“You don’t have to be afraid of the dark.” It’s good advice for both those who suffer from nyctophobia and those who don’t — or think they don’t — like dark beers. Although some dark beers can push the limits of the uninitiated palate, many are exceedingly accessible and surprisingly “light;” not in color but in body and alcohol content. Before you totally shun the darkness, let’s dispel a couple of common misconceptions about dark beer and highlight a few local and regional examples you’ll surely go lights out over.
A common objection to dark beer is that it is thought to be too heavy. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, or you’ve said yourself, “I don’t want to have to eat my beer.” This isn’t so much a myth as it is a generalization about dark beers. While there are certainly styles that emphasize a thicker, heavier body such as Baltic Porter, Stout and Imperial Stout, not all beer that is dark is, de facto, heavy.
Consider Schwarzbier, for example. Schwarz-what, you say? Meaning “black beer,” this German style is essentially similar in body to a Munich or Pilsner lager, but with the addition of various roasted malts to add color and some subtle roasted malt characteristics. Schwarzbier will be the most drinkable, user-friendly dark beer you’ll find. It’s the quintessential dark beer for the light beer drinker. A locally-made example that is available year round is hard to come by, unfortunately, but you might find The Civil Life Black Lager or Schlafly Schwarzbier from the St. Louis area from time to time in rotation. Brands with wider availability include Xingu Black Beer (from Brazil) and Uinta Brewing Company Baba Black Lager (organic).
Another dark beer assumption is that it is too strong. In reality, the vast majority of dark beers are no stronger in terms of alcohol content than the light beers you know. A beer’s color has nothing to do with its alcoholic strength. The afore-mentioned Schwarzbier, for example, is typically between 4.5 percent and 5.4 percent alcohol by volume. Probably the most famous – or famously misunderstood – example is Guinness. Guinness Draught clocks in at a whopping 4.2 percent ABV and about 125 calories. A Budweiser, by comparison, is 5 percent ABV and 145 calories. This addresses another common myth that dark beers are high in calories. A couple of solid, locally-brewed beers boasting moderate alcohol content include St. Nicholas Cadence Porter and Big Muddy Vanilla Stout, both sitting right at 6 percent ABV.
So where do these common misconceptions come from? If it cannot be attributed to dark beer’s body or alcohol content, it must be the flavor profile, right? Granted, the roasted aromas and flavors prevalent in dark beer are atypical for the diehard light lager drinker, but they’re wonderfully complex and imminently food friendly when explored and embraced in their proper context. You’re not going to want to drink an Imperial Stout while mowing the lawn next summer, but you just might wish you had one in your hand when the crisp, cool air of fall arrives and you’re sitting by the fire pit.
Those of us who enjoy a wide range of beer styles know that seasonality plays a big role in what you drink and when. As the book of Ecclesiastes, and the Byrds, said, “To everything there is a season” and I would add that to every season there is a beer. This season, don’t be afraid to come over to the dark side once in a while and try a beer that may look a bit intimidating.