With cold evenings on the horizon, it’s time to explore what the world of dark beers can bring to your menu. Jacopo Mazzeo joins members of the British Guild of Beer Writers to taste some of the category’s most interesting offerings
We all love a fresh, crisp, hoppy pale ale to battle the heat when it’s sunny outside. But what should we drink during the long and archetypally British gloomy autumn? For us at Imbibe, dark beers with a moderate alcohol content are the ideal answer when the leaves start to turn. The lower abv is well suited to the mild temperatures that lead to winter. Plus, behind that rather unfashionable rich malt character, dark beers hide a glorious array of aromas and flavours that make them attractive for food pairings. Think a brown ale with steak, a dunkel lager with roast pork, or even that classic match stout and oysters.
To explore this diverse category, we gathered up a selection of dark beers of up to 5.5% abv in strength, and teamed up with the British Guild of Beer Writers to taste and review them.
Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe; Dipak Nayar, London Fields Brewery; Annabel Smith, beer sommelier; Natalya Watson, Beer with Nat.
How it works
We asked UK merchants and breweries to submit samples of amber/brown to black beers with an abv of up to 5.5% which are available to the UK on-trade and independents. Beers were tasted blind, grouped by similar styles where possible, and marked out of 100. Lower-abv beers (1% abv max) were tasted fi rst. For each beer, our tasters were made aware of fermentation type (ales and lagers) and if adjunct ingredients were used.
86 Krombacher Dark
‘There’s an amazing complexity here with toffee, fruitcake, citrus zest, cola and candied fruit. Full palate, creamy, with plenty of chocolate,’ JM. ‘Beautifully fruity; bread-crust and toasty aromas. On the palate, it’s well balanced, showing good carbonation, smoothness and cleanliness of flavours. Flavourful, yet easy drinking. Very well made,’ NW.
4.7% abv, POA/500ml, Krombacher
78 West Beer DRK
‘Fresh orange and peach aromas plus caramel and toffee. Medium body, good balance, super drinkable. This is what I’d like to drink in the autumn,’ JM.
4.9% abv, POA/330ml, West Beer
75 West Beer Munich Red
‘Deep red brown, very fruit-forward on the nose with malty aromas of biscuit and caramel, plus hop bitterness. Nice red-fruit fl avours too. Well made, lots of malt and hop character, easy drinking,’ NW.
4.9% abv, POA/330ml, West Beer
ALES, PORTERS & STOUTS
90 Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale
‘There’s hazelnuts and coff ee aromas and a hint of soya sauce and marine saltiness, plus lots of fruity notes in the background. Very complex and yet so drinkable. Can match rich food or be drunk on its own. Lovely,’ JM. ‘Chocolatey, herbaceous, with aromas that range from nuts to coffee and fruit. Well-balanced beer with great complexity,’ DN.
5.5% abv, POA/340ml, James Clay
85 Five Points Railway Porter
‘Beautiful nose of liquorice, cola, coffee, dark chocolate. A touch of sweetness, followed by dark fruit, liquorice again, chocolate-coated cherries, arabica beans. Wow, so much flavour. So much going on,’ NW. ‘Very creamy with lots of dark, roasted coffee notes. Full palate; one to go with food,’ JM.
4.8% abv, £1.46-£1.64/330ml, Biercraft
83 Whitstable Bay Ruby Ale
‘Deep amber, clean, lovely caramel on the nose. Nice caramel sweetness on the palate too, evened out by a moderate hop bitterness. Perfectly balanced and well made,’ NW. ‘A classic amber ale, with comforting aromas of toffee and caramel. More caramel on the palate, plus some cola and a hint of stone fruit,’ JM.
4.5% abv, £103.39/30-litre keg, Shepherd Neame
83 Tiny Rebel Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter
‘Opaque dark brown colour. Hazelnut and milk chocolate on the nose, plus lots of vanilla and condensed milk. Palate has liquorice, blackcurrant and nuts. The finish is dry and long. Would certainly order a second one,’ AS. ‘Chocolate, dairy and lots of liquorice. The creamy palate is well balanced by an exuberant spiciness, a hint of grassiness and some roasted, dark chocolatey notes. A complex beer that retains great drinkability,’ JM.
5.2% abv, £35.44/24x330ml, Eebria Trade
82 Northern Monk Northern Star Mocha Porter
‘With its intense espresso aroma, this is very full-on coffee. On the palate I find it sweeter and a bit lighter than expected, showing lovely flavours of coffee and cream,’ NW. ‘Peanuts and peanut butter lead, making this a very characterful beer. The palate is on the sweet side, yet light enough to make it perfectly drinkable,’ JM.
5.2% abv, £35/24x330ml, Northern Monk
81 West Beer Black
‘Dark brown, dark chocolate, rum and raisin aroma. In the mouth it’s rich and chocolatey, full bodied, amazing,’ AS. ‘Chocolate-coated black sour cherries on the nose. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry cola plus some roasted coffee bean notes. Light and easy to drink,’ NW.
4.6% abv, POA/330ml, West Beer
The on-trade should explore the universe of lower-abv dark beers more. By stocking a few under-5.5% options (which are typically easier to sell than imperial stouts), publicans and restaurateurs could offer their guests something new.
In markets outside of the UK, dark beers can be very mainstream, as in Colombia, where I used to live. But over here dark beers are not very well received. That said, I think they can open up to new audiences. When people say they don’t like beer at all, they simply don’t like a classic pale lager and maybe a dark beer can win them over.
