Big off white, creamy and tan foam stand on top of my Russian Imperial Stout, brewed by a local brewery that stacks in at a whopping 11%. First sip, it’s thick and rich, finishes with esters of dark fruits and a mild alcohol warming sensation down my esophagus and into my stomach. Yes sir, it is indeed time for the dark beers and winter warmers. Served in a cute little chalice sipping glass, and oh so sippable.
Winter warmers can also fall into this dark beer chasm. But don’t let the darkness fool you. Some dark beers like a dry stout can come in at a measley 4% ABV, hardly a warming sensation to be had with that. Darkness doesn’t always translate into a big rich beer like most people think.
Why is it though that we associate dark beer with bigger and bolder? Is it because it reminds us of coffee? Is it because almost nobody drinks their coffee black, so why would I drink my beer black? Why? Because it’s absolutely delicious when it is done right.
What gives dark beer it’s dark color? Well hold on tight I am about to explain it to you, and no it is not ink.
Beer in it’s simplest form is made up of four ingredients, MALTED GRAIN (barley), WATER, HOPS, and YEAST. You say none of these are dark? Yes you are correct. The MALTED GRAIN after the malting process is kiln dried, sometimes lightly toasted and some times roasted like coffee. The roasted grain is used in the brewing process in a small amount to impart color (the dark part) and roasted coffee or chocolate like flavor into the finished product (beer). In essence if the brewer wants a more roasted flavor he uses more of the dark roasted grain in his recipe, if he wants less roasty flavor and color he simply uses less roasted grain. It’s a simple concept yet holds a multitude of options and combinations.
As an example at BricktownE Brewing Company we use about 18% of overall roasted grain in our Wheat Stout recipe. This makes it quite roasty like a coffee stout and imparts a darkness that is like the middle of the night. One would think that 18% is not that much, but it holds with it a big impact. As another example our red recipe is only about 5% roasted malt.
Another interesting tidbit about dark beer and winter warmers is that they actually benefit from being served at a little bit warmer temperature. A warmer temperature will bring out more flavors with a larger flavor profile. Roasts will become bolder, dark fruity esters like raisin and plum will come out better, and in my opinion the overall enjoyability will be enhanced.
This fall seems to be colder than previous ones, so if you have the privilege of being near a fireplace and a dark beer, pour it into a small snifter, sit by the fire and slowly sip your beer and take note how it changes as it warms. You will be pleasantly surprised. Until next time may your glasses always be full and your taps never empty. Cheers!