Cold Hands, Warm Heart: The Beginners Guide to Black Beers
Beer. A light beverage with lots of little bubbles and a foamy white head, right?
What about black beers? These underdogs of the beer world are often misunderstood – what are they supposed to taste like? When are they best to drink? Why do brewers make them?
Let’s take a closer look at the world of black beer, starting with the most common styles.
Dunkel is German for ‘dark’. Dunkel beers have a long history dating back to 1516, when they were the first beer to be officially regulated by the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity laws. Originating in the region of Bavaria, Dunkel is typically a dark lager. For the difference between lager and ale, see our blog on the subject.
Dunkels tend to have a bread-like aroma with sweet notes of caramel, chocolate, or nuts, which can continue into the flavor. These beers range in color from deep copper red to dark brown, but never actually look totally black. Malty sweetness is their primary character, and bitterness is avoided.
Dunkel is designed for easy drinkability, and not so much for complex richness. ABV is usually below 5.5%.
Literally the German word for ‘Black Beer’. In some ways, Shwartzbier is similar to Dunkel. Both styles are traditional German lagers, which focus on drinkability and feature relatively low ABV.
The differences in their appearance and taste, however, are clear. Shwartzbier is typically several shades darker than its dunkel cousins, reaching very dark shades of brown, often with red highlights. Some people refer to Shwarzbier as black pilsner, although they never quite reach a true black.
Shwartzbiers feature less malty sweetness than dunkels, in both their aroma and flavor, focusing instead on roasted barley notes with occasional hints of coffee or caramel. A moderate hop bitterness is also common.
Porter and Stout are closely related, like Dunkel and Shwarzbier, but these styles are ales rather than lagers. By nature, ales feel softer on the tongue than their crisp lager counterparts, which give them a very different character.
The porter style originates in the British Isles and has a rich history. Early porters were originally blends of new ales, old ales, and mild ales, which made them dark, strong, and complex, appealing to dock workers, known as porters. Modern porters don’t usually rely on blending, but they do still aim for a rich complexity that their dark lager counterparts avoid.
There is an array of porter styles: English, American, Baltic, Czech. Each of these specific styles has its own unique characteristics, but they also have a few features in common. First, these beers get truly dark - some stay in the very dark brown range, but most are truly black beers. Most have some level of roasted barley quality, though some may also incorporate a sweet malty body. Finally, although there are some exceptions, like the Baltic variant, most Porters have moderate ABVs between 4 and 6 percent.
Historically, Stouts were strong variants of porters, with the family name starting out as ‘Stout Porters’. Stout rose to global fame with Guinness, but the style offers a wide variety of flavors, most of which taste nothing at all like the well-known Guinness brand.
There is a lot of debate over the difference between modern Stouts and Porters. Many of the original differentiating factors no longer apply, as both styles offer a variety of beers with a range of alcohol contents, sweetness, roast notes, and body.
That debate could be the subject of its own full-length blog. So, to avoid splitting hairs in this intro to dark beers, we will just point out that stouts have generally developed into more creative varieties than porters. Milk stouts, oatmeal stouts, Russian imperial stouts, even chili pepper stouts are available to the adventurous beer drinker. While porters tend to stay more traditional, stouts have a tendency to get weird – in a good way.
It’s worth noting that Sabaja was started because of an experiment with a Russian Imperial Stout recipe, so you know that’s a powerful beer.
Which Dark Beer is Right for You?
There you have it – a quick run-down of the basic black beer styles. There are many more dark beer styles, but these four are the starting point for a good foundation of understanding black beer.
What you choose to drink depends on your tastes. If you usually like lager, try a dunkel for a sweet dark beer experience, or shwarzbier for a roasty, coffee-like flavor. If you like the soft palette of ales, Porters are ideal for more traditional, roasty beer flavor, while Stouts are ideal if you like strong beers than can get experimental.
Black beers are ideal for the winter season. Their robust bodies and sweet or roasty flavors can have a filling effect, which warms the body from the inside-out. They are also ideal for pairing with rich foods, like steaks and chocolate cakes.