In a glass, darkly: Tasting and matching dark beers

Drinks: Beers

With the mercury dropping and recession biting, our beer panel seek out their fingerless gloves and huddle round a roaring log fire with a line-up of comforting dark beers for company. Stout and proud, says Nigel Huddleston…

What better time than winter in a recession to unearth some of the finest dark beers on the market. A new generation of stouts, porters, dark lagers and cask-aged beers have been out to prove that there’s life beyond Guinness of late, so we set our beer tasting team the task of finding the perfect warming beer to hole up inside a bar with for an hour, while the weather and the economy battle it out to see which can wreak the most misery.

While the salty dryness of many stouts make them perfect for matching with seafood, our line-up of comfort beers erred towards the sweet, fruit and chocolate part of the dark beer spectrum, putting hearty puddings more in mind.

But the very best from our line-up undoubtedly stand up as beers to savour in their own right, although the relatively high abvs on display in most of these suggest that high prices and small quantities should be the order of the day.

All the beers were tasted blind, with the overall scores out of 100, with a possible 60 on offer for flavour and 40 for aroma – a key element of the beer tasting experience.

If there was any doubt about the wisdom of brewers ageing their beer in old whisky barrels then it was dispelled by the results of our tasting, with three of the top four beers using that production method, separated only by a timeless West Country classic in the form of Thomas Hardy’s.

The tasting also suggested that some of the more recent entrants to the category have begun to refine and perfect what the pioneers in the style put in motion.

A new triple-oaked version of Innis & Gunn – arguably the best-known oak-aged beer – featured in the tasting but failed to register a top 20 place, with one taster suggesting it had ‘good flavours, just badly executed’. The consensus was that while the beer’s mix of vanilla and coconut was interesting, products like Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve, which came out on top, had managed to bring everything together in harmony more successfully.

Barley wine was an old-fashioned beer style that did better, with Banks’s Barley Gold from Midlands-based Marston’s scoring a highly creditable 67, one more than A Over T, from the Hog’s Back Brewery, the Campaign for Real Ale’s Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain in 2006.

Humphrey Barber said of the Banks’s beer: ‘I could sit by the fire and drink a few of those: I like its sweetness and it’s a bit of a grower’, though Aubrey Johnson suggested ‘the fifth one might be quite challenging’.

Another surprise package was the Mexican dark beer Negra Modelo, which also scored a 67. Johnson dubbed it ‘a good all-rounder, and one that could go well with a variety of foods’.

More traditional stouts fared less well. Richard Dinwoodie thought that oatmeal stout, the style of the Sam Smith’s beer included in the tasting, was too dry to fit the bill of a perfect winter beer.

The Irish bottled stout O’Hara’s had a ‘blue cheese’ whiff on the aroma for at least two of our tasters, one suggesting that it could take the place of port alongside a chunk of post-dinner Stilton.

  ‘Absolutely intoxicating… if someone were to invent a beer 

 perfume it would be like this’ Aubrey Johnson 

Although Budvar Dark was named best beer in the world in one poll last year, it failed to make the top 10 here, perhaps reflecting a lack of suitability for the winter brew mission rather than a paucity of quality. It nestled alongside fellow dark lager Cusquena Malta from Peru in the scores, both decent brews, but maybe short on the warmth and body required to warm the cockles. Nevertheless, Cusqueña’s ‘liquorice bootlace’ notes won favour with one judge.

The battle of the London porters was edged by Fuller’s over Meantime, with one taster identifying the latter but suggesting that it may have been ‘dumbed down a bit’ in recent times. ‘I remember it being much more robust; it tastes like a good standard porter but one you’d expect to clock in at 4.5% abv rather than 6.5%’. The Fuller’s Porter was regarded as ‘honest and balanced’ and ‘not exciting, but a good beer’.

While some beers outperformed their reputation, others perhaps surprised in not being nearer the top of the scoring charts. New York’s Brooklyn Chocolate Stout is produced once a year for the winter and stocks are so sought after in the UK that there are collectors for different ‘vintages’, making it one of the closest things the beer world has to first growth claret, and though 60 is a reasonable score, unblinded forecasts would have put it higher.


Although a few recent launches from overseas were included, the focus was mainly on the best of British dark beers. A number of styles were included, such as various types of stout, porter, seasonal winter brews and the new generation of barrel-aged beers. Featured beers were sourced directly from brewers, UK agents and leading speciality beer wholesalers, and no charge was made for inclusion. The panel tasted the beers blind, with each taster marking a score out of 10 for aroma and 15 for flavour.


80 Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve

The west London brewer’s take on beer aged in whisky casks has been a long time in the making, but it’s been well worth the wait. The beer is aged for 500 days in barrels that have held 30-year-old whisky, and our bottle was one of only 25,000 bottles up for grabs. On first taste, Dinwoodie thought it a ‘bit Belgian’, before adding that it was ‘Cognac-esque’. Johnson suggested it was ‘a beer for a cold night’, just what we were looking for, while Peter Hughes would ‘definitely do that by a fireside’.

