Dark Beers

For years, decades, millennia – okay, maybe not that long – dark beer has been synonymous with stout. You say, “I crave a dark beer,” and the universe fills your head with images of freshly tapped pints of Guinness. The world of dark beers may not be as populated or popular as lighter beers, but their offerings are just as vast and varied.
Dark beers, from stouts to schwarzbiers, get their color and much of their flavor from roasted malts. All beers are made with roasted malt, but much like coffee, the darker the roast, the richer the brew. By increasing the amount of dark malt, a brewer can deepen the color of the final beer while adding more complex flavors like coffee, chocolate and caramel.

Overall winner: Deschutes Black Butte Porter

Region: Oregon | Alcohol Content: 5.2% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Coffee, Dried Fruit
First brewed in 1988, Deschutes Black Butte Porter can confidently say it’s one of the oldest craft brews around. And for good reason. The rich porter is something of a Goldilocks beer; it’s not too heavy, not too complex, with just the right amount of richness.

Best Stout: Zero Gravity Extra Stout

Region: Vermont | Alcohol content: 5.9% | Tasting notes: coffee, chocolate, roasted malt.
If there’s a time and place to enjoy the darkest of dark beers, it’s in the statewide mountain town of Vermont. Here, Zero Gravity makes a wide range of beers, including its Irish-style stout.
“I trust Zero Gravity to pick an obscure stout style,” says Jack Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers. “Extra thick is pretty unusual to see. It was made famous by Guinness. It’s actually something I drank a lot of in the Bahamas. Odd place to drink extra stout, but apparently that style is popular down there.”

Best Porter: Alaskan Smoked Porter

Region: Alaska | Alcohol content: 6.5% | Tasting notes: roasted malt, smoked meat
It would be worth a trip to Alaska to try this smoked porter, or smoked beer, with cult status. Fortunately, Alaskan Brewing has a pretty wide distribution presence, so it’s easy to grab this beer when it hits shelves if you know when and where to look.

Best Imperial Stout: Bell’s Expedition Stout

Region: Michigan | Alcohol content: 10.5% | Tasting notes: chocolate, dark fruit, roasted malt

Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing touts its Expedition Stout as one of the first imperial Russian stouts to call the United States home. This bold beer explodes with chocolate and dark fruit alongside a distinctive ABV that is the signature of the style.
“I have a whole cellar full of Bell’s Expedition Stout, which allows me to taste this thick forward imperial stout with dark fruit every few months – it ages beautifully,” Williams says. “We’re spoiled in the Great Lakes region.”

Best Black Ale: Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger

Region: Massachusetts | Alcohol content: 5.8% | Tasting notes: roasted malt, coffee, smoke
The experts at Jack’s Abby in Massachutes know a thing or two about lagers, both in terms of the light and refreshing beers most drinkers think of when they hear the word “lager” and in terms of the lesser-known dark lagers. Smoke & Dagger is a Schwarzbier, a dark lager that originated in Germany. It looks like an opaque stout, but drinks like a finely smoked lager.

Best Dark: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel

Region: Germany | Alcohol content: 5% | Tasting notes: roasted malt, toffee, bread.
In the spectrum of dark beers, the Dunkel lands on the lighter end with its rich mahogany color and equally tame flavor. Ayingers Altbairisch is considered to be on the original dunkels, a benchmark for the style.
“Lager can also bring out the darkness, and Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel embodies the toasted bread qualities and soft mouthfeel of Munich Dunkel so well,” Williams says.

Best Black IPA: Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous

Region: California | Alcohol Content: 8.7% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Coffee, Pine
It can be difficult to find black IPAs at your local beer store. Black IPA is often considered a gimmick style, especially compared to West Coast and New England style IPAs, and gets its color from dark roasted malts. The other reason this beer is so rarely seen is that it can be difficult to balance the richness of dark roasted malts with the brightness of hops. Sublimely Self-Righteous from Stone manages this balancing act, offering a black ale full of Chinook, Simcoe and Amarillo hops.

Best Brown Ale: Avery Ellies Brown Ale

Region: Colorado | Alcohol content: 5.5% | Tasting notes: chocolate, nutty, molasses
“I started loving brown ales because of Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown, and now I try brown ales when I visit a new brewery,” Zessin says. “Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery Brewing in Colorado is one of my favorites because of its satisfying chocolate flavor with a hint of vanilla.”
Named after the founder’s chocolate lab, the beer stays true to its namesake with a rich brown color and a “friendly, smooth and a little nutty” flavor profile, the brewery says.

Best NA: Bravus Brewing Oatmeal Stout

Region: California | Alcohol content: 0.5% | Tasting notes: chocolate, caramel, coffee
In recent years, there has been a wave of non-alcoholic beers. For a while, many of these beers fell into the lighter category, but since then the market has expanded to include a handful of darker offerings. One of the most respected in the bunch comes from California-based Bravus Brewing. Its Oatmeal Stout was awarded a silver medal at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival thanks to its distinctive chocolate, caramel and roasted coffee notes and full mouthfeel. There may be little to no alcohol, but this beer has plenty of flavor.

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