by Gregg Glaser
Most Americans fear the dark.
Indeed most beer drinkers worldwide - prefer light colored lagers. Often, the less golden, the better.
Beers are correctly classified as ales and lagers. And you know what? There are both light and dark ales and lagers. And you know what else? Dark beers aren’t all heavy, bitter, fattening and strong. Some are weak, wussy, watery things with just a touch of color to make them appear exotic.
From whence comes this darkish color?
So why are some beers dark? In the meanest examples, the brewer has added a touch of food coloring or dark sugar. Most often, however, and in the best examples, dark beers obtain their color from dark malts. That is, the barley grain from the farmer’s field is malted: germinated, dried and then kilned to varying degrees of color ranging from pale gold all the way up to roasty, pitch black. Malted barley gives beer both flavor and color.
Are all dark beers heavy beasts of burden?
No. Some may be. Others aren’t. Take Guinness, for example, probably the most famous dark beer of all. Now the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout brewed in Kenya is indeed a heavy beer. There’s lots of heavy mouthfeel (viscosity, if you will) to this beer, the reason being that there are a whole mess of unfermented sugars in this big beer; sugars that weren’t turned into alcohol by yeast. Draft Guinness, on the other hand, the one served in pubs from Dublin to London to New York to San Francisco and beyond, well, this is a light (almost watery in some people’s minds) beer. It’s one that can be quaffed pint after pint as a session beer and quite refreshingly so, even though it is a dark beer.
Dark beers are also no heavier on the stomach than light beers. Draft Guinness’ quaffability is proof of this. Some light colored beers, such as the wonderful golden Duvel from Belgium, are notable for their full body in the mouth and filling nature in the stomach.
Our gut not only feels that a beer is heavy when it has loads of unfermented sugars, but also when the brewer has a heavy hand on the CO2 pump. Many beers have carbon dioxide added before they leave the brewery, and the more gas bubbles there are in the liquid, the more full and heavy we’ll feel after drinking them. Any highly carbonated “lite” beer can fill you up more than a softly carbonated draft Guinness or dark English ale.
Are dark beers are much more bitter than light beers?
Sometimes, but not always. Beer derives its bitterness from two different sources. A generous use of hops (the green, cone-like flowers of a climbing vine) will always impart a sharp bitterness to ales and lagers, whether dark or light. American craft brewers are famous for making clear, pale, golden ales that are packed with hop bitterness. Pilsner Urquel, brewed in the Czech Republic, is a beer known as the grandfather of all light lagers. This beer has a wonderful hop bitterness in its taste.
Bitterness in beer can also come from dark malts. The kilning process in the production of malted barley adds not just color, but also flavor to the finished beer. These bitter flavors can be described as acrid, ashy, toasty, chocolatey or coffee-like, depending on the type and quantity of malt used by the brewer. Guinness is often described as having a coffee-like roastiness, and that’s a good comment, considering that Guinness incorporates unmalted, highly roasted barley in its recipe. Sweet stouts, however, such as Mackeson Stout or Sam Adams Cream Stout, mask a great deal of any malt bitterness with sweet, creamy flavors, often derived from lactose sugars. (A good beer for nursing mothers, the old English ads said in the days before that sort of thing was outlawed.)
Are dark beers more fattening?
Well, yes, if you compare them to “lite” beers. These beers are designed to be low in calories.
Most beers, ales or lagers - light or dark - contain about 140-150 calories for every twelve ounces. A few are bigger in the calorie department, most notably those with a great deal of those unfermented sugars we’ve already mentioned. German maibocks and helles bocks, such as those produced by Spaten, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Hofbrauhaus, Ayinger and others, are big, heavy, alcoholic - and fattening - blonde and golden lagers. Guinness Extra Stout, the bottled version available in the U.S., is only about 152 calories per bottle. Budweiser is just 10 calories lower.
Higher in alcohol?
Just to completely debunk the dark beer myths, a dark beer can be low in alcohol or high in alcohol or smack dab in the middle. The same is true of any light colored beer. Draft Guinness, just about as black as black can be, is about 4.2 percent alcohol by volume. Budweiser is stronger at 4.6 percent. The heavy, golden Duvel mentioned earlier comes in at a whopping 8.2 percent. Many maibocks and helles bocks are 6.0-7.0 percent abv. Boston Beer Co.’s Utopias, a super-strong beer, is deep amber in color and hits 25 percent. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s World Wide Stout is deep black and 18 percent. There’s no rhyme or reason, is there? Yes there is. It’s the malt, my friend. The more there is to begin with, the more alcohol can be produced. Light or dark, dark or light, the story’s the same.