7.7% abv; Fuller Smith & Turner, 020 8996 2000

79 Thomas Hardy’s Ale

The classic strong ale was swiftly identified by Dinwoodie, whose Rake bar is the only one in the country to sell it on draught, though he did concede that his Utobeer wholesale operation was letting the White Horse in Parson’s Green have a nine-gallon barrel for its beer festival. Johnson summed up its heady aroma as ‘absolutely intoxicating’, adding, ‘if someone were to invent a beer perfume it would be like this’.

11.7% abv; O’Hanlon’s, 01404 822412

76 Ola Dubh 30 year old

70 Ola Dubh 16 year old

Two of Scottish brewer Harviestoun’s beers finished in different aged Highland Park whisky casks came third and fourth respectively. Barber thought the 30-year-old had ‘liqueur chocolate’ notes, while Johnson suggested a ‘Tia Maria bouquet’ and a ‘pleasant, bitter, dry finish’. On the 16 year old, Dinwoodie detected ‘dried fruit and a bit of a fresh bread, yeasty thing going on’. Curiously, Old Engine Oil, the base beer for Ola Dubh, was also tasted but failed to make the top 20, testament to the power of the cask in giving wintry character to beer.

Both 8% abv; Harviestoun, 01259 769100

68 Bombardier Satanic Mills

This was something of a surprise package. Dinwoodie thought it had a ‘chocolatey nose, but when you taste it it’s more like a proper stout’. All subscribed to the chocolate theory, with Johnson suggesting it was ‘the most well balanced of all’ in that style.

5% abv; Wells & Young’s, 01234 272766

And the rest…

67 Banks’s Barley Gold

Sweet melon and toffee with a big mouthfeel.

9.1% abv; Marston’s, 01902 711811

67 Meantime Wintertime

Well-structured, beery sour notes and a peaty smokiness.

5.4% abv; Meantime, 020 8293 1111

67 Negra Modelo

Bready, sweet malt with banana notes on the finish.

5.3% abv; Wells & Young’s, 01234 272766

67 Meantime Chocolate

Rich chocolate pudding with a hint of Christmas cake fruit.

6.5% abv; Meantime, 020 8293 1111

66 A Over T

Great balance of sweet and sour fruit reminiscent of Refreshers sweets.

9% abv; Pierhead Purchasing, 01322 662377

65 Fuller’s London Porter

Honest and straightforward, with vanilla and coffee notes.

5.4% abv; Fuller Smith & Turner, 020 8996 2000

62 Meantime London Porter

Leathery creaminess and an espresso hit.

6.5% abv; Meantime, 020 8293 1111

60 Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

Liquorice, chocolate,
woodiness and a vague farmyardy aroma.

10.6% abv; James Clay, 01422 377560

59 Dark Star Espresso

Intense coffee flavour and smoky aroma.

4.2% abv; Dark Star, 01444 412311

56 Ola Dubh 12 year old

Phenolic, TCP aroma, with liquorice, biscuity malt and whisky woodiness.

8% abv; Harviestoun, 01259 769100

54 Dorothy Goodbody’s Wholesome Stout

Chocolate, bitterness and a salty stout finish.

4.6% abv; Wye Valley Brewery, 01885 490505

54 Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout

Complex but soft, with toffee-apple flavours.

5% abv; Samuel Smith, 01937 832225

50 Young’s Double Chocolate Stout

Chocolate pudding flavours and a ruby port character.

5.2% abv; Wells & Young’s, 01234 272766

50 Budvar Dark Lager

Light to medium bodied; roasted malt, hop bitterness.

4.7% abv; Budvar UK, 020 7554 8815

50 Cusqueña Malta

Sweet liquorice and molasses.

5.6% abv; Chilli Marketing, 08702 424608

Also tasted:

Haviestoun Old Engine Oil

Innis & Gunn Triple-matured

O’Hara’s Stout

Many thanks to De Hems for hosting the tasting.

Judges Comments

Richard Dinwoodie

Co-owner of the Rake, Borough Market, and beer wholesaler Utobeer

There was quite a difference in some of the chocolate beers. I thought the first was probably Robinson’s Old Tom Chocolate (actually Meantime Chocolate) and was a lot more satisfying than the second (Young’s Double Chocolate Stout). They probably should have been the other way round. The first was like a chocolate pudding that my mum would make and the second was more like a school dinner version of chocolate.

Aubrey Johnson

Co-owner of Lowlander and Grand Café, Covent Garden and the City

It could have done with a bit of Belgian stuff in there to make it a bit more continental. The problem in the UK is that you’ve basically got 1,000 brewers all making the same beer and a range of beers like this would probably pass most people by. Most people want something that’s easy to drink and need to be turned on to something heavier that you should sit and savour.

Humphrey Barber

General manager of The Cow Pub & Restaurant, Westbourne Park

I doubt that we’ll replace Guinness but I’ll definitely get some Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve. We could get away with it in terms of selling it to our customers, whereas some of the other beers are a bit too envelope-pushing. We have a reputation for Guinness and we know it’s what people will drink.

Peter Hughes

Co-owner of Porterhouse, Covent Garden

Some dark beers can be a bit too much and I don’t like beer to be that strong. There were one or two where I took a sniff and thought ‘I’m not going to like this’, and I was right. The Bombardier Satanic Mills was very drinkable, which is a very important aspect; that was in the right area. The Negra Modelo was in the same sort of territory as was Innis & Gunn, but with a fresher, banana taste.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2009

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