Imagine walking into a pub in Ireland. There’s a few things that are ubiquitous. When you walk in you’ll be greeted by the delicious smell of Ireland’s classic fare – stews, bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage. Behind the bar you’ll probably find a friendly barkeep doling out the drinks and taking food orders. In one corner you may see a couple of older gentlemen playing a fiddle and a mandolin singing Irish folk songs of years gone by. And, then at another table you’ll find groups of people downing dark brown pints of Ireland’s very own greatest export, Guinness Stout.
You have probably tried a pint or two of Guinness. The reaction I get from most dark beer novices is that it’s “too filling” or “too rich” for them. I agree to some extent. Guinness can be a bit much for the beginner. Judging by the color it gives the mental impression that it’s going to be a lot thicker than it actually is. Looks can be deceiving though. While it is true that it has a very heavy roasted malt smell and taste, Guinness is actually on the thinner and watery side. As you become more experienced with dark beers, specifically stouts and porters you’ll notice that it’s on the more pedestrian end of the dark scale. It’s a common entry point for most beginners, but what about those people who just can’t get into the coffee and chocolate flavors and the thick, creamy head? This alone may turn them off from darker hued beers altogether. Well, luckily for them there are a variety of dark brews to sample that range from the very light and crisp, to sweet and thick. These are great beers for after dinner, or on a cold night. Here’s a small sampling to get you started. Please try to remember that these particular beers, especially the stouts, will express a much fuller flavor profile when served closer to the warm side! You don’t want to serve them too cold or you’ll lose a lot of the subtle flavors and smells to the temperature.
Black/dark lager, and dunkelweizen
One of the more popular non-stout dark beer varieties that you can find out there is Köstritzer Schwarzbier (Germany) - literally ‘black beer’. While it does retain some of the malty flavors of a dark beer it has a crisp and sweeter finish associated more with lagers. It’s full rich color is actually misleading considering how light it is and I feel is a better entry point than a Guinness for those trying out dark beers for the first time. It retains the things a novice beer enthusiast may know from the big name American pilsners and lagers that they are familiar with drinking. With a 4.8% ABV it is very drinkable and comparable in alcohol content to other lager and pilsner offerings.
Some of the big name breweries offer a version of dark lager as well including Heineken and San Miguel, but these offerings all tend to hover around molasses flavored sweetness. I don’t condone ending your search here, as these can be a good entry point into dark beers before venturing off into the unknown.
Another point of familiarity may be a wheat beer. When more roasted malt is added to the mix you get a dunkelweizen, which produces a dunkelweizen, or ‘dark wheat’ beer. A great example of this is the Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. Very popular and very drinkable. With this one you’ll get the familiar clove and spice taste of a wheat beer with a nice balance of roasted flavors. This brew has a nice rich and sweet flavor without being overpowering and retains a medium body.
Black IPA/American Black Ale
IPAs are all the rage in the American craft beer scene and spreading worldwide. The rise of the IPA and the increasing amount of bitterness strived for in every glass of beer is well documented by the appearance of American style double and triple IPAs made by craft brewers the world over. If you are familiar with the citrus, bright taste of an IPA you may be surprised to hear that there are some dark beers that combine this with the flavor of roasted malt and even coffee. The effect may be a little strange at first, but there are some beers out there that combine these two tastes quite well. Enter into the world of Black IPAs or as they are officially recognized, American Black Ale.
21st Amendment Back In Black IPA (California) pours out of the can with a creamy brownish head and a black-red hue. The dark malt mixes with floral hops to create a unique, but familiar taste to those accustomed to the bitterness in IPAs. This has a heavier body than the aforementioned Köstritzer, which is similar to a lager, but it’s still smooth with a nice hoppy finish.
Getting a little more heavy is Pampus Brouwerij’s Dark Hops (Netherlands). These Amsterdam craft brewers have really created a flavor profile that combines a lot of toffee, coffee, and a bit of chocolate with the familiar sweet flowery notes of an American style IPA. This nearly black offering is as close to a stout as it gets while retaining the bitter, hoppy taste associated with this style. Seek this one out if you can.
Other good ones to look out for are Harpoon Black IPA (MA), Southern Tier Iniquity Imperial Black Ale (NY), Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale (CA). These are all available year-round along with a slew of others that are brewed on a rotating basis.
Stouts and Porters
Going back to where we started, these are the heavy hitters. Typically brewed at higher ABVs and denser at times, stouts and porters can also be a refreshing drink with a wide variety of tastes from very standard to experimental.
There’s the old standard Guinness, with a very easy-going coffee-meets-roasted malt scent, and similar taste. Some novice beer drinkers claim it’s milkshake like, but I’ve never had a Guinness poured for me that was thick, whether it was fresh from the storehouse in Dublin, out of a widget can from my fridge, or room temperature from a tap somewhere in the states.
For a kick up on the thickness scale, you’d be doing yourself a service to check out Mother’s Milk Stout by Keegan Ales (Kingston, NY). This one will give you a good whiff of toasted malt, smoky cocoa, and cream. It’s got a creamy medium body and retains a bit of carbonation, giving the new stout drinker a bridge of familiarity. Left Hand Milk Stout (Colorado), is another nice example of a smooth and medium bodied milk stout.
When you go dark, a lot of dark and warm flavors start to pop up in the mix. A really great example of this is Rogue Chocolate Stout (Oregon). It pours nearly completely black with a nice tan head, and you’ll smell in this one exactly what you’d taste. Dark chocolate, toffee, coffee, and mocha. At times it tastes kind of like drinking a creamy latte. This stout is exactly as advertised. Seek out their Double Chocolate Stout for an additional kick in the chocolate pants.
If you can find it stateside or happen to be traveling in Europe make a pit stop to try Birrificio del Ducato’s Mikkie=Cattivella (Italy) creme brûlée stout. It’s dessert in your mouth. So many rich flavors and a full body to boot. Caramel, cream, sugar, milk, chocolate, toffee, fudge. I sampled this in Amsterdam at the Beer Temple and thought I had died and gone to beer heaven. There’s a reason this stout rates at 95 and higher on a lot of review sites.
Some other great flavored stouts and porters to try out Stone Smoked Vanilla Porter, Founder’s Breakfast Stout (with flavors of cereal and coffee – just like breakfast!), Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.
Just remember when you’re out there experimenting with dark beer, just because it’s dark doesn’t mean it’s heavy, and when it’s heavy there’s a wide variety to try out. These are but a handful of the varieties of dark beers available, so give it a whirl and you may find something that fits what you like. Drink responsibly and deliciously!