Stout is a dark-coloured beer made from roasted malt (or barley), hops, water and yeast. It has an alcohol content of around 7-8% and is mainly brewed in the UK, Ireland and the Baltic countries. The word 'stout' in this sense means 'strong', and originally stout used to refer to any beer with a high alcohol content.
Beer-making has a long history in the UK, but stout didn't make its appearance until the 18th century and this wasn't in Ireland. Originally called porter, it is said to have derived its name from its popularity among London's porters. They wanted a drink which was cheap; had a strong flavour; was high in alcohol content and didn't go off in hot weather. As the result of a malt tax in 1720, cheaper brown malt was used in beer production, which gave rise to darker coloured beers. When the roasting kiln was invented in 1817, this enabled brewers to roast malt at much higher temperatures making it even darker. Stout reached the height of its popularity in the 19th century, but the rising interest in lagers had an impact on sales. Although stout is still sold, its production has shrunk to a number of specialised breweries.
Just because a beer is dark in colour, this doesn't necessarily mean that it's a stout. For example, some of the darker Continental beers are actually lagers. The key difference between them is the techniques used for brewing them. Stout is brewed in much the same way as ale or bitter. They both use top-fermenting yeasts at high temperatures which take less time to age. By contrast, the technique for making lager uses a bottom-fermenting yeast at lower temperatures. The difference between ale and stout is the addition of roasted malt which gives stout its characteristic colour and taste. For years, stout-drinkers preferred to drink it in draught form outside the home as it gave the drink its foamy head (formed by the low level of CO2 made up of fine bubbles). The use of nitro widgets to reproduce this effect with cans had some success in increasing home sales of stout.
In some people's eyes, stout is synonymous with Irish breweries. A prime example is the Guinness Foreign Extra stout. Although Guinness has the best-selling stouts and is known all over the world, it is considered to be one of the driest stouts. If you find its taste too bitter, why not try it in combination with something else? Possibilities include a Black and Black (also known as a Guinness and Black, which has blackcurrant added to take away the bitterness); a Black and Tan (half a measure of Guinness with half lager or bitter) or a Black Velvet (Guinness and champagne). Stouts should be served at cellar temperature (10-14 degrees centigrade) because it's said that if it's over-chilled, it loses its flavour. However, this is a question of personal preference, and you can drink it much colder than this.
An alternative to mixing stout with another sweeter drink is to go for a stout which is produced by a brewery outside Ireland. Apart from dry/Irish stout, there are other varieties such as oatmeal stout or milk stout (which has the milk-derived sugar, lactose, added to it to give a sweeter taste). Both Russian/Imperial stouts and Baltic Porter have a higher alcohol content than domestic stouts. They are local recreations of the stouts which were exported from the UK in the 18th century. If you would like to try a stout that isn't so bitter, you should opt for a chocolate stout such as Youngs Double Chocolate stout. Its darker colour is from the use of more aromatic malts which are added during production.
Stout might be an acquired taste for some, but there are many varieties for you to try, all with their own distinctive flavours.