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For years, decades, millenia even—okay, maybe not that long—the dark beer has been synonymous with the stout. You say, “I’m craving a dark beer,” and the universe fills your head with images of freshly poured pints of Guinness. The world of dark beers may not be as heavily populated or popular as the lighter one, but its offerings are just as vast and varied.
Dark beers, everything from stouts to schwarzbier get their color, as well as much of their flavor, from roasted malts. All beer is 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 also adding more complex flavor notes, such as coffee, chocolate, and caramel.
There are other ways to deepen a beer's color. This can be accomplished through a longer brewing process, either during the boil or by aging the final brew in barrels, where a beer will take on some of the color and flavor of the vessel it's being aged in, usually charred wood barrels. Each method, each alternation of the malt bill, lends itself to a different type of dark beer, from the light and malty to the rich and creamy.
So next time a dark beer comes to mind, remember the category is far from a one-trick-pony. Here are a few of the best dark beers you can (and should) drink right now.
Best Overall: Deschutes Black Butte Porter
Region: Oregon | ABV: 5.2% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Coffee, Dried fruit
First brewed in 1988, Deschutes Black Butte Porter is able to confidently say it's one of the oldest craft brews standing. 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.
“Have to tip my hat to Deschutes Black Butte Porter, which has also won five medals at the Great American Beer Festival.” — Michael Williams, brand coordinator, certified cicerone, and beer educator at Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Best Stout: Zero Gravity Extra Stout
Region: Vermont | ABV: 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 state-wide mountain town that is Vermont. Here Zero Gravity is making a wide range of beers, including its Irish-style stout.
“I give Zero Gravity credit for picking a sort of obscure style of stout,” says Jack Hendler, co-owner of Jack's Abby Craft Lagers. “Extra stout is pretty unusual to see. It’s sort of made famous by Guinness. It’s actually something I drank a lot of while in the Bahamas. Weird place to drink extra stout, but apparently this style is popular down there.”
Best Porter: Alaskan Smoked Porter
Region: Alaska | ABV: 6.5% | Tasting Notes: Roasted malt, Smoked meat
It would be worth traveling to Alaska to try this smoked porter, or rauchbier, with a cult following. Fortunately, Alaskan Brewing has a fairly wide distribution footprint, so it’s easy to snag this beer when it hits shelves if you know when and where to look.
“I’ve loved this dark and smoky beer for years. I love sipping on this beer for dessert on a cold, winter night and it’s also great to cook with.” — Amanda Zessin, Communications Director at Rogue Ales
Best Imperial Stout: Bell’s Expedition Stout
Region: Michigan | ABV: 10.5% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Dark fruit, Roasted malt
Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing touts its Expedition Stout as one of the first Russian imperial stouts to call the United States home. This bold beer explodes with chocolate and dark fruit alongside a prominent ABV that’s the signature of the style.
“I have a cellar full of Bell’s Expedition Stout, which lets me sample this viscous, dark-fruit forward imperial stout every few months—it ages beautifully,” Williams says. “We are spoiled in the Great Lakes region.”
Related: The Best Craft Beers
Best Schwarzbier: Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 5.8% | Tasting Notes: Roasted malt, Coffee, Smoke
The experts at Massachutes’ Jack’s Abby know their way around a lager, both in terms of the light and refreshing beers most drinkers think of when they hear the word “lager” as well as 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 delicately smoked lager.
Best Dunkel: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
Region: Germany | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Roasted malt, Toffee, Bread
On the dark beer spectrum, the dunkel lands on the lighter end, with its rich mahogany color and equally tame flavor. Ayinger’s Altbairisch is considered on the original dunkels, a benchmark for the style.
“Lager can pull off the dark too, and Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel embodies the toasted bread qualities and smooth mouthfeel of Munich Dunkel so very well,” Williams says.
Best Black IPA: Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous
Region: California | ABV: 8.7% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Coffee, Pine
It can be difficult to find black IPAs in your local beer store. Often considered a gimmicky style, especially when compared to West Coast and New England-style IPAs, the black IPA gets its color from dark-roasted malts. The other reason this beer is so seldom seen is that it can be difficult to balance the richness or dark-roasted malts with the brightness of hops. Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous succeeds in this balancing act, offering up a black beer bursting with chinook, simcoe, and amarillo hops.
Best Brown Ale: Avery Ellie's Brown Ale
Region: Colorado | ABV: 5.5% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Nutty, Molasses
“I started loving brown ales because of Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown and now I try brown ales whenever I check out a new brewery,” Zessin says. “Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery Brewing in Colorado is one of my favorites because of the satisfying chocolate flavor with hints of vanilla.”
The beer, named after the founder’s chocolate lab, remains true to its namesake with a rich brown color and “friendly, mellow, and a little nutty” flavor profile, according to the brewery.
Related: The Best Beer Glasses
Best NA: Bravus Brewing Oatmeal Stout
Region: California | ABV: .5% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Caramel, Coffee
There has been a surge of non-alcoholic beers in recent years. For a while, many of those beers fell in the lighter category, the market has since expanded with a handful of darker offerings. One of the most respected of the bunch comes from California’s Bravus Brewing. Its Oatmeal Stout took a Silver medal at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival thanks to its prominent chocolate, caramel and roasted coffee notes and full mouthfeel. There may be little-to-no alcohol, but there’s plenty of flavor in this beer.
If you’re looking for something Guinness adjacent, with rich chocolate and toffee notes, opt for something like the Deschutes Black Butte Porter (view at Drizly) or Zero Gravity Extra Stout (view at Drizly).
To experience the full breadth of the dark beer spectrum, try your hand at a Schwarzbier, such as Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger (view at Drizly).
How is dark beer made?
The process of making a dark beer does not typically vary from that of a lighter beer, where the differences come from is the ratio of dark to pale malt in the malt bill. The higher the percentage of dark malt, the darker the beer.
How is it different from other styles?
The main difference is obviously color, but what you are also getting because of this color is a richer, more complex flavor often with less bitterness.
Does dark beer have a higher alcohol content?
The darker the beer does not mean the higher the alcohol content, although this is a common misconception. While some dark styles, such as the barrel-aged stout, come with a higher ABV, you can get an equally potent ABV from styles that are lighter in color.
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.
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