Cold days and long nights need beers of complexity. Sophie Atherton and a team of tasters put a line-up of dark beers to the test.
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Winter is the perfect season to embrace dark brews. It's the best time to help people kick the habit of drinking with their eyes, turn taste buds on to the delicious dark side and delight existing dark beer fans while you're at it. For many, dark beer conjures up little more than Guinness, but the reality is a wide category encompassing everything from lagers through to imperial stouts with milds, bitters, black IPAs, smoked beers and sweet treats in between.
For this tasting, any style or abv was fair game, so long as it was dark in colour. The benchmark of darkness was set by Adnams Broadside, a rich, conker-coloured, deep red-brown brew (although they decided to submit one even darker than that).
Sophie Atherton, Journalist & Beer Sommelier; Mike Burt, The Bottle Shop; Ben Lockwood, Mitchells & Butlers; Neil Walker, SIBA; Lauren Watkins, There's a Beer for That.
82, Moor Beer, Stout, 5%
All agreed this had balance, drinkability and moreishess, so no surprise it came top. Dense-looking black beer with aromas of coffee, dark chocolate and a hint of fruity hops. Rich chocolate flavours were balanced by appropriate bitterness. Subtle smokey and red berry notes cemented its sessionable status. 'Great as a stand alone, or [try] with toasted cheese paninis,' LW.
POA/12C, K, Moor Beer Co, 01179 414460
75, Electric Bear, Inspector Remorse, 4.7%
Sweet, light-bodied porter that proves not all dark beers are thick and heavy. 'A beer to savour, enjoyably smooth and chocolatey without being overwhelming,' LW. Milk chocolate flavours fulfil the promise of its zingy citrus and chocolate aroma. 'Delivers in mouthfeel, finish and aftertaste; leaves you wanting more,' BL.
£32/24 x 330ml can; C, K, Electric Bear Brewing Co, 01225 424088
75, Brewdog, Jet Black Heart, 4.7%
'Like a milk chocolate Black Forest gateau,' SA. This 'oatmeal milk stout' lived up to its name with 'gorgeous latte aromas,' LW. 'Great balance of medium-sweet chocolate with a clean dry finish,' NW. Additional fruity notes gave an added dimension to a dark beer that drinks very differently to how it looks.
£27.52/24 x 330ml bottle; K, BrewDog, 01358 724924
71, Meantime, London Stout, 4.5%
Not your typical stout. Offered decent chocolatey flavours, dark dried fruit notes and balancing bitterness. Carbonation levels likely to appeal to lager fans, but still easy drinking.
£19.50/12 x 330ml bottle; Meantime, firstname.lastname@example.org
67, Adnams, Blackshore Stout, 4.2%
'Thirst-quenching but chewy,' SA. Estery aromas and light body made for another atypical stout. 'Light coffee notes, raisin bread, malt loaf and dark brown sugar,' NW.
POA/24 x 440ml can; K, Adnams, 01502 727272
67, Bedlam, Bedlam Porter, 5%
Simple, light-bodied, easy-drinking beer with a background of grainy, bready malt in which spicy hops and a hint of fruit poke through.
£30.95/24 x 330ml bottle; C, Bedlam Brewery, 01273 978015
64, Krombacher, Krombacher Dark, 4.7%
Dark lagers have much in common with strong British bitter; this one is no exception. Dark fruity flavours dominate, hints of sweetness and smoke add interest.
£18.20/12 x 500ml bottle; K, Morgenrot, 0161 925 9140
64, Harvey's Brewery, Lewes Castle Brown, 4.8%
Rich fruity malts are balanced by sharp, bitter hops giving way to an aftertaste of brown bread which suggest a food-friendly beer. 'This would make a great partner to a classic beef roast,' LW.
£20.47/12 x 500ml bottle; C, Harvey’s Brewery, 01273 480209
63, Parker Brewery, Dark Spartan Stout, 5%
A chameleon of a beer that seemed to adapt to the individual’s palate. 'Toasted fruit loaf,' NW. 'Biscuit sweetness,' LW. 'Silky chocolate, plum and cherry,' SA.
£22/12 x 500ml bottle; C, The Parker Brewery, 01704 620718 or 07949 797889
60, Budvar, Bohemian Dark Premium Lager, 4.7%
Divided the panel. Some felt it too bitter and in need of more body while others found it moreish, packed with berry notes and likely to be popular with drinkers.
£24/20 x 500ml bottle; K, Budweiser Budvar UK, 0117 202 0360; Nectar Imports, LWC
59, Prospect Brewery, Nutty Slack, 3.9%
Another divisive brew. Some found it didn't deliver on its aroma, others loved it for flavours of 'juicy berries and toast,' SA. Food friendly, 'would pair beautifully with bangers & mash,' LW.
