Welcome to the first installment of the DrinkFree Series, where I shed some light on the deep, often intimidating craft beer universe. This is where myths are debunked, truths are told, and consumer advice of the highest quality is given! Part of the DrinkFree motto that we have adopted is being able to make good purchasing decisions. To me, that means being empowered with the knowledge to increase the likelihood that you will love the beer you order or purchase, because we know two things:
- Good beer is rarely cheap.
- Just because a beer is expensive does not mean you will like it.
Dark Beer does not have to be scary.
Here’s a list of all the things dark beer does NOT have to be:
- High in alcohol
- A “meal in a glass”
Here’s a list of all the things dark beer CAN be:
Okay, I might be exaggerating a little on that second part, but not as much as you might think.
Most people think that dark beers are one of two styles: Stout or Porter.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a nearly endless array of options. Stout and porter are the two most well-known and popular commercial styles, but there are others that are popular too. Dunkelweizens, Dark European and International Lagers, Rauchbier, Dark Mild, Black IPA, and Belgian Dark Strong Ales, to name a few. These beers can range from tasting sweet or hoppy, bitter or smoky, and even like coffee or chocolate.
Even those main styles (Stout & Porter) are broken into plenty of different subcategories, many of which are not even comparable. For example, here are three stouts that couldn’t be more different:
- Guinness – Irish Dry Stout – 4.2% abv – Roasty, chocolatey, smooth from the nitro
- Revolution Deth’s Tar – Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout – 14.8% abv – Syrupy, boozy
- Left Hand Chai Milk Stout – Flavored Sweet Stout – 5.0% abv – Sweet, spices, light body
What you’ll notice, without any prior knowledge or even tasting the beers, is that the flavors of these, from the alcohol level alone, must be very different. Yet, they’re all called a stout.
It’s All About the Ingredients
Every beer is made up of mostly base malt, which is a light colored malt of different varieties whose job is almost purely to create the alcohol in a beer. This creates the base of the beer, which without anything else would be very light in color and flavor. Then, other grains are added as accents. These other grains come in all different colors, from tan to black, and a vast array of flavors, from bready to nutty to toffee and coffee. They can truly effect every aspect of a beer, from the aroma to the flavor, the body, and even the dryness of the finish. What it changes the most, however, is the color of the beer. Only a couple percentage points of dark grains in a beer can turn it pitch black, depending on the type of grains used.
For dark beers, roasted barley of some type is added to the recipe. Sometimes it’s malted barley, sometimes un-malted – not important. Their flavors range from almost non-existent (added to manipulate color only) to burnt coffee and earthy flavors. Some can even give dark red fruit flavors.
What makes the difference is the specific type of roasted grain the beer has, and how much of it. Plowhorse, my black IPA, is one of my favorite beers. Of the grain that goes into it, only about 5% of the grains in the recipe are dark roasted grains. It truly is pitch black, but it tastes like an IPA with an almost un-noticeable roast flavor on the aftertaste, with a medium to light body and dry finish. If you were served that beer with a blindfold, you would not think it was pitch black. On the other hand, some dark stouts like Guinness, use dark grains that taste so much like coffee that you think there might just be some in there (there isn’t).
If you’re looking to get into dark beers, start with beers that have dark malts as only a small percentage of the total recipe, more for color than anything. What styles are these?
If you normally like lagers: Black Lager
If you normally like English Style Ales: Baltic Porter
If you normally like IPA’s: Black IPA
If you normally like Hefeweizens/Wheat Beers: Dunkelweizen
You can find all of these and other similar substitutes at Binny’s and most other beverage stores. I’ve included the Binny’s link for each, so you can follow it to see the prices and what the beers look like! Go in and ask, they are always happy to help you find something
The Moral of the Story
Dark beers are truly the chameleon of beer. They can be nearly anything, and you’re sure to find some that you like (maybe even love) if you try enough different styles. And finally, don’t judge a beer by its color!