People who know such matters might tell you that stout originated at a London docks, where a ship’s fire laid waste to its cargo of hops.
Having been left charred and smouldering on the quayside, these were bought for pennies on the pound and turned into the first black beer of its kind, so the story goes.
Others might offer you different theories, though most involve the accidental burning of green hops leading to the serendipitous discovery of stout.
But for Petros Gygtopoulos, co-founder of Melbourne newcomer Rise & Fall brewing, stout’s real origins date back much further, and hint at the divine.
From Mount Olympus to Melbourne
Many aeons ago, he believes, the gods and angels on top of Mount Olympus had a single goal, which was to cement their rule over humans by giving them beer.
The trouble was that one of the more progressive angels was determined to bring in non-traditional brewing techniques, which was anathema to Zeus and his old-school deities
Branding him a liability, the gods had no choice but to force him into exile. The fallen angel arrived on earth furious. He began sharing his recipes with humans in defiance, his only goal being to rise once again.
The Greek native, who arrived in Melbourne seven years ago and established the brewery last November with Aussie-Greek brewer Yannis Psimoulis, has managed to work this mythology into the branding of an Irish stout that has been launched just in time for St Patrick’s Day on March 17.
Stout’s popularity is on the rise in Australia, where craft beer is in high demand and quality is generally very high.
Indeed, stouts now feature heavily among online beer store Beer Cartel’s annual Ultimate Top 50 Best List in the last two years, coming second only to IPAs as the most popular category in the ranking.
By collating results from beer-rating websites, the Beer Cartel index is seen as a barometer of Australian beer styles and their relative popularity.
A stout revival
Local brands like Clout Stout, by Western Australia’s craft veteran Nail Brewing, and Ramjet by Victoria’s Boatrocker, have generated mass appeal in a beer market best known for its mass-produced lagers and craft IPAs in the last decade.
One of the oldest beers by the biggest Australian-owned brewery, Coopers Best Extra Stout, has been enjoying a resurgence among Australian consumers, with sales at its highest level in almost half a century.
Last year, 3.4m litres of the brew were sold, 10% above 2018’s total and on par with a previous peak sales volume in 1975.
Coopers managing director, Tim Cooper, said the stout has been in constant production since 1879 and is one of the company’s mainstay products during the last century, along with its Sparkling Ale.
“During the 1950s, we would sell over 4m litres of stout a year,” he said.
“However, demand for it declined after 1975, with sales dipping to below 2m litres in the early 1990s.
“From the mid-1990s, sales remained at approximately 2 million litres a year until 2007, after which sales have been gradually increasing, with strong growth in the last three years,” he added.
Dr Cooper said the stout revival has come at a time when the beer market is being flooded with new beer styles and products due to Australia’s craft brewing phenomenon.
“It appears that as new beer styles and flavours enter the market, consumers are also keen to look at flagship beers and styles that have stood the test of time,” he said.
“Interest in stouts, dark beers and porters is increasing world-wide and we are certainly enjoying that trend.”
Coopers Best Extra Stout is brewed with specially roasted black malt, which delivers a blend of fruit and chocolate flavours and bitter hop notes. It has an ABV of 6.3%.
Roasted barley, coffee and chocolate
Fall & Rise’s Dorchae stout, which joins the new brand’s first brew, a hoppy Kölsche named The Rise, is fused with hints of coffee and chocolate.
“We use roasted barley and we try to achieve a hint of chocolate and espresso. It has low bitterness, medium body, comes up to 5% alcohol,” said Gygtopoulos.
“It is very popular, especially during the winter months when the temperature is a little colder, and Melbourne has very unstable weather patterns that might see a 15 degree difference between morning and night.”
The beer’s distinctive branding, which blends an image of a Greek god with an Irish leprechaun, was provided by a designer, but the backstory is purely from the minds of the Greek co-founders.
“It comes from our childhood memories, when we were into mythology and comics and stories about heroes. Straight away we knew we wanted to create this character,” said Gygtopoulos.
Back home in lager-drinking Greece, stout has also been gaining in popularity, thanks largely to a craft industry that has been scaling up and introducing drinkers to new varieties of beer.
“If you asked me two years ago, I would say nobody in Greece even knew what a stout was, but now the craft scene has got so big that there is now a passion for drinking all craft beers, no matter if it’s a stout or an IPA,” he added.
Now faced higher than anticipated demand in Australia, the fledgling brewery is being forced to ramp up its growth plans. Just a month ago, it had been focused solely on establishing its brand. Now it is looking into getting its own taproom and brewery, with an estimated production of 2,500 litres per batch.
If things take off further, Gygtopoulos would consider dual production through a contract brewer that would allow it to export quantities interstate, and possibly beyond.
“We are very young company but we have already been well received and supported by the craft community. We did not expect such a response to our beer,” he said.
You could say it is now in the hands of the gods just how far the stout, and sales, will evolve in Australia’s craft-thirsty market.