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by Michael Donaldson
Like the infamous dark side of the moon, the dark side of beer is largely misunderstood.
For instance, the dark side of the moon is not, in fact, always dark – it gets ample sunshine. It is known as the dark side because it always faces away from earth and therefore we can’t see what’s there.
Because we can’t see what’s on the dark side of the moon, all sorts of conspiracy theories have arisen as to what’s happening there – including alien bases and Russian nuclear test sites. Not surprising really, as by definition, the dark side means there’s something there we should be afraid of … and so it seems with beer with a lack of understanding responsible for some theories that don’t hold true under scrutiny.
Probably the most often repeated phrase I’ve heard in my life as a beer writer – and at events – is “I don’t like dark beers”.
I don’t think this entirely the fault of Guinness but it has to cop some of the blame for giving people a one-dimensional view of what it means to be a dark beer. The charry, ashen bitterness of Guinness is not to everyone’s taste – though there are plenty who love it – but to define all dark beer by the Guinness benchmark is totally unfair.
The thing is – there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to dark beer; all the usual stereotypes – that it’s heavy, high in alcohol and it’s going to make you fat – are all disproven if you’re prepared to put your prejudices aside and explore the rich flavours that come with darker malts.
Let’s start with those dark malts to see if we can unlock some of the secrets of the dark side.
Malt is kilned at varying temperatures and for varying lengths of time to create different colour palettes and flavour profiles. Malts with names such as biscuit, toffee, chocolate and black come is a wide spectrum of colours from brown to deep ruby to jet black. And the flavours range from biscuit, to chocolate to coffee. Then there’s roasted barley – not a malt as such – which gives that distinctive charry, ashy Guinness flavour.
How these malts are used – along with other additives (adjuncts they call them in the brewing world) such as cacao nibs, cocoa, coffee (espresso, cold brew, raw beans), vanilla and spices will determine the final flavour and mouthfeel. The beauty of dark malts is that they can handle having an array of flavours thrown at them. Dark beers offer a more forgiving and welcoming canvas than lager or pilsner, or even IPA, so brewers can indulge their passion for creativity in these beers.
Dark beers age well – with oxygen exposure taking dark malts on a journey that includes flavours such as raisin, tobacco, cold tea, leather, vanilla and port or sherry.
Dark beers also love being in barrels – bourbon, whisky, pinot noir, shiraz – where the beer can take on extra layer of decadence.
So where to start on your dark side journey?
McLeod’s Billycan Milk Stout is a great place to dispel myths about stout. First, the addition of lactose gives a silky mouthfeel and a generous sweetness which nicely offsets the more bitter roast characters (warning for the lactose intolerant – if you see milk stout, or cream stout do check the ingredients as many do use lactose). The addition of vanilla and cacao nibs creates a dessert-like flavour further embellished by some rum to create a warm, gentle, soft beer that’s sweet and rich.
Behemoth does a great job with what’s known as pastry stout – or dessert beer – with their Triple Chocolate Stout. This is literally layers chocolate – from chocolate malt, to cocoa powder, to cacao nibs – as well as vanilla. The effect is like an alcoholic chocolate milkshake.
From chocolate to coffee, try 8 Wired’s Flat White, again this does what it says on the tin (so to speak) by delivering a milky coffee flavour that’s pure barista.
Of course, if you do actually like your stouts ashy and charry then look no further than Spark’s Outlander Foreign Extra Stout. This is modelled on the famed Guinness but is more robust and solid, for want of a better word. With age it takes on some savoury, umami characters.
PORTER VERSUS STOUT
A common question around dark beers is the difference a porter and a stout. After all they both look the same to the untrained eye – dark.
Put it this way – they are from the same family, brothers in fact, but with slightly different personalities. After all, stout started life as a descriptor for porter. One way to look at it is that porter is gentle, quiter brother and stout is the more abrasive, louder one.
To understand the difference we have to go back to the 18th century when porter was extremely popular in Britain – there was plain porter and a stronger version called stout porter. Over the years brewers started to drop the word porter altogether so punters were left with a choice of plain or stout.
One of the ways stout split properly from porter was thanks to our friend Guinness which started life as a stout porter. Back then, brewers paid tax on the malt they used, not the alcohol content, so to get around paying too much tax, Arthur Guinness brewed his stout porter with less malt but added roasted, unmalted, barley which gives Guinness its distinctive ashy character.
In the middle of the 21st century plain porter started to go out of fashion but went through something of a revival in the 1970s. These days you can get porter with all sorts of descriptors – London Porter, Chocolate Porter, Robust Porter, Baltic Porter (the high octane porter brewed for export). And it’s becoming increasingly common for porter (and stout for that matter) to be flavoured with the addition of shellfish.
Oyster Stout was apparently a Kiwe invention, according to beer historian Michael Jackson it was dreamed up in Southland more than 100 years ago. Nowadays plenty of breweries try their hand with oysters, clams, mussels, even kina. But one of the best in this area is Bach Brewing’s Cray Porter – made with the addition of actual crayfish. The briny character blends with the chocolate and caramel malt to create a modern, sumptuous flavour.