Oats have been used in brewing in Britain for hundreds of years for the simplest reason of them all — they were there. Literally, they were all over the place, and cheap. That swell "shop local" mantra loses some of its luster when that's your only choice, so in the 1890s some clever Scot decided to market his beer out of the bargain bin and fetch a better price by selling it as a health drink. And why not? Oatmeal is healthy isn't it?
Thus was born the oatmeal stout. Ads ran from Edinburgh to London and all points in between touting its health benefits to invalids, the elderly, and young children. Very young, in fact. It was prescribed to nursing mothers. Nutritious stout was big business, too. Brewers protected recipes and trade names. There were lawsuits and fortunes made. There was also a generation of strangely mellow children.
The health claims may have been overstated, and parents began feeling that maybe they shouldn't be quite so obvious about getting their children gassed. Oatmeal stouts, for the most part, didn't really survive World War II.
The style was brought back by Samuel Smith of Tadcaster, England. The brewer started exporting to the U.S. in the mid 1980s — about the time American beer drinkers were deciding that while having two beers that tasted exactly alike cut down on nasty surprises, it cut down on everything else, as well. You can still get Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout all over town, and if you are looking for a great example of the style that goes well with the winter months, start there. I don't know how healthy it is, but it packs the toasty taste and the heft of a porter. The oats add a silkiness and just a touch of sweetness to balance it out.
Young's Oatmeal Stout is another great classic example of the style that's widely available. And now you can even "shop local," with Meddlesome's Black Cat Moan oatmeal stout. They've gone old-school, with a velvety, chocolaty brew. If you are ever in the far east (of Memphis), it is absolutely worth the trip for a growler or two.
Wiseacre's got a great stout, too, but like a lot of Wiseacre's brews, it has a little twist. They are the M. Night Shyamalon of brewers. The first time I had their Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee stout, a mob of us were at a friend's cabin. We'd spent the night before around a camp fire, drinking too much and telling each other lies about college. (I have no idea why because we were all in the same class.) At any rate, the next morning we realized that no one had brought the coffee. But someone had brought a case of Wiseacre's coffee stout. Which, as long as we are talking local, is made with Memphis' own Ugly Mug coffee.
Well, what can I say? Heads cleared, the pep returned to the collective step — it did the trick. Perhaps a little too well because we went water skiing in the rain, then thought some North Alabama cliff diving was a good idea.
I'm really not one to recommend hair of the dog — not because it doesn't work, but because that sort of foolishness sets a problematic precedent. Still, Gotta Get Up to Get Down is actually a phenomenal hangover cure. I'm not proud of it, but I can say that it does pair well with scrambled eggs and slightly burnt bacon.
In my defense, the alcohol in these stouts isn't terribly high, despite the hefty feel. And they really aren't made to be quaffed at speed. I suppose you could funnel one if you wanted, but the resulting belch would shake the windows and start rumors of a Delta Sasquatch. And who the hell needs that?