Dark Beer For Dark Days
Winter is the perfect time to step beyond the pale
by Jason Foster
Well, we're through the worst of it. As of Tuesday, Feb. 7, Regina's sun will dip below the horizon after six o'clock. Can well-lit evenings be far behind?
Unfortunately, yes. We're still more than a month away from the Vernal Equinox (11:23 p.m. on March 19, in case you were wondering), so there are a lot of dark evenings ahead of us. In fact, we don't get an 8:00 p.m. sunset until April 19. Ugh.
Some people get depressed at the thought of the long, dark weeks ahead, while others perk up at the slow evidence of the days getting longer. I take the opportunity to honour the beer world's dark and delicious pints.
Dark beer is trendy these days but even now, few realize how diverse and wide-ranging darks can be.
Dark beer has a longer history than the light stuff we're most familiar with today. Before the 1700s, all beer was brown, murky and probably fairly heavy, until technological advances allowed for the creation of lighter malts, revolutionizing beer production. The darker versions survived, however, and continue to offer an alternative to North American pale lager.
Darker beers offer a maltier profile because they use a portion of dark specialty malts to accent the base ingredients. Everything else, though, is up for grabs. Not all dark beer is thick and heavy (stouts, for example, are only one subtype of dark beer) - they come in all shapes and sizes. Dark beer can be sweet or roasty, delicate or even hoppy, meaning there's a dark beer for everyone.
For those loyal to light-bodied pale lagers, I'd recommend Warsteiner Dunkel as a fine initial step into the world of dark beer. This German lager looks like a deep brown ale but maintains the light and refreshing taste of a lager. It's a bit sweeter than its lighter compatriots, but there's enough crispness and delicate malt to resemble its lighter cousins. It's not really my perfect pint, but it's a great beer for those looking to wade cautiously into the darker end of the spectrum.
A wonderful example of darker lagers is Saskatoon's Paddock Wood Black Cat Lager. I've written about this beer a couple of times, and I believe its mixture of lager cleanliness and chocolatey, slightly roasted malt creates an excellently rounded beer experience without becoming heavy. I've used Black Cat at a number of beer-tasting events recently, and it's been a hands-down favourite.
So dark beer doesn't have to be heavy and roasted. On the other hand, there are definitely excellent dark beers out there that are exactly that. A great example is a Canadian version of stout, St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. It offers a coffee aroma and flavour accented by toffee and light caramel, with added licorice, some nuttiness and a touch of bitterness. Coffee comes through in a big way in this beer, and it's bolder and more roasted than Guinness.
If you're looking for something wonderfully enigmatic, check out Harviestoun's Old Engine Oil. It looks like a dark, rich stout (and it has a thick, dark tan head), but it isn't. It smells of chocolate, coffee, dark raisin and plum, and the taste is absolutely complex. It begins with a deep, sweet blend of molasses, chocolate, caramel and brown sugar, followed closely by hints of roast and coffee, with some woody sharpness and a touch of tart in the background. In one way it seems like a stout, but it lacks the big roastiness of that style. It also lacks the richness and sweetness of a porter, and while it has the complexity of an English old ale, it tastes too fresh and perky.
What exactly this beer is remains a mystery - but its superiority as a dark beer is obvious. It has a drinkable complexity unparalleled by most beer. Luckily, it's recently become available in Saskatchewan.
Sadly, a final example of dark beer that does need mention isn't currently available in Saskatchewan. Northwestern U.S. brewers have pioneered a new style of beer, called Black IPA or Cascadian IPA. It has the hop bitterness of a regular American IPA (which is formidable), but it adds enough dark malts to give it a brown ale colour and body. The combination is lovely: you still pick up the sharp bitterness of an IPA, but it's balanced by some chocolate, caramel and even roast malts, all of which make for a very drinkable beer. Too bad we can't get it here. (Maybe if we lobby hard enough we can talk Paddock Wood into brewing one!)
Many people get turned off by dark beer simply because it's out of their comfort zone, but the truth is that dark beer can be appropriate for almost any occasion. The key is understanding just how wide its range is.