£12.10/8 x 500ml bottle; C, Prospect Brewery Ltd, 01257 421329
Also tasted: Wild Beer Co, Millionaire; Neptune Brew Co, Abyss; Streatham Brewing Company, Cynthia's Remedy; ALT Brew No 3 (gluten-free stout), Autumn Brewing Co
83, Beavertown, Smog Rocket, 5.4%
Despite the panel's feeling that smoked beers might be a challenging style to sell in volume, it was a style that everyone scored highly. This well-balanced brew also has tons of food-matching potential: think grilled meats, steaks and burgers. 'Smoked malt with a backdrop of chocolate,' NW. 'Well made. Perhaps could reign in the carbonation a teeny bit,' SA.
£35.64/24 x 330ml can; K, Beavertown Brewery, 020 8525 9884
82, Sambrooks, Black IPA, 6.9%
Black IPAs are a cracking way to persuade drinkers already switched on to craft beer over to the dark side. Aromas of mango, pine and passion fruit draw you in to this dark delight that wowed the panel with powerful hops and good looks. 'Banging New World [hop] flavours in a dark beer,' BL.
£36.03/24 x 330ml ; K, Sambrooks Brewery, 020 7228 0598
81, Grain Brewery, Slate, 6%
Spicy, vanilla aromas belie the depth of smokey chocolate and dark red fruit flavours in this delicious, dark offering from Norfolk. 'Balanced and highly enjoyable,' MB. 'Burst of initial sweetness expertly balanced with a bitterness that delivers a superb all round beer,' BL.
£32.32/24 x 330ml can; C, K, Grain Brewery, 01986 788884
79, TailGate Beer, Peanut Butter Milk Stout, 5.8%
This speciality stout amazed and bamboozled the panel. 'That's ridiculous!' BL. 'Obscenely biscuity aroma,' NW. 'Amaretto biscuits, cooked nuts, so fruity and smooth,' LW. 'A bit like drinking cherry cheesecake. Fabulously biscuity aftertaste,' SA.
£42/24 x 12oz can; Heathwick, 020 7938 3991
76, Box Social Brewing, Campfire Porter, 7%
'Black coffee with pecan and maple syrup,' SA. A sweet, dessert-like beer that reminded the panel of coffee liqueur. Perhaps serve as an after dinner digestif.
£44/24 x 330ml bottle; C, K, Box Social Brewing, 0191 267 1295
71, St Austell Brewery, Proper Black, 6%
Classic Black IPA that shows the potential of the style. 'Wonderful aroma that leaves you [doubting] your eyesight,' BL. The panel loved its depth of dark malt flavour and levels of bitterness from fruity US hops.£19.87/12 x 500ml bottle; K, St Austell Brewery, 0345 2111122
71, Saugatuck Brewing Company, Neapolitan Milk Stout, 6%
A beer for those with a very sweet tooth. 'Strawberry, chocolate and ice cream in a glass,' BL. 'Tastes like liquid Cherry Bakewell Tart,' LW.
£48/24 x 12oz bottle; K, Heathwick, 020 7938 3991
68, Siren Craft Brew, Broken Dream, 6.5%
Accessible 'breakfast' stout with nutty aromas and flavours. 'Sharp initial hop bite, coffee flavours throughout, creamy finish,' BL.
£32.53/24 x 330ml bottle; C, K, Siren Craft Brew, 0118 973 0929
64, Williams Bros. Brewing Co., Profanity Stout, 7%
Boozy stout that divided the panel, underwhelming some but delighting others to the point of dancing. Chocolate and coffee were among the prominent flavours. ‘Sweet, smokey dried fruits and molasses, almost minty, 10 out of 10,’ LW.
£12.90/12 x 330ml; Occasionally K, Williams Bros Brewing Co, 01259 725511
61, Electric Bear, Mochachocolata YaYa!, 5.1%
Caramel milk stout that won't be for everyone, but may appeal to fans of sweet beers. 'A sweet treat that I'd definitely buy as a gift, but secretly want to keep for myself,' LW.
£41.95/24 x 330ml can; K, Electric Bear Brewing Co, 01225 424088
59, Palmers Brewery, Tally Ho!, 5.5%
Traditional strong bitter perhaps more suited to cask than small pack. The panel picked up butterscotch notes they didn't enjoy, but it might suit 'the late Sunday afternoon dog walker who just wants one pint,' BL.
