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Different Dark Beers (and What they Taste Like)

People’s beer journeys seem to be similar to the typical musical tastes that guide us from youth to maturity. Most of us start out with lighter, frothier stuff that’s accessible and easy to consume. But then we start noticing certain notes, shades and undertones that guide us in a new direction.

While many of us are happy to stick with the froth all our lives (and there’s nothing wrong with that), some of us go for complexity, and of those, the darker path is the one they love the most. There’s a rainbow of flavour, strength, accessibility and lightness just within the realm of dark beers that should really be explored.

Cross the Irish Sea from Argyll or Anglesey, and there’s one brand that dominates, of course, but in its wake come hundreds of darker beers with a magnificent range of flavour profiles. It’s much easier to penetrate the market in Ireland and NI because people are used to it, so the baseline taste can be subtly experimented with.

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What Is Dark Beer?

In essence, the difference between dark beer and light beer is like the difference between dark and light toast, or a rare and a well-done steak. In the vast majority of cases, it’s simply that the malt has been roasted for longer, making it darker.

However, that’s not always the case. Some malts and grains are just naturally darker, which inevitably gives a darker beer style. Also, we can’t discount the other ingredients that are added to craft beers – coffees, chocolates, herbs and other ingredients can all affect the colour. And of course, in cheaper beers, there could be artificial colouring in there too.

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What Does Dark Beer Taste Like?

The taste of dark beer is a very interesting subject. We know that the appearance of any food or drink has an effect on how we perceive it in the mouth, and dark beer is no exception. If you blindfolded yourself and taste tested a range of dark lagers, pale ales, pale lagers, stouts and other types of beer, the regular beer drinker might be surprised at how similar they taste without the visual cues and the beer expert’s palate.

Across the range, you will find full bodied beers and strong and mild malt flavours, and you’ll experience different alcohol contents and bitterness. In short, it doesn’t matter which beer is the darkest: from a jet black imperial stout to a copper brown beer, you can never predict its taste from looking at its colour.

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Dark Lagers

Even lager, which is almost always associated with lightness of colour, can deceive. International dark lager is the most prominent example. It uses a darker malt in the roasting process to give the colour, but it’s added to normal pale malts and uses lager yeast.

The lagering process of IDL is identical, so the overwhelming taste sensation is that subtleness that you’d expect of lager. It’s easy to tell what beers are dark lagers as they’ll advertise it prominently, but while it’ll look different in the glass, the flavour will be remarkably similar. There might be a hint of chocolate from the dark malt, but otherwise it’s a taste that would not be unpalatable to the lager lover.

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Black IPAs

Black IPAs can be a bit of a head-scratcher when you realise the “P” stands for “pale”. But as you might be starting to realise, it’s all down to the malt. It’s essentially IPA but with greater prevalence of roasted malts in the mix. Although the visuals are radically different, the taste test will reveal a beer that you wouldn’t place outside the range of IPAs that you’re used to. There will perhaps be a slightly enhanced maltiness, maybe even a toasty undertone, but only if you’re really concentrating.

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What Is the Best Dark Beer?

If you think the dark beer vs light beer debate is heated, ask a bunch of beer drinkers which is the best dark beer and stand back to watch the fireworks. As with any such question, there’s no right answer, but there are a few pointers to look out for if you’re still in the dark.

If you’re trying to find a rich, creamy dark beer, go for a stout. It’s what you might have experienced on a trip to Ireland (or your local Irish bar), and it’s a smooth, dry taste with definite undertones of smoke or chocolate.

Our very own Dog K is an imperial stout, dark and strong at 11% ABV. Think chocolate, maple syrup and coffee – the good stuff, naturally.

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Fancy something lighter?

An international dark lager is perhaps more refreshing and light, rather like a normal lager, so it’s a good choice for pairing with most foods if you just like a palate cleanser to get the most out of the flavours.

Ultimately, though, the best way to find your perfect dark is just the same as choosing a pale ale or lager – you try as many as you can get your hands on. The range is wide and diverse, and perhaps not as different to brown ales or pilsners as you might think.

Hopefully now, unlike the beer, you’re a little more enlightened.