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On dark beers and aphrodisiacs

"At the breast....that's where I first tasted this beer." The dynamic young German brewer was telling me about his spicy-tasting black beer from Thuringia. There is in Germany a new fashion for black beers, but what about the breasts?

The notion that dark beers are for women, especially nursing mothers, is typical in Continental Europe. Is this perhaps an Oedipal explanation for the further idea that the blackest of brews are an aphrodisiac?

The blackest beers of all are porter and stout (the latter usually, but not always, bigger-bodied). Again, the nourishing breast is evoked. Not quite mother's milk, perhaps, but lactose is used in several sweet stouts, sometimes imparting a slightly yogurty flavour. Lacto Stout, made by the local brewery on the island of Malta adds Vitamin B, too. Its label shows a trident-brandishing Neptune, king of the sea. Not Venus? Not amniotic fluid? We are luxuriating in deep waters here.

The depth of the blackness in these beers seems full of magic. The darkness of the unknown? The hidden threat - or promise - of black night? The "Decadent" writer J.K. Huysmans, in his novel Against Nature , described a quest for the rare and perverse in sensation. He imagined an all-black meal, involving Russian rye bread, caviar, game "in sauces the colour of boot-polish," plum puddings, Kvass, Porter and Stout. Catherine the Great, who was rumoured to have made love to her horse, commanded that porter be brewed in St Petersburg, and it still is.

In Finland, I have sweated naked in the sauna, jumped in a muddy lake, then consumed the oily Koff Porter with smoked eggs. Unfortunately for my sexual tastes, all my naked companions were male.

As the double aphrodisiac began to take effect, I started to lust after the only lone woman at the table, until I learned that not only was she happily married but also to the son of former world heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson.

The Swedes, purported to be blonde sexual gods, for years required a doctor's prescription to buy their creamy Carnegie Porter. I sank a few with oysters not long ago at a restaurant called the Wasahof, in Stockholm. As the double aphrodisiac began to take effect, I started to lust after the only lone woman at the table, until I learned that not only was she happily married but also to the son of former world heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson.

The Swedes were introduced to Carnegie Porter by an emigrant brewer from Scotland. It comes in a regular version at 3.5 per cent and a promising-sound Stark ("strong") at 5.5. This is more serious than the 2.0 abv of Scotland's Sweetheart Stout, a sugary confection that nonetheless comes in a famous package: the can design features an illustration of 1950s Hollywood starlet Venetia Stevenson, former wife of singer Don Everly.

In its Georgian and Victorian heyday, porter was offered in London pubs with bar-snacks of free oysters. The precious bivalves were inexpensive and plentiful in the days before the Thames estuary and the north sea were polluted. Such delights are still on offer, at a price, at the famous lunch restaurant Sweetings, in the city of London. For customers who are insufficiently stout-hearted, they offer the black stuff diluted with Champagne, by the pint, in a silver tankard. This can, in my experience, lead to afternoons away from the office.

A stout designed especially to accompany oysters was launched in recent years by Marston's, one of the world's most distinctive breweries, currently under threat of takeover. This dry, oaky-tasting, brew, at a modest 4.5 per cent alcohol, has blown away far stronger brews in blindfold tastings. I was amused to see it being recommended in one of the laddish magazines recently. Are the lads finally learning that there is life beyond lager? Perhaps the suits should appreciate that Marston's Oyster Stout is the brew of the future.

The Isle of Man has a tradition of producing stouts that actually contain oysters, boiled in the brew-kettle. This was revived in recent years by the local micro-brewery. Bushy's Oyster Stout, which has a salty, gamey, note, is a seasonal brew, but not until September. For St Valentine's, I may have to head for Dublin. The Porter House brewpub, in Parliament Street, also boils oysters in the kettle. Its oyster stout is salty, peaty and sweetish.

Even in the smoky, male ambience of Dublin's famously sociable pubs, there is always hidden in the black brew the promise of an encounter with a redhead called Molly, whether Ms Malone (with her cockles and mussels) or Ms Bloom (with, one hopes, her orgasm).

In Jamaica, stout and rum are blended with condensed milk and egg, to create a punch that should warm any lover's heart. A classic slogan there informed tired lovers that "Dragon Stout Puts It Back." I find Dragon a little on the sweet side; there seems to be more fruitiness in Prestige Stout, from Haiti, if you don't mind the voodoo. In New Orleans, a beer called Blackened Voodoo turns out to be a faintly smoky dark lager, and goes very well with Oysters Rockefeller. (Baked briefly in their shells with a breadcrumb topping that usually embraces restorative spinach lubricated with Tabasco and Pernod). In Delaware, the scary-sounding Dogfish Head brewery has a rooty stout flavoured with chicory, just the thing for sensuous crab-feasts.

In Michigan, the surprisingly picaresque town of Kalamazoo (where Glen Miller had a girl - or was it Tex Beneke?) has a brewery making no fewer than half a dozen porter or stout variations. Proprietor and former disc-jockey "Doctor" Larry Bell brews a herbal-tasting one with locust pods (roasted to ensure that they are no longer poisonous). The favoured accompaniment is pickled hot peppers with quails' eggs; there's decadence for you.

In San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel, I first entertained the woman with whom I have since shared my life. We had a meal that began with prawns marinated in smoked beer and served with Guinness, and ended with apple bread pudding and Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout.

Had we been Chinese, we would have waited until the Eighth Moon...and bathed our newborn baby in Guinness's extra-strong Special Export Stout. It is all, I am assured, a question of yin and yang.

Published Online: JULY 24, 1999
Published in Print: FEB 13, 1999
In: The Independent

- Beer Styles - Historical

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