The winner of the 2010 Beer Madness: Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout

Take a peek into the March taste test for our annual Beer Madness competition and meet the panelists who rated all 32 beers.
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We began with 32 top brews from six continents, but in the end, only one could straddle the planet and proclaim itself king of the world.

The winner of the 2010 Beer Madness is (drum roll and flourish of trumpets, please): Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout from Samuel Smith Old Brewery in Tadcaster, England. But it triumphs by a paper-thin 5-4 margin over worthy competitor Nogne O Pale Ale from the Nogne O Brewery in Grimstad, Norway.

"This one has a strong personality," wrote one of the tasting panelists, A. Grace Lopez, of our gold medalist. "A little in your face, but it mellows out over the evening and makes the evening fun." Fellow taster Raul Arroyo-Mendoza detected notes of "dark chocolate, coffee, rum raisin" in this complex, ebony-colored brew.

But the hoppy pale ale from Scandinavia had its own ardent backers. Charlene L. Esaw found the stout "too heavy" and picked Nogne O "because I'm in the desert dying of thirst, and it's a little more refreshing."

The elusive pale ale seems to have evaporated from area shelves. Scott Larrick, general manager for the microbrewery, assures that a container of Nogne O beers is "on the ocean right now" and will shortly dock in New Jersey. Give the beers a week to clear customs and maybe another few weeks to wend their way through distributors' warehouses.

Meanwhile, in the consolation match, Schneider Weisse Hefe-Weizen grabbed the bronze, 6-3, over Baltimore's the Raven. The classic German wheat beer, with its clove and banana notes, was especially polarizing. "Clean, refreshing, incredible; should be No. 1," asserted Arroyo-Mendez, while John H. Harris III complained about a "bad aftertaste."

The Raven, America's last hope, remains the eternal bridegroom. The clean, malty lager has finished in Beer Madness's Final Four for three years straight but has never pushed its way to the top.

But back to the winner.

Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout is a testament to how "some guy from Oklahoma with a good idea can change history," said Charles Finkel, an Okie wine importer transplanted to the Pacific Northwest.

In 1978, well ahead of the curve, Finkel branched into specialty beer with his company Merchant du Vin in Tukwila, Wash. "My original intent was to sell only craft American beer, but I quickly discovered that there weren't many," he recalls. Seeking the classic beer styles from Europe, he came across references to a long-forgotten English tipple called oatmeal stout or oat malt stout. In the pre-World War I era, breweries touted the nutritional value of such beers and marketed them to invalids, convalescents and nursing mothers.

By the 1970s, no one, not even respected British beer author Michael Jackson, knew how an oatmeal stout should taste. Finkel figured it had to be "round and smooth, coffee- and chocolate-like and very biscuity." He commissioned one of his clients, 220-year-old regional brewery Samuel Smith, to re-create the style from scratch, and he even designed the label.

Originally, the oatmeal stout was available only in the United States, but today it's sold on both sides of the pond (though only in bottles, not on draft).

Finkel sold his importing business in 1997 (he's now president of Seattle's Pike Brewing Co.), but Merchant du Vin continues to stock this widely imitated beer. Craig Hartinger, marketing manager for Merchant du Vin, notes that oats make up less than 5 percent of the grist, too small an amount to affect the flavor. The main contribution of the oats, he theorizes, is to lend the beer a creamy, silky texture and a richer mouth feel. A slight earthiness comes from classic English hop varieties Fuggles and Goldings.

Hartinger recommends pairing the beer with shellfish, sharp cheese ("it's a beautiful contrast with an aged Stilton"), ahi tuna or a ploughman's lunch. It also makes a great float with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, he adds.

The name "oatmeal stout" suggests a brew for early risers. Has either gentleman ever drunk this beer for breakfast?

"Have I ever!" answers Finkel. "I've had it on every occasion."


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