While light beers are the most common, dark beers have been growing in popularity as of late – and for good reason. Darker beers, made this color usually from a dark-roasted grain that is made into a dark malt, can be rich, bold, flavorful, and refreshing instead of bitter, strong, and heavy.
The look of it gives the impression that it will be much thicker than other beers, but that’s a bit of a misconception. Some dark beers are indeed thick and creamy, but others are dark in color but lighter and bolder in flavor than one may assume.
These beers come in all shapes and sizes, and they can really differ from one kind to another. I’m going to dive in to each kind of dark beer and explore its history, features, tastes, and pairings.
Starting off with stouts, this is a beer made with either roasted barley or roasted malt, with hops, water, and yeast. Originally, a stout was just a short name for the stoutest porters, but now they are in a league of their own.
Imperial stout is also known as a Russian imperial stout, not because it is primarily made in Russia, but because a brewery in London in the 18th century primarily exported it to the then queen of Russia. An imperial stout has a high alcohol content that is usually over 9% ABV. They are usually brown to black in color, deeply malty, and deeply roasted. The flavors here are often chocolate, coffee, or dark fruit such as raisin or plum.
An imperial stout would be a good option for someone not too fond of the traditional bitterness of dark beers, as bitterness is not prominent here, and it is usually average to low. They age nicely over time, picking up new notes and flavors as time goes on.
An imperial stout, with its warm strength and richness, makes for a great nightcap or a warmer in the winter. This beer pairs well with chocolate cake, truffles, or any rich kind of dessert. Normally served in snifters and would compare to a port wine when looking at wines.
Oatmeal stouts use a proportion of oats (usually capped at 30%) in replacement of barley during brewing. Their popularity has waned in and out since their beginning during the medieval period.
While they don’t strongly taste of oats, the creaminess from the lipids, proteins, and gums produced by the oats greatly enhances the flavor without making it bitter.
Its unique flavor makes it dually fitting for either a refresher or a warmer. They are just as dark in color as other stouts, yet not quite as dark in flavor. In a way, they could be considered a “lighter” version stout. The oats create a creamy, almost slick-like texture in the drinker’s mouth, making it a good option for those who like a viscous texture like Guinness.
Oatmeal stouts pair perfectly with rich foods, but that doesn’t mean just desserts. Any hearty, rich, dish with meat, cheese, or tomato would go great with an oatmeal stout.
Insert oatmeal (Quaker oats guy) meme or picture here
Milk stout, as its name suggests, is a lactose-containing beer made with cream or milk of some sort. Now, lactose is not fermentable, so the lactose remains in the final product, adding creaminess, sweetness, body, and a nice finish.
This beer originated in 19th century England, where blue collar workers would pour whole milk into their stouts to make the drink more filling and “nutritious.” I know you are smart enough to know that you should not replace your breakfast milk with a beer. However, brewers began to realize that this kind of beer was being craved by many, so they began adding the lactose before the brewing process to save drinkers time and money. After the second World War, milk stouts almost went extinct but were brought back to life by modern brewers.
Milk stouts are creamy, slightly sweet, smooth, and flavorful. The amount of lactose used will determine the sweetness. Often, additional ingredients such as chocolate, coffee, or oatmeal are added here for extra flavor. Someone with a sweet tooth might prefer this drink.
Pair your milk stout with barbecue, Asian beef dishes, or a light dessert for a delightfully creamy experience.
Sometimes the only thing chocolate stout means is that it’s a stout with a strong chocolate flavor. This flavor often comes from the use of a darker malt roasted longer than most. Sometimes it comes from actual chocolate being added to the ingredients during brewing, but it can be hard to know.
Because chocolate and beer both have deep and complex flavors, when combined, they create an enhanced pallet. They can have notes of dark or milk chocolate, coconut, yogurt, caramel, or toffee.
When looking to pair your chocolate stout, you absolutely can’t go wrong with a good piece of chocolate.
Porters are another popular kind of dark beer, popularized in London in the 18th century. The origination of both stout and porter beer is interlaced; stouts used to be referred to as “dark porters” or “stout porters,” and eventually now just “stouts.” They are a darker, richer version of the porter.
Today’s a porter is made with lots of hops and aged for a long time. They are unique in their balance of sturdiness yet drinkability. This balance is again seen in the flavor that is not too bitter but still bitter enough. The flavor lends itself to immense versatility, making a porter a great choice in any environment and for almost any occasion.
They are generally a red-black or brown color with chocolate or caramel flavor notes. For a great pairing, try your next porter with roasted or smoked meat to bring out the rich flavors. If you like to stick to sweets with your dark beers, something with peanut butter or toasted coconut would make a lovely compliment.
Not all ales are dark beers, so for the sake of clarity, we’ll stick to the ones that are categorized as a dark beer. Dark ales are the product of a darker malt that’s been roasted longer, as mentioned above. Dark ales include a brown ale, dark ale, and black ale.
Ales date back to the medieval times when they were an important part of any diet.
They are often rich, dark, and flavorful with lots of hops. They are driven by the flavor of the malts yet are still ever-refreshing. Flavors here range a bit, with common notes including chocolate, caramel, toffee, nut, or coffee.
The ideal pairing for a dark ale depends on the ale itself, but most lend themselves easily to darker flavor profiles. While they are versatile enough to pair well with just about anything, they perform highly with hearty meat dishes in the same way of a nice red wine.
Munich Dunkel is a traditional German beer, a European dark lager. It was first produced as a product of an improved kilning method of the grains in the Bavarian 1830s. This method of malting made less of the malt fermentable, allowing the final beer product to retain more of the flavor. Their alcohol content is rather low for dark beers, ranging usually from 4.5 to 6% ABV.
In appearance, a Munich Dunkel can range from coppery in color to a dark brown with red hints. A creamy foam sits atop a clear or murky liquid (depending on the filtration process).
It can smell of toasted bread with hints of nut, toffee, coffee, or caramel. It has a full (but not thick) mouthfeel and tastes malty without heavy notice of hops.
To best enjoy this beer, pair it with a hearty, spicy meal to excite all your taste buds.
Similar to the Munich Dunkel, the Schwarzbier originated in Germany but is darker than its counterpart. The name fittingly means “black beer,” with its almost opaque black tone. The first version of this beer was produced in 1390, but it took a while for the final iteration to become Schwarzbier as we know it today.
Schwarzbier is dark brown to black with reddish hues, the darkest of the beers made in Germany. This color comes from roasted barley and lots of it! You may find that the flavor seems to reside somewhere between a Dunkel and a stout. The soft maltiness of the beer gives a mellow but bittersweet flavor with ties to dark chocolate.
Pair your next Schwarzbier with similar foods as your Dunkel, spicy meaty foods or some Muenster.
The Dark Beer Experience
Dark beers, while growing in popularity in today’s craft beer scene, are still foreign to many. Their old and rich histories are intriguing enough to learn more, but what really keeps the interest piqued when it comes to dark beers are the innumerable possibilities of flavor out there.
Dark beers may scare off the weak, but for those brave enough to stick around long enough to taste a few, they may be delightfully surprised at the rich variance in flavors, mouthfeel, scents, and overall experience.