Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

dark beer
dark beer

With two recent imperial stout bottle releases that sold out in a matter of 48 hours, our classic Russian imperial stout in the bottle shop, two barrel-aged stouts on tap in the brewpub, and another stout on the brew schedule for next week, we're doing our best to explicitly declare our feelings about dark beers (and I think we're making ourselves pretty clear).

How many times did I just write the word "stout"? Fun Fact: 4 times in one sentence!

We want to talk about this rather large category of beer we refer to as "dark", because often times it's a little misunderstood. Dark beers mean different things to different people, and for whatever reason (intimidation? bad first impressions? marketing?) some people have sworn them off entirely. But it's important to remember that broad categories rarely do justice to the nuances and variety contained within. Saying you don't like dark beers is like saying you don't like potato chips, and I don't think anyone wants to argue that Cool Ranch Doritos are the same as Ruffles Regular. (Try me).

So what are the essential components of these elusive "Dark Beers", and what variety do we find within said components? Nobody wants to feel confused by a beverage intended to bring joy, so let the 101 breakdown begin!

COLOUR: Dark beers are obviously dark, but a Grizzly Beer is much closer to burgandy than black, where as Hellwoods is the opposite. Remember, colour is just colour, and it's probably the least descriptive descriptor. If you wanna get more technical you can talk about SRM's, or the Standard Reference Method for measuring light in beer, but most of the time we're not that fancy.

AROMA: This component is closely tied to flavour, and we tend to think of it as an indication of what's to follow. It's common that aromatics and flavours of a particular beer read the same, but we still recommend taking a big sniff of your beer before you sip and savour. Comparing aroma to flavour can be surprising too!

FLAVOUR: This component is a lot more important than colour, and presents quite a wide range of possibilities within the umbrella of 'malty'. Because the grain going into these beers has been roasted for longer (than say a pilsner or standard Canadian 2 row malt), the flavours it imparts are often similarly roasty in character. Think bread crust, cereal, or toasty on the lighter end, and chocolate, coffee, molasses, and burnt sugar on the other. And in addition to the malty flavours, dark beers -- especially the imperial stouts -- often showcase peripheral flavours of smoke, earth, black licorice, fruit, or wood.

Specific flavour notes aside, stouts, porters, and brown ales can also be bitter, bittersweet, sweet, or syrupy. If you like espresso, you'd probably love a rich and hoppy imperial stout, but if hot chocolate is your jam, I'd steer towards something like our Lost River baltic porter with tons of rich cocoa notes and a subtley sweet finish.

BODY: This one can be hard to understand at first, but has a huge effect on the overall experience of drinking a beer. Stouts can sometimes be described as 'velvety' or 'voluptuous', and these terms are most certainly referring to the body of the beer. European lagers tend to be quite light in body, Belgian saisons have tons of prickly carbonation, and Trappist quads can be heavy enough to seem like a meal. Stouts on the other hand range from light and smooth (like our Grognard or Guinness), to rich (like Hellwoods), or chewy and bold (like our Skeleton Key). The accusation that all dark beers are heavy just doesn't hold true. Why is that? Well, it has a lot to do with the next component.

ABV: Alcohol content! Though many beers 'hide their alcohol' or seem 'deceivingly light', the ABV of a stout affects the body and the suggested serving style. Some people have noted that a pint of Bring Out Your Dead cognac barrel aged imperial stout would seem excessive, and we agree! That's why we serve our +9% beers in 10oz servings on draft, and share the 500ml bottles between friends.

BARREL CHARACTER: Because we make a lot of barrel-aged beers, we see 'barrel character' or 'original contents character' as a hugely important component in the larger picture. We age our dark beers in cognac, wine, and rum barrels, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with the addition of yeast or bacteria (like brettanomyces or lactobacillus), and fruit. These additions, in tandem with aging, can really elevate our darker beers to new levels of complexity and deliciousness. A great example of this is Donkey Venom, our brett barrel aged porter, that ends up being something of a cross-genre beer. Sure, it's technically dark in colour, but it's tart, funky, malty, and fruity all at once.

Coles notes: beer is a richly diverse beverage, and dark beers are merely one of the vague categories within it. So the next time you hear someone say they don't like dark beers, slap them upside the head, and then hand them any number of the diverse stouts or porters you love dearly.

[Among the beers mentioned today, most are available through Bellwoods in some capacity. Currently the bottle shop is stocked with Hellwoods Russian imperial stout, and the brewpub is pouring Skeleton Key rum barrel aged spiced imperial stout and Bring Out Your Dead cognac barrel aged imperial stout. Donkey Venom brett barrel aged porter is also available in the brewpub as a reserve bottle (ie, sold out in the bottle store long ago with only the most limited quantities still remaining) only. Other 'dark beer' reserve bottles we still have a few of are 3 Minutes to Midnight imperial stout aged with cherries and cocoa nibs, and No Sleep Till Brooklyn sour stout collab with Evil Twin Brewing.]