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.
The Bitter Dregs of Fortune
But, of course, dark beers are much more bitter than light beers. Sometimes, but not always. Beer derives its bitterness from two different sources—hops and malts.
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. Another example, Pilsner Urquell, brewed in the Czech Republic and known as the grandfather of all light lagers, has a wonderful hop bitterness in its taste.
But 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, chocolaty or coffee-like, depending upon the type and quantity of malt used by the brewer.
Guinness is often described as having a coffee-like roastiness, and that’s an interesting 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.
Fatten Me Up for the Slaughter
“I don’t care about all that,” you say. “One thing’s for certain. Dark beers are more fattening than light beers.”
Well, yes, if you take “lite” light beers into the equation. These beers are designed to be low calorie, and for the most part, are.
Most beers, ales or lagers, whether light or dark, contain about 140 to 150 calories for every 12 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 calorie-laden—blonde and golden lagers.
Guinness Extra Stout, the bottled version available in the United States, has about 152 calories per bottle. Budweiser is just 10 calories lower.
Strong as an Ox
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.
For example, Beamish Irish Stout, about as black as black can be, is approximately 4.3 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Budweiser is stronger at 4.6 percent ABV. The heavy, golden Duvel mentioned earlier comes in at a whopping 8.2 percent. Many maibocks and helles bocks are 6 to 7 percent ABV. Boston Beer Co.’s Millennium Ale, the strongest beer ever made, is honey-gold in color and hits 20 percent ABV. The next strongest, Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout, is deep black and 18 percent ABV.
Is there any rhyme or reason here? Yes, there is. It’s the malt. The more malt 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
Fear not the dark beer of your nightmares. There’s a dark beer out there somewhere, without fail, for nearly every steadfast light beer drinker, whether you’re looking for heavy or light, bitter or sweet, caloric or not, strong or weak.
Be brave, dear beer drinker. As François Rabelais wrote (in Motteux’s Life), take the following as your new mantra: “I am just going to leap into the dark.”