O dark, dark, dark, amid
the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
–John Milton (Samson Agonistes, line 80)
Milton’s words could be the lager drinker’s mantra when contemplating anything other than the lightest colored brew. Fear. Dread. Horror. Apprehension.
A dark beer? How awful! How heavy! How bitter! How fattening! How strong! “Dark beer is so thick, you can stand a spoon upright in a glass of it!” Yuck. Who would want to drink something with all those distasteful attributes? And you know what? The answer is, not many people.
Most Americans, indeed, most beer drinkers worldwide, prefer light-colored lagers. Ah, the serenity of a cold glass of clear, golden lager. And often, the less golden, the better. Water, over which a miniscule portion of malt and hops have passed, as if being ceremoniously blessed but by no means contaminated with their flavoring or darkening properties—yes, this is real beer.
For some beer drinkers, there are only two types of beer—light and dark—and never the twain shall meet in their gustatory experiences. Forget all that nonsense the beer experts, writers, critics and snobs say about beer being classified as either ales or lagers. What’s that got to do with anything? Beer is light (good) or dark (bad). Period. End of discussion. Now pour me another (light) one.
Is all this true? Well, yes, but only to an extent.
Yes, 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 and watery, 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, but others aren’t. Take Guinness, for example, probably the most famous dark beer of all. 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 this big beer contains a whole mess of unfermented sugars—sugars that weren’t turned into alcohol by yeast.
Draft Guinness, on the other hand, the one served in pubs from Dublin to San Francisco and beyond, is not a heavy beer (it’s almost watery, in some people’s minds). Its deceptively creamy texture comes from the use of nitrogen to dispense the beer. This is one beer 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. The quaffability of a draft stout such as Murphy’s is proof of this. In fact, 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 feels that a beer is heavy not only 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 we’ll feel after drinking the beer. Any highly carbonated “lite” beer can fill you up more than a softly carbonated draft Guinness or dark English ale.