It’s hard to convince people to try dark beer. I usually say ‘don’t drink with your eyes, don’t be fooled by the colour’, and I highlight that you’ll find some of the most comforting flavours in them, like coffee and chocolate.
Just because there are darker malts in these beers doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a heavier body [or a higher abv]. Actually, roasted malts with a little bit of astringency often lighten the palate. Do you like coffee? Do you like chocolate? You will find all of those flavours in these beers.
81 Spitfire Amber Ale
‘Caramel and toffee on the nose and a bit boozy. Good creamy palate, lots of fruit such as peach, red apple plus a hint of liquorice and some floral flavours in the finish. Clean and well made,’ JM. ‘Great copper colour. Toffee dominates the nose, while the palate shows a wider spectrum of malted flavours, including a nice balanced fruitiness,’ AS.
4.5% abv, £172.97/50-litre keg, Shepherd Neame
80 Brew York Tonkoko
‘Enticing dense dark-brown colour, aromas of toasted nuts. Nutty and a bit oaty on the palate, with a drinkable,’ AS. ‘The nose shows marzipan, coconut and candied fruit. The same aromas are found on the palate, with added spicy flavours of cinnamon and ginger and some bread crust. Unique,’ JM.
4.3% abv, £26/12x440ml, Eebria Trade
80 Redemption Brewing Fellowship Porter
‘Very creamy, light and easy. Roasted flavours with good malt and lactic balance on the palate. The ideal autumnal indulgence,’ JM. ‘Hoppy brown ale that shows good malt character and light, well-balanced palate,’ DN.
5.1% abv, POA/500ml, Redemption Brewing
76 Brick Brewery Peckham Rye
‘Classic English amber ale, with caramel and fruity notes from the use of Cara malts and nice grassy backbone from the hops,’ DN.
4.7% abv, £1.64/330ml, Biercraft
75 Gun Brewery Parabellum
‘Fragrant, crisp nose with some orange and grapefruit zest to complement the expected coffee and chocolate aromas. Overall great balance and drinkability with good hop character on the palate,’ JM.
4.1% abv, £36.60/24x330ml, Eebria Trade
74 Moor Stout
‘Inky black. On the nose, dark chocolate, roasted notes and coffee. Medium bodied, smooth. A balanced, quaffable stout,’ NW.
5% abv, £17.49/12x330ml, Eebria Trade
73 Weird Beard Brew Black Perle Coffee Milk Stout
‘Ashy, smoky, vanilla. Intensely smooth espresso flavours. Full bodied,’ AS. ‘There’s a refreshing roasted note in the finish that balances out the creamy palate, making it pretty easy to drink,’ JM.
3.8% abv, £33/24x330ml, Weird Beard Brew Co
NO AND LOW
80 Big Drop Stout
‘Toasted coconut note on the nose, rich chocolate, slightly burnt bitter note. Relatively full mouthfeel. Impressive,’ NW. ‘Clean, creamy, well balanced. Aromas of liquorice and freshly brewed coffee. A stout in its own right,’ JM.
0.5% abv, £14.50/12x330ml, Eebria Trade
75 Small Beer Dark Lager
‘Relatively dry, with nice roasted notes. Well carbonated which makes for good drinkability,’ DN.
1% abv, £1.64/330ml, Biercraft
75 Big Drop Brown Ale
‘Milky sweetness on the nose. On the palate it displays dark chocolate with a touch of sweetness in the finish. Light, pleasant and easy drinking, great for a no/low,’ NW.
0.5% abv, £14.50/12x330ml, Eebria Trade
70 Harviestoun Wheesht
‘Dark mahogany colour, redcurrant and blackcurrant aromas. A touch of tartness, very fruity with a hint of chocolate brownie,’ AS.
0% abv, POA/330ml, Harviestoun
FRUIT & FLAVOURED BEERS
79 Titanic Brewing Chocolate & Vanilla Stout
‘Milk chocolate, nice fruity notes and a hint of cinnamon spice. All flavours play nicely together, but it’s not overly sweet,’ DN.
4.5% abv, £21.75/12x33oml, Titanic
78 Fierce Beer Moose Mousse
‘Good nose, with coffee and cocoa, some floral notes of lavender and lilac, and a touch of minerality. Medium palate that is creamy. Could do with a little more herbaceous hoppiness,’ JM.
4.5% abv, £16.15/12x330ml, Eebria Trade
78 Titanic Brewing Plum Porter
‘Intense plum aroma, almost port-like. An explosion of plum and stewed fruit, but not sickly or cloying. Dry finish. Exceptional,’ AS.
4.9% abv, £17.75/8x50oml, Titanic
75 Canopy Beer Llopper Everyday Oyster Stout
‘Well balanced, there’s vanilla and a touch of salinity in the background. Some roasted notes in the finish rounded out by more vanilla,’ JM.
5% abv, £42/24x440ml, Eebria Trade
75 St Peter’s Honey Porter
‘Cake-icing character, with a bit of marzipan, vanilla and coffee,’ DN.
4.5% abv, £17.71/12x500ml, St Peter’s Brewery
- All panellists agreed that the brown ale category is a very unfashionable one in the UK. This was reflected in the entries we received, with many black and amber beers, but not much in between and the only brown ale coming from the States.
- Milds didn’t feature at all, despite this being the traditional British style most suited to the autumn. Most milds are currently only available in cask and few are widely distributed.
- Tasters liked most no and low beers. The use of dark malts, and sometimes lactose, in the production of no and low is the winning card. These can add that extra layer of complexity that’s missing in paler expressions.
- On the other hand, tasters were really divided when it came to judging sweetness across all categories, and balance in fruit and flavoured beers.