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Old Ale is New Again 

Samuel Smith makes its second U.S. "debut"

In recent days, craft beer-bar patrons across the Northwest have been surprised and bemused by a "new" British stout on tap that not only isn't new at all, but in fact predates the birth of the United States.

Samuel Smith Brewery was founded in 1758 under the name "The Old Brewery" in the town of Tadcaster, in the Yorkshire region of northern England. It went through several hands before the eponymous Smith purchased it in 1847, and his grand-nephew (also named Samuel Smith) reopened it under its current name in 1886. They now operate over 200 pubs across the nation—including over 20 in central London alone—each offering a variety of lighter ales, stouts, wheat beers and the Old Brewery Bitter in casks.

Like a lot of British outfits this old, much of their brand name is intertwined with tradition. The beer is still made using dual-storied "Yorkshire Square" vessels made of slate, and they still keep a team of working shire horses that deliver beer around Tadcaster five days a week. It was this tradition that allowed Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout to eke out an early niche in American beer-dom. Originally imported to the U.S. in 1978, the 5 percent ABV dark ale was an early favorite among those bored with Coors or Blitz-Weinhard and seeking something new. It's been available at southeast Portland's Horse Brass Pub, one of the city's original hubs for good beer, since around that time.

It's no surprise, then, that Merchant du Vin, Samuel Smith's U.S. distributor, chose the Horse Brass to debut Oatmeal Stout on tap in Oregon last month. The kegs now enjoy broader distribution around the state, chiefly thanks to the efforts of McMenamins' distribution arm, and can be found in local places including The Growler Guys and Broken Top Bottle Shop. "It made sense to bring draft now," said Craig Hartinger, Merchant du Vin's marketing director. "Both to help sell Samuel Smith's beer and to remind American consumers about the role [it's] played since the first bottles were shipped to the U.S."

This actually marks the first time Oatmeal Stout has ever been available on tap, including in the U.K., and trying it in this format is worth the experience. Like a lot of British ales, it's designed to be more quaffable than a lot of the brassy, hop-forward beer made locally. The body is thus lighter than one would expect with such a dark-colored ale, but the taste—which manages to include hints of everything from chocolate and coffee to whiskey in a single package—ensures that this is no watered-down beer.

It's a stout that helped many '80s and '90s drinkers realize beer was good for something besides getting drunk after all. On tap, it's like saying hello to an old, almost-forgotten friend.

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