The Dark Arts
Continuing our “Beer 101” series discussing what you really need to know as you begin your journey into the world of craft beer, let’s take a look at dark beers. Today we’ll be covering the basics: Brown Ale, Porter, and Stout. While tackling malty beers might seem simple, the generality with which their style names have been used both in the past and the present can lead to much confusion. As we have over the past couple of weeks, let’s break these down into simple rules to remember:
- Malty is as malty does. What ‘Brown Ale’ meant in the late 17th century is much different from what it means today, and beyond that back then there was a great amount of variety in the category (as there is now). At the heart of the style, Brown Ales essentially are beers where the emphasis is on the predominance of malts for flavor and character, with bittering hops relegated to the background. Many breweries today do use quite a bit of hop in their Brown Ale, though, as they find it can bring a freshness to the mouthfeel and keep a malty Ale from feeling too rich or cloying. It may seem anathema to those looking to avoid strongly hopped beers, but a hoppier Brown Ale can be just the thing for the drinker looking for a more balanced dark beer.
- All Stouts are Porters, but not all Porters are Stout. I get asked about this all the time — what’s the difference between a Porter and Stout? Well, historically speaking, Stout is a stronger style of Porter. Porters are stronger malty Ales that became popular with street and river porters in the 18th century (hence the name). As Porter rose in popularity, stronger versions started to appear, often referred to as “Stout Porters” or eventually simply Stouts. Today, Porter tends to have more roasty caramel notes and less alcohol by volume than Stout, where Stout generally is richer and more redolent with chocolate and coffee notes.
- All beers are for all seasons. This is definitely the time of year where most tend to think about dark beers, but it certainly isn’t the only time to consider them. We don’t stop drinking Pale Ales because it gets cold out; there’s no reason to give up dark beers because it gets warm. I personally rarely consider weather when I’m buying beer for myself, and when I do it’s long after I’ve considered my mood, if I’m having guests or not, and what I’m serving food-wise.
- We all have preferences, but there is a beer of every style for every one of us. This is a pretty general rule, but I think it’s time to put it out there. There is so much variety among all styles of beer, but especially within the darker ones, that there is no reason to ever make a blanket statement such as “I don’t like dark beer”. From the most intense Imperial, Chocolate, Coffee, or Oatmeal Stouts to the roasty Robust, Staark, or Smoked Porters and the lightest or darkest Brown Ales there really is something for everyone out there. Never lose your curiosity; you can easily miss out on a new regular or favorite that way.
Some dark beers to consider trying if you’re new to them:
Bell’s Best Brown Ale: The modern example of Brown Ale. Best Brown is made for the fall and winter months, but holds up well in the spring or late summer as it’s relatively light on the malts and balanced by a surprising amount of hops.
Mikkeller Jackie Brown: Taking the idea of Best Brown and kicking it up a notch, Jackie Brown is a bit roastier with its malts and a bit hoppier than the Bell’s. It’s pretty limited in production and not exactly inexpensive, but it’s a personal favorite of mine and fantastic example of a world-class beer that isn’t over-the-top in any way.
Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Palo Santo Marron: Known much more for their IPAs, Dogfish Head produces some of the best dark Ales out there. Indian Brown Ale is the most overlooked beer in their entire lineup, and one of the most criminally underrated beers in America, period. Among the hoppier Brown Ales I’ve mentioned today, Indian Brown is the richest and most generous with its malts. Palo Santo Marron is a more recent addition; a strong (12% ABV) Brown Ale aged in South American Palo Santo wood before bottling. Palo has a unique spicy character from the wood to go along with the intense roasted malts; the high ABV serves as a counter to the richness and makes it all work.
Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter: The standard of the breed, this classic English Porter holds up today. Easy-drinking with slightly smoky malt notes, Taddy should be the first Porter you ever try if you’re just getting started.
Port City Porter: We’re lucky to have Port City down the road in Alexandria, in no small part because of this excellent Porter that for me is a great example of modern everyday style. At under 6% ABV and with notes of toffee, toast, and cocoa, Port City Porter has a sharpness that ties everything together.
Stone Smoked Porter: Using a portion of smoked malt, Stone’s Smoked Porter is a great match for barbeque, roasts, game, and of course all things smoked. Not only a great food pairing beer, but a great introduction to the idea of smoked malts and a stepping stone to Rauchbier (more on that in another column…).
Left Hand Fade To Black, Volume 3: Showing the versatility and possibilities of Porter, Colorado’s Left Hand brewery gives the classic Porter a twist by adding black peppercorns to the mix. The pepper comes through on the finish with the slightest hint of heat that fades pretty quickly, but also makes Fade To Black a fantastic match for all kinds of food. With football playoffs starting, this is a great beer to have with finger foods and snacks.
Allagash Black: Excellent smooth Belgian-style Stout; not too strong for everyday, rich enough to satisfy malt fans.
Bell’s Stouts: From the year-round Kalamzoo Stout to specialties like Expedition, Java, Cherry, and Rye, Bell’s does Stout right. If you haven’t, you really should treat yourself to some of these.
Sixpoint Diesel: Brewed ‘without style’, Diesel isn’t technically a Stout but is certainly malty enough to be included here. What makes Diesel stand out is the combination of its dark, roasty malts with a very intense hop character. To me, it’s almost a modern take on the malty but easily-quaffable nature of a Newcastle Brown Ale.
Terrapin MooHoo Stout: A seasonal Milk Chocolate Stout, using lactose as a brewing sugar and cocoa nibs to make an absolute guilty pleasure of a beer. MooHoo is as close as beer gets to being comfort food.
Oskar Blues Ten Fidy: Black as night and rich with chocolate notes, Ten Fidy is unabashedly strong and intense. It’s not always available, but one of the best Stouts made in the U.S.
Dogfish Head WorldWide Stout: The big daddy of American Imperial Stout. Labeled at 18% ABV (but known to vary from batch to batch) WorldWide Stout is not for the timid, but as is the case with their 120 Minute IPA, the patient will be rewarded. As WorldWide ages its dark fruit and sugary notes mellow, and the drinker can find the point at which they prefer theirs. I myself just enjoyed my last 2002 WorldWide this past summer, and really could have held onto it longer if I felt like it. WorldWide will not be made in 2012, but the 2011 batch is hitting shelves now so stock up while you can.
Remember: try everything you can, keep an open mind, and have fun!
Until next time — cheers!