Just as summer ales quench your thirst on a hot day, dark ales warm you up from the inside out. They’re the perfect brew to lead us through these long nights and short days as we head into the heart of winter.
But before you dive into a thick-headed snifter of stout, here’s a quick guide to dark beer so you can get a better understanding of the stuff. A good place to start is figuring out what makes them so dark in the first place…
Why are dark beers dark?
You may remember from our IPA guide, those beers were all about the hops; malt played second fiddle. In dark beers, it’s the opposite. Here, malt is the guest of honour, giving dark beer its flavour, its aroma, and most importantly, its dark colour.
Malt is simply barley that’s germinated and kilned. Germination unlocks the sugars that barley stores as starch so yeast can turn those sugars into alcohol. Kilning stops the barley from fully sprouting, and depending on how hot and in what way the barley is kilned, different malts are made.
Base malts like pale and pilsen malts, are kilned slow and long and, like their names suggest, they form the base for most beers. What’s known as specialty malts are kilned hotter, some to the point of roasting. There are also crystal malts which are stewed to caramelize the sugars.
Malts like Munich, Vienna, brown, chocolate and black patent malts make for dark beers with roasty flavours, sweet flavours, coffee flavours, even burnt toast flavours. The ratio of these malts to base malts make for a staggering range of different types and flavours of beer.
Dark beers can range from surprisingly light bodied to rich and creamy. They can be as sweet as milk chocolate, or as bitter as burnt coffee. Here’s a quick tour of the most popular styles.
What are the different types of dark beers?
A couple hundred years ago, dark beer was the biggest beer around. And while it fell out of favour just before the twentieth century (save for Guinness, which steadfastly retained its popularity), craft brew has brought these roasty, creamy, rich beers back in a big way and what quick guide to dark beer would be complete without mentioning them?
The grandfather of the modern dark beer, the porter got its name from the dock workers in early 18th century London who favoured the dark, heavy, usually aged beer. Generally a bit lighter in colour and lacking the stronger roasted bitterness of a stout, porters offer flavours that include toffee, caramel, and chocolate.
The term “stout” once simply referred to a beer that was stronger. Strong porters were called stout porters, then just “stouts.” In addition to more alcohol, stouts are usually a bit drier and roastier than porters.
Possibly the most popular of any stout, Irish stout is the category Guinness falls under. Lighter in body, with a dryness from unmalted roasted barley, dry stouts can be a touch bitter and are usually lighter in alcohol content.
Also known as a “sweet stout” milk stouts have the milk sugar lactose added to the fermentation. Yeast can’t digest lactose and what remains gives the beer a hint of sweetness and an extremely silky mouthfeel.
Not surprisingly, oats are added to the grain bill of an oatmeal stout. Oats impart a creaminess and rounder mouthfeel, similar to milk stouts, but tend to offer a bit less sweetness.
Originally brewed by British brewers for Russia’s Catherine the Great, imperial stouts are big, boozy, mildly bitter beers that lend themselves to nicely to ageing — especially in wood barrels once used for whisky or bourbon, giving the stout oakey, vanilla flavours.
Black IPA is an IPA that uses a bit of dark specialty malts to turn the beer inky black. These are generally nicely balanced beers — with the strong, bright hops offsetting the rich and toasted notes from the malt.
Now that you know a little about the darker side of beer, all that remains is trying some for yourself. Here’s what we recommend: