Getting to Know Your Dark Beer


Written by Danner Kline for www.bhamweekly.com

(Photo by John Setzler. For further editions of the regional series, please check Birmingham Weekly)

I’m in the middle of a series of columns highlighting different regions of American craft beer, but I like to take a break from series like that.

This time of year I hear a lot people insisting on drinking dark beer. Sometimes winter seasonal beers specifically intended by brewmasters to be enjoyed in cold weather are spurned if not sufficiently dark. I don’t really agree with this obsession with beer color, but if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So here’s an overview of “dark beer” for people who insist on such things at this time of year.

As with most things in the beer world, the fundamental divide is between ales and lagers. Dark lagers aren’t especially common, but there are a few kinds you can find around here: schwarzbiers, doppelbocks and Baltic porters.

Schwarzbiers are roasty black lagers and hard to find. Samuel Adams Black Lager is the easiest to find. Xingu Black Beer and Sprecher Black Bavarian are the only others I know of that you can find in Birmingham.

Doppelbocks are higher in alcohol than schwarzbiers, but don’t feature the same sort of roasted barley. They have a heavier body, but with a lighter caramel flavor. They are smooth and sweet, with minimal hops. Gordon Biersch releases one just for the winter, called

WinterBock. Nearly every German brewery that exports to the U.S. has one in their lineup—and Germans always name them something with an “ator” suffix. So Spaten has Optimator, Paulaner has Salvator, Ayinger has Celebrator, and so on. Many American craft breweries follow that tradition, though not all.

Baltic Porters are worth mentioning here, but good luck finding any in Birmingham. They are stronger than typical porters, usually having at least 7 percent ABV, and they are cold fermented with lager yeast. Beer Advocate classifies Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter as a Baltic porter, but it’s much roastier and hoppier than traditional examples of the style, and I think it would be better classified as an American imperial porter. It has also won medals in competitions when entered as an imperial stout. Great Divide had a seasonal this year called Smoked Baltic Porter, but it may be tough to find right now (draft only).

There are tons of dark ales out there, but I only have space to mention a few. The big styles here are brown ale, porter, stout and Belgian dark ales.

Brown ales are the lightest of that list. American versions can be aggressively hoppy, like Good People Brown, or subtle and sweet, like Back Forty Truck Stop Honey Brown. Some breweries like Leinenkugel, Boulevard, and Bell’s release brown ales as winter seasonals. Some brown ales are exceedingly mild while some are very bold and complex.

Porters occupy a space somewhere between brown ales and stouts. Don’t believe anyone claiming there is an absolute, universally accepted definition separating porters and stouts. Whatever the brewer wants to call his beer, that’s what it is. I’ve had some porters that were darker and roastier than some stouts. But as a rule of thumb, porters are usually a tad lighter in color than stouts and less intense in flavor. Great examples include Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter and Sierra Nevada Porter.

Stouts, of course, are the quintessential dark beer. While most bars can barely give away stouts for free in the summer, come December it seems like that’s what everyone’s clamoring for. There are tons of them at retailers right now, including Good People Coffee Oatmeal Stout, Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout, Left Hand Milk Stout, Terrapin Moo Hoo, Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout, Boulder Obovoid and many others.

I don’t have the space here to do justice to dark Belgian ales, but they are my personal favorite for holiday beverage enjoyment so I must at least mention them. They are a bit lighter than stouts in color, but most of them are quite high in alcohol. They are fermented with special yeasts that produce very spicy flavors, and many Belgian breweries release special Christmas beers that have actual spices added. Delirium Noel, Scaldis Noel, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, and Corsendonk Christmas Ale are some great examples.

There are tons more dark beers that I didn’t cover here, such as old ales, barleywines, dunkelweizens, weizenbocks and black IPAs. You need to try them all.

“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to danner@freethehops.org