Dark beer

Black beer, doppelbock and dark lager 

When we say dark beer in the U.K, very often people mean stout. However, there is a lot more breadth to this style, and even sub styles of stout that are often forgotten about. Dark beer has so much to offer, think Schwarzbier (black beer), dunkel lager, Bock, dopplebock and dunkel Weizen!

How does beer get its colour?

Malt is what provides most of the colour in beer: the darker the malt the brewer uses, the darker the beer.

The malt gets its colour from the temperature and duration at which the malt is dried, which is known as kilning. We can compare it to toasting bread: the longer or hotter you do this, the darker the result. The same applies to malt, where the malter has a whole arsenal of techniques to give specific properties to the malt, all of which influence the final result. The possibilities are enormous: from lightly toasted malt to caramelised malt, to black malt that most closely resembles a coffee bean.

What does the colour of beer mean?

Colour has consequences for the taste and experience of your beer, however there are some exceptions.

Dark beers are coppery to dark brown in colour. Flavours from the malt are often prominent, in the form of caramel, roasted nuts or coffee, but also of, for example, chocolate, raisins and currants. For beers of this colour, the mix of malts used by the brewer are more complex compared to most light to pale beers, because from here on, the colour is not determined by just one type of malt. The malt bill consists largely of light malts (with which light beers are brewed), supplemented by dark malts that give colour and flavour.

EBC: what does it mean?

The colour of beer is indicated by EBC, which stands for European Brewery Convention and is a measure to indicate the colour of beer. The point at which a beer is called dark is at 30 EBC. This is about the point where the flavours associated with a dark colour - think of caramel, chocolate or coffee - will take on a prominent role and you will really start to notice them more clearly. Read more about beer numbers and figures.

There are many examples of brewers using different malts to create different styles and lots of countries have their own traditional styles that fit into this wider “dark” category. Let’s take a look at dark beers across Europe. 

Dark German beer

Dunkel Weizen 20 – 50 EBC

Germany have a wide range of beer styles. Originating from Bavaria, Weizen is one of the more famous examples. There is also, a lesser known dark version: Dunkel Weizen. Just like the pale version, this beer is brewed with at least 50% wheat malt. The characteristic aromas of banana and cloves are complemented by flavours of dark malt, such as caramel and fresh crusty bread. This is exactly what you can taste in Paulaner Dunkel Weizen.

Dunkel lager 30 – 34 and Schwarzbier 50 – 80 EBC

Another one from Bavaria is the dunkel lager. They are malt-forward beers, with flavours of brown bread and caramel with a touch of chocolate. The not too high alcohol content (around 5%) make them accessible.

Schwarzbier however originates from the east of Germany. They are the darkest of the German dark beers, which are almost black in colour with a pale coloured head. Hop aromas tend to be very low with a medium roasted malt character.

Bock and doppelbock 40 – 60 EBC

Originally from the northern German town of Einbeck, bock rose to fame in Bavaria. Traditional bock beer is mainly about malt, which naturally leads to a high malt character with a quite high malt sweetness and clear caramel flavours. Doppelbock (double bock) are the stronger versions, like Weihenstephaner Korbinian, which is full bodied, rich with all those luxury tastes of dried fruit and nuts.

Read our article on “Strongest beers” for a more detailed explanation on bock and other strong ABV beers. 

Dark beer UK

Brown ale 24-48 EBC

The classic British brown ale, from which many beer styles have evolved, is a style with a dark amber or brown colour. They do not necessarily have to be very complicated or heavy in taste. Newcastle Brown Ale, for example, is very accessible. It has aromas of roasted malt, hints of toast and notes of caramel and nuts. A soft and modest bitter note can be found in the aftertaste.

 Barley wine 22 – 72 EBC

This beer styles comes in several colours, but most are 30 EBC or more. In general, this beer style is all about the malted barley with high residual malty sweetness. Emelisse Barley Wine is an example that offers everything you’d expect from this strong beer style.

