Dark beers

Reprinted from days of the syndicated Beer Guy column

Dear Beer Guy: I have been looking for a dark beer, one that is fairly “common.” It would typically have a nice head and not be too bitter. I have tried a few but have not succeeded in finding one I like. I hate having to buy a six-pack of something that I don’t care for. I don’t very often go out to restaurants that carry a wide selection so cannot buy “singles.” Several years ago, I had one that I really liked but don’t recall the name. I don’t drink a lot but like dark beer during the cold weather months. W.W.


Dear W.W. Your letter is enticingly vague and opens the door for a general discussion of dark beer, or as I like to call it, the Anti-Lite.

The genesis of dark beer can be traced to none other than Darth Vader, who lured Luke Skylager away from his fizzy ways with that seductively sinister, asthmatic ogre-in-a-cave voice, “Luke, feel the power of the dark side.” After secret training, Luke was able to use the Force — not to mention specialty malts — to achieve his destiny as a Jedi Brewmaster.

The dark side is a misunderstood region to many mainstream beer quaffers. They write off all dark beers as heavy, thick, high in alcohol and low in drinkability. Not so.  The draft version of Guinness — the most common dark beer in the world — has about as many calories as a lite beer.

Perhaps the greatest single misperception is that all dark beers are ales and all lagers are light. Even in a book about making beer, I read: “Lager is a light beer, yellow in color, translucent, and low in alcohol.”

This begs a quick distinction between ales and lagers that might help you, W.W., in your quest for the beer to fulfill your destiny. Did it taste slightly fruity? Or did it have a clean, crisp quality?

The most common dark beers — stouts and porters — are ales. Ales are defined by having a top-fermenting yeast that yields fruity flavors from esters that are part of the chemical mix. Just as there are light ales, there also are dark lagers — bock, doppelbock, dunkel and schwarzbier. Lagers are defined by having bottom-fermenting yeast, they take longer to ferment and don’t taste fruity.

But let’s back up a bit.

What makes beer dark?

This is where specialty malts come in. For ales and lagers alike, brewers can choose from a palette of malted grains to influence the color of their beer, from pale gold to obsidian black. Most influence the taste as well as the color, so let’s take a look.

Barley is by far the most common grain in beer, and the malting process involves soaking raw barley in water until it starts to germinate — form little rootlets as if it were trying to seed itself. After drying, many malts are then roasted, some until they’re light brown, some darker and some until they’re black.

The Darth Vader of malts is black patent. If you’ve ever had a really dark stout with an almost burnt character to it, that comes from black patent malt. It’s roasted until it’s just this side of burning. But black patent that has some bitterness to it, distinct from hops bitterness, so I’m guessing it’s not our fellow.

Next in the spectrum is chocolate malt. This is not a malt for chocoholics, simply one that’s roasted to the color of dark chocolate. Though not as dark as black patent, it can be harsh and pungent. Brewers in Japan and Germany use it in their black beers.

From here the color scheme broadens. Brown malt is an old-time English product traditionally used to brew porter. Roasted barley is more common. It’s not malted, instead derived from raw grain roasted for a less pungent character. It’s common in dry Irish stouts, the style Guinness made famous, so there’s a good chance you’ve had this. And no beer prides itself on a good head like Guinness.

The middle ground of beer color is ruled by amber malts, found in brown ales, and two German varieties — Vienna and Munich. Vienna you’ll see in Marzen, or Oktoberfest. Munich malt is traditionally used in “dunkel,” which is German for “dark.”

Now, W.W., here are a couple of options. One is to find a store with a good selection of beers, a friendly sales staff and a section devoted to single beers. Talk to these folks, tell them what you’re looking for and get a mixed six-pack of possibilities.

The other is go in with some friends who are interested in sharing your adventure and each buy a six-pack of a different dark beer. Then split them up (the beers, not your friends) so you can sample one of each.

I’m betting you’ll not only find just the right dark beer to suit your personal palate, but you’ll also have fun exploring the universe of flavors out there.

Hey, Vader’s an OK guy once you get a couple of beers in him.

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