£29.99/12 x 500ml bottle; C, Palmers Brewery, 01308 427500
Also tasted: Firebird Brewing, Collaboration Coffee Porter; Redemption Brewery, Fellowship Porter; Meantime, Chocolate Porter; Saltaire Brewery, Kala Black IPA
90, Wild Beer Co, Jambo!, 8.5%
The highest-scoring beer of the day was this imperial stout made with chocolate and raspberries. The gigantic raspberry aroma bowled the panel over. They were also impressed by its appearance, beautifully dark with a big fluffy head. 'Superb, well-rounded beer with punchy raspberry flavours but balanced to perfection,' BL. 'Delicious, dark chocolate, raspberry loveliness,' NW.
£33.50/6 x 750ml bottle; K, Cave Direct, 01622 710339
76, Gadds', Imperial Russian Stout, 10%
An accomplished imperial stout that delighted the whole panel. Ideal for special occasions throughout winter or as an end-of-night beer. Seduction in a glass, from its black-as-night colour through to its luscious, dark chocolate flavours with hints of tangy dried fruit and satisfying full-bodied mouthfeel.
£48.22/24 x 330ml bottle; Gadds' Ramsgate Brewery, 01843 868453
76, One Mile End Brewery, Directorate S, 10%
The panel picked up all kinds of flavours in this bourbon barrel aged imperial stout, that might appeal more to those who already love dark beer. Pitch black and boozy. Not one for the faint-hearted.
£69/24 x 330ml bottle; One Mile End Brewery, 020 7998 0610
75, Pig & Porter, Gothic, 7.4%
Another imperial stout, but at a lower ABV than some which makes it more accessible to a wide range of drinkers. Black cherry and dark chocolate flavours are the main feature of this devilishly rich, but easy-drinking brew.
£43.49/24 x 330ml can; Occasionally K, Matthew Clark, 0844 822 3905
63, Sambrooks, Russian Imperial Stout, 10.4%
Dark malts, marzipan and medicinal notes come together in an extremely boozy imperial stout that's probably best enjoyed on a full stomach.
£40.58/24 x 330ml bottle; K, Sambrooks Brewery, 020 7228 0598
51, Hawkshead, Tonka, 8.5%
Some enjoyed this beer's cinnamon buns and ginger character, 'like you've walked into the bakery and bought the [bun],' BL. Others found the flavour, probably from the inclusion of tonka beans (seeds of a South American tree species, sometimes used as a vanilla substitute), too much.
£28.50/12 x 330ml bottle; K, Hawkshead Brewery, 01539 822644
50, Left Hand Brewing, Fade to Black, 8.5%
Pleasant enough chocolatey beer with a hint of smoke, which some of the panel felt was trying too hard to be complex and interesting.
£55/24 x 12oz can; The Bottle Shop, 020 3490 9252
Sophie Atherton, Journalist and Beer Sommelier
'Dark beers are tragically underrated and not stocked widely enough. With so much variety now available it's high time everyone put at least one or two on their beer menu.'
Mike Burt, The Bottle Shop, London SE1
'I think at the cost of sessionability, dark beers work much better with an unctuous body, but dark beers and the winter months go hand-in-hand.'
Ben Lockwood, Mitchells & Butlers
'You might need to limit the amount per site [of the more powerfully flavoured dark beers], but you'd bring it in to showcase a range of beer styles over a fixed period, so there's still opportunity there. There's a market for it, but it's about using the right activity and activation [to sell them].'
Neil Walker, SIBA
'In dark beers I like big body and rich flavours, so for me the stouts and the porters shone ahead of the rest. The beers that are 7% and up to 10%, and even 11%, lend themselves towards small pack. You're not going to be selling vast amounts of them but they're really special beers and they go for higher margins.'
Lauren Watkins, There's A Beer For That
'Some of the beers I tried were super surprising. The darkest one I tried was one of the most balanced and lightest [in body]. Black IPAs and dark lagers are the ones I think would appeal to a new person trying a different beer for a session, instead of pale ales and lagers.'
- Black IPA is having a bit of a comeback. Also popular are niche, smokey beers that have been made more accessible by the likes of The Bottle Shop and Brewdog.
- High ABV dark beers are great for sharing, not just because of their alcoholic strength but because of the depth of flavour too.
- It's worth making room in your fridge for a few bottles/cans of these strong dark beers aimed at drinkers who want a special occasion beer, rather than to sell in huge volumes. Offer them as you would port or an end-of-night round of whiskies.
- Many of the canned dark beers impressed the panel with superior quality, better mouthfeel and consistency - they often stood head and shoulders above bottled beer.
- Dark beers really lend themselves to food matching. Smokey, malt-led brews can be great with burgers and ribs, berry notes in a beer work well with game and stout can be a mighty pairing with blue cheese.
- Sweeter dark brews can be great in lieu of, or served with, dessert – or to convert those who think all beer is bitter
Huge thanks to The Bottle Shop, London SE1, for hosting us on the day.