nearly everything himself, from pouring beer to filling kegs. Another memorable touch is the stack of board games stored above the growler cooler. Regulars know to pull down their favorites, and Buchanan has been known to offer a beer sample in trade for used board games.
- Aroma: Malty with hints of roasted chocolate malt.
- Appearance: Deep black color with a thick, soft, brown head.
- Texture: Medium- to full-bodied with a soft-slick mouthfeel.
- Taste: A rich, smooth, firm maltiness comes through. The chocolate malts are really evident.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Hints of sweet chocolate malt and roastedness.
Glassware: The English tulip pint glass, also known as a Guinness pint, showcases the deep black body, holds the head very well and is a nod to Irish tradition (even though Snug is an oatmeal stout).
Pairs well with: The oatmeal stout is very versatile with food. Snug is an especially nice complement to slightly sweet meats and stews, as well as battered fish. It's also good with desserts featuring chocolate and caramel.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: What I find so enjoyable about Snug is its smooth mouthfeel and firm chocolate maltiness. The two qualities accentuate each other. This isn't a thick or chewy beer, but it does have lots of body, more so than many oatmeal stouts. The oats in Snug lend a silky, slightly slick texture. It's a very flavorful version of the style, with chocolate and caramel sweetness.