Be not fearful of the dark unknown
There’s a dark beer out there somewhere, without fail, for nearly every steadfast light beer drinker: heavy and light, bitter and sweet, caloric or not, strong and weak.
dark beer dictionary
For most people, a dark beer is any beer darker than slightly tinted water. That would include bitters, pale ales, IPAs, amber lagers, Oktoberfests and a host of other beers we don’t truly consider dark. They’re regular colored beers. Light beers are the exception. Here’s a simple list of some better-known dark beer styles with a few commercially available examples
(I = import; D = domestic)
A light- to medium-brown colored beer with varying degrees of roasted grain aromas and flavors. American versions are usually hoppier and more bitter than traditional English brown ales, which tend to be softer and sweeter.
I: Newcastle Brown Ale, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, St. Peter's Summer Ale, Wychwood Old Devil Beer, King & Barnes Brown Malt Ale, Adnams Nut Brown Ale, Black Sheep Riggwelter.
D: Brooklyn Brown Ale, Pete's Wicked Ale, Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale, Pike Brown Ale, Lost Coast Downtown Brown.
Porters - brown, black
An almost-black beer that features the aromas and flavors of roasted malted barley, imparting a coffee-like dryness and a mouth-filling body.
I: Samuel Smiths Taddy Porter, King & Barnes Old Porter, Darwin Flag Porter, Shepherd Neame Original Porter, Fuller's London Porter, Nethergate Old Growler Porter, St Peter’s Old-Style Porter.
D: Yuengling Porter, Redhook Porter, Stegmeier Porter, Anchor Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter, Lion Brewery Hill Caramel Porter
Stouts - brown, black
Dry Irish stouts are jet-black and have the full taste of highly roasted unmalted barley. Oatmeal stouts and sweet stouts are not as dry and roasty in aroma and flavor and not always as dark in color.
I: Guinness Stout, Murphy's Stout, Beamish Stout, Mackeson Stout, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, Young's Oatmeal Stout
D: Anheuser-Busch Bare Knuckle Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Sierra Nevada Stout, BridgePort Black Strap Stout, Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Rockies Boulder Stout, Rogue Shakespeare Stout
Belgian Ales - amber, copper, red, brown
A broad range of beers brewed in Belgium or in the “Belgian style” by other brewers. These ales impart aromas and flavors that are yeasty, spicy, nutty and/or malty.
I: Westmalle, Rochefort, Affligem Double, Corsendonk Monk’s Brown Ale, De Dolle Brouwers Oudbier, Chimay Blue Cap, Rodenbach, Liefman’s Goudenband
D: Allagash Double, New Belgium Abbey Belgian Style Ale, Snake River Diplopian Belgian Ale, Sprecher Belgian Double Style Ale, Flatlander's Dubbel Ale, Big Hole Boogaloo Abbey Dubbul
Strong Ales - amber, copper, brown, black
Any style of ale that is stronger than usual (6.0% abv+). Usually full-bodied and may or may not be overly bitter from hops or malty sweet.
I: Young’s Winter Warmer, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Traquair House, MacAndrews Scotch Ale, Samuel Smiths Imperial Stout, Young's Old Nick
D: Sam Adams Millennium Ale; Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, Anchor Old Foghorn, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Rogue Old Crustacean, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
Dark Lagers- brown, black
The classic dark lager comes from Munich and is called a “Dunkel.” This beer has a slightly sweet, malty flavor and is amber to brown in color. A “Schwarzbier” (black beer) is darker and roastier in aroma and flavor.
I: Heineken Dark, Beck's Dark, Grolsch Dark, San Miguel Dark, St. Pauli Girl Dark, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
D: Michelob Dark, Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark Lager, Sprecher Black Bavarian, Full Sail Black Pilsner, Dixie Blackened Voodoo, Capital Dark, Lakefront Eastside Dark
Bocks - amber, brown
A strong lager with powerful malt aroma and flavor and with increased alcohol evident. Traditional bocks are deep amber to dark brown in color; “Dopplebocks” are usually darker and stronger (7.5% abv+)
I: Paulaner Salvator, Hacker-Pschorr Animator, Ayinger Celebrator, Spaten Optimator, Kulmbacher Reichelbräu Eisbock, Park Primator
D: Michelob Amber Bock, Leinenkugel’s Big Butt Doppelbock, Sam Adams Double Bock, Paper City Goat's Peak Bock, Full Sail Mercator Dopplebock, August Schell Dopplebock, Blue Ridge Sublimator Doppelbock, Crooked River Dopplebock
Lagers & Ales - brown, black
The classic is the German “Rauchbier,” brewed with malts that have been kilned over moist beechwood logs, imparting strong smoky aromas and flavors. These beers are full-bodied and malty sweet. Other types of wood can be used and other styles of beer can be “smoked.”
I: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, Kaiserdom Rauchbier
D: Otter Creek Hickory-Switched Smoked Amber, Alaskan Smoked Porter, Rogue Smoke Ale, Lafayette Smokehouse Porter, Stone Smoked Porter, Blue Star Smoked Dark Ale
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