Beer Guide - Dark Ale

An Introduction To Dark Ale

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Before you crack open a beer you have a decision to make - should you put it in the fridge or not. Many lager makers would tell you that their beers should be served very cold. Some bars have even been known to have electronic signs up saying how close they managed to get their beers to freezing point. However while serving a beer ice cold makes it feel more refreshing, it also reduces it's flavour (a good thing for some mass produced lagers). As such once you start trying dark coloured ales you will be losing most of their taste if you serve them close to freezing point. So what temperature should you serve them at?

Beer writer Michael Jackson spent much time thinking about this and in a number of his books he recommended serving temperatures for each of the beers he referred to. These temperatures were based on a five point scale: pale lagers should be "well chilled" (7C), wheat beers should be "chilled" (8C), dark lagers should be "lightly chilled" (9C), regular ales should be "cellar temperature" (13C) and strong dark ales should be "room temperature" (15.5C). Jackson's scale prompts two immediate thoughts. Firstly his heating bills must have been nice and low if he thinks a typical room temperature is 15C. Secondly, who actually has the patience and equipment to chill and maintain beers at such exact temperatures? This has led to some dark ale brewers coming up with more practical guidelines. For example the Teme Valley brewery suggest putting their beers in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving - something that works for people who are either patient or can plan ahead. More than anything else you should try beers at slightly different temperatures to see whether you discover any new flavours.

You can have a serious interest in beer without having an interest in dark ales. Even a venerable brewing country like German brews very few dark ales. However beer obessives seem to graduate towards darker beers and towards ales – particularly the stronger ones that will be covered later on. This is probably due to dark ales usually having more intense flavours that their paler counterparts.


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The ideal way to experience a bitter is to have it hand pulled from a cask in a old fashioned wood timbered pub, drunk at a steady rate around a table of people bantering about nothing in particularly. Ideally the Bitter should be made at a small independent Brewery somewhere in the local area and have a vaguely improbable name associated with it, something like Bishop’s Mistake. Unfortunately this mentality is probably holding Bitter back. It lends itself well to consumption with a range of foods and this is something brewers have been attempting to exploit for a while. The most obvious attempt is Greene King’s “Beer To Dine For” which was launched in 2004 but has since been renamed Hop King.

Back in the 18th century Bitter was used to describe both dark and pale coloured beers. However in the intervening centuries Bitters have come to represent darker coloured ales of moderate strength with a decent wedge of malt or hops in the flavour without there being anything too intense. Ordinary Bitters and Best Bitters generally to go up to about 5% abv in strength and traditionally viewed as the mainstay of British pubs, although these days multi-national lagers are crowding them out.

St Austell’s Tribute is a pale bitter with a balance of malt and fruit flavours that come from using 2 types of malt and 3 types of hops. Kingstone’s Challenger bitter takes the opposite approach by using a single type of hop, and lots of it. This gives it a rich, bitter flavour that really showcases the Challenger hop, originally developed in the 1960s. Bitters are still the mainstay of British microbrewers and demand has grown in recently as they have started to be seen as a boutique product, whether served in pubs or not.

Five To Try -
1. St Austell Tribute
2. Samuel Smith Organic Best Ale
3. Kingstone Challenger Bitter
4. West Berkshire Good Old Boy
5. Ulverston Laughing Gravy

ESB and Premium Bitter

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What goes up must come down. But that doesn't mean it stays down. Ales used to be brewed at higher alcoholic strengths before the 20th century. However a combination of the temperance movement and wartime restrictions watered the beers down leaving Bitter weighing in at around 4% abv rather than 6%. In 1971 the Fuller’s Brewery introduced their Extra Special Bitter. At 5.5% it was stronger than most beers brewed in England at the time and experienced great success in terms of sales and awards. So much so that the idea of stronger “premium” bitters are often referred to as ESB after this London based beer. Fullers ESB is dark, woody and tangy with hints of nuts and fruit. It was originally just produced as a winter beer and Fullers have continued to make dark seasonal premium bitters such as Jack Frost which contains blackberries.

These days premium bitters are many brewers answer to the continental style of premium lager that dominates drinking habits today, offering a more potent brew (and a chance to get drunk quicker). They also allow British brewers to start experimenting with the stronger styles of ale found in mainland Europe without having to abandon the traditional styles pubs will expect. Wychwood's Hobgoblin is one of the most successful - a full bodied mix of caramel and prune flavours that has more of a kick bottled than on draught. Jennings Snecklifter has such dominant coffee and chocolate flavours you could mistake it for a stout. Some premium bitters such as Ridgeway Ivanhoe have a pale amber colour and have very similar flavours to traditional bitters.