The darker the barley wine, the more malt forward flavours the beer will have, mainly toffee and caramel, the darker version also have some chocolate. Roasted flavours are found sometimes, but it’s quite unusual and are never overwhelming.

Porter and stout: from 40 up to insane amounts

Two beer styles that are often lumped together. That makes sense in a way, they are all at least dark brown and almost always have roasted flavours of toast and chocolate. On the other hand, the diversity in these dark beers is enormous. Think of cream stout, which are quite sweet -the sweetness coming from lactose- compared to heavy Imperial Stouts, which are full bodied, intense, with an extremely rich malt flavour. You also have oat stouts, of which Fourpure Oatmeal Stout is a a fine example. It’s oaty and toasty but with a well-balanced sweet and bitter taste. For a stout, this is particularly fresh in character.

In terms of colour, it starts at dark brown, which is about 65 EBC. From about 80 EBC the beer will look black. But if you look closely, many of these beers are in fact very dark brown. Hold a light against a glass of Guinness, you will see that it is almost dark red in colour. Only from about 120 EBC the beer becomes opaque black, then you probably have an imperial stout in your hands, like De Molen Hemel & Aarde (Heaven & Earth), an intense smoky and peaty pitch-black beer with an EBC of 394.

Dark Belgian beer

Dubbel 32 - 72 EBC

This beer style can be seen as the dark counterpart of Belgian Blond. “Dubbel" literally means double. In these Belgian brown beers, malt plays the leading role, with flavours of caramel, dried fruit, cocoa and a malty sweetness. In many cases this is filled with fruity and spicy notes from the yeast (banana and cloves). This flavour profile can be found in Westmalle Dubbel, this is seen as the style icon. In Belgium it is customary to add herbs, Affligem Dubbel is a good example of this. 

Quadrupel 32 - 72 EBC

This is the strongest Belgian beer style, in which malt plays a major role - but not the leading role - with flavours of caramel and dark sugar. In contrast to the Dubbel, it complements the fruity flavours of the yeast, creating a complex profile with flavours such as raisins, dates, figs and plums. In addition, the high alcohol content (from around 9%) makes it a fairly intense beer.  

Quadrupel is a beer style that actually originated in the Netherlands. In 1991 The Trappists of La Trappe called their heaviest beer the Quadrupel, it was marked by 4 Xs. A beer that is clearly inspired by the Belgian style, is the Rochefort 10. With its 11.3% and balanced flavours of chocolate, toffee and dried fruit, this is an example of everything you are looking for in a Quadrupel.

Belgian strong dark ale can be seen as a sub-style of the Quadrupel. There are huge similarities, however the difference is that strong dark ales often (but not always) have a bit more of a malt character, which is reflected in subtle tones of toasted bread. Chimay Blue is a great example of this.

Belgian-Style Flanders Oud Bruin 30-50 EBC

Oud Bruin literally means old brown. The most important characteristic of this style of beer is the long fermentation in large wooden barrels, which means that the beer can be quite sour. The colour comes from the malt, so roasted flavours (cocoa) can occur. The malt mainly supports the other flavours of this classic Belgian beer, giving it its typical sweet-sour taste. Liefmans Goudenband is a good example, which offers a combination of caramel, green apple and rhubarb with an additonal woody flavour from the barrels.

Czech dark lager

Bohemian dark lager 30+ EBC

Stout is certainly not the only “black” beer, it is just the most widespread. The Czechs would be very offended given their long tradition in making dark lagers. This style is quite similar to the German Schwarzbier. The Krušovice dark lager is an 90 EBC black lager,  that has been in production for over 100 years. Hints of sweet caramel and mild bitter notes give this Czech dark beer a distinctive character and satisfying clean finish.

Overall, dark beer is very heterogeneous. Creative brewers sometimes try to stretch the limits of styles to surprising proportions. Black India pale ale is a good example of this. The story goes that a comedy club owner wanted a special beer to open his club. He asked for an IPA, with all the features you expect from it, but black: Black IPA. Let an IPA lover - without looking at it - taste Bevog Rudeen from an opaque glass. Chances are, they will not recognise it as a black beer!