Most premium bitters are brewed in the UK but American microbrewers appear quite keen to play around with this style, and not being beholden to British brewing heritage are coming up with some interesting results using locally sourced hops. Rogue's Brutal Bitter is so hoppy that it is in danger of turning into an IPA. Australian microbrewers 4 Pines do a fine ESB that taste of pine wood, cherry and caramel - it even stands up to being served ice cold. Norway's Sma Vesen KvernKnurr could almost be mistaken for a Belgian Dubbel. In short, ESB has come a long way from it's origins as a winter special in the early 1970s.

Five To Try -

1. Ridgeway Ivanhoe
2. Dorset Durdle Door
3. Wychwood Hobgoblin (bottle)
4. Jennings Sneck Lifter
5. Fullers ESB

Amber Ale

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Judging food by it's colour is usually a mistake. Red fruit sounds likes a sensible enough grouping. However strawberries, raspberries, cherries and apples don't taste similar just because they have a rosy hue. Similarly judging a beer by it's colour can be misleading. Upon being served an Amber coloured beer you can discern that you don't have a stout or a pale lager on front of you (however much Fosters claims to be the Amber nectar). However that still leaves a wide range of options - it could be a Marzen lager, a pale coloured bitter or a Belgian ale. There are also a number of ales that particularly define themselves by their reddish colour. English Amber Ales, Irish Red Ales and Continental Ambrees.

English Amber Ales are usually a type of bitter that has been made with relatively few hops and which often have a slight sweetness to them. The Irish Red Ales usually add a caramel note to this mix. The style was popularised by beer writer Michael Jackson and has given the Celtic beer scene something to call it's own that isn't stout. The main Irish brands are Murphy's Red, Kilkenny, Smithwick's and Caffreys (the later now brewed at 4% as it was found to produce a disproportionate number of hangovers at 5% abv). However the style is also popular in places with large immigrant Irish communities such as America and New Zealand. Some of these have surprising flavours. The Monteith's Celtic Red ale has the feel of a sherry cask whisky, Porters Rye Ale takes like a Manhattan cocktail whilst the Prickly Moses Red Ale has leather, cherries and smoke amongst it's flavours.

The continental European Amber beers are called Ambrees. Like the Irish Reds the defining feature is usually a caramel flavour. This can be married to a spicy, bitter, strong beer like the Ellezelloise Quintine Ambree, have a robust hoppy flavour like the Pelforth Ambree or have a sweet, toffee apple flavour like the Chevreuse Volcelest Ambree. There are also a number of Australian Amber Ales that are darker, sweeter siblings of the Pale Ales available down under. The James Squire Amber Ale is a mix of carrot cake and caramel whilst Pepperjack is a beer mixed with Shiraz wine.

Five To Try -
1. Monteith's Celtic Red Ale
2. Pelforth Ambree
3. Chevreuse Volcelest Ambree
4. Mountain Goat Hightail Ale
5. Ellezelloise Quintine Ambree

Brown Ale

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How do you judge whether a new beer has really been successful? In the case of Newcastle Brown Ale the brewery alleged received a visit from policy the day after they started selling the beer in 1927. They politely asked if the brewery could make the new beer a bit weaker as their cells were now full of drunk and disorderly people. These days Newcastle Brown Ale remains a student favourite in the UK with it's oversized bottles, although the original brewery has been shut down and production moved out to Newcastle to make things more efficient and is now produced in Tadcaster, home to John Smiths and Samuel Smiths. The beer is watery mix of nuts, fruit and caramel that has a hint of Coca Cola. Frankly it's a bit underwhelming.

Brown ales are traditionally those that have been brewed using brown malts which have a nutty, malty flavour. Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale fits the profile with it's nutty flavour being balanced by a yeasty bitterness. Another northern favourite is the Maxim Ale which was first brewed in 1901 to celebrate the Maxim gun regiment in the Boer war. Like Newcastle Brown Ale it's strength proved problematic - though in this case the customers were falling asleep rather than causing trouble. The drop in strength was only temporary and the when it was increased again it became known Double Maxim. It has a deep hoppy taste and dry finish with a sweet nuttiness in the background.

Most beers these days are made with a mix of pale malts and dark roasted malts making brown ales more of a rarity. They are often difficult to distinguish from regular bitters. Some of them are even dark enough to feel like a stout, such as West Berkshire's rather fine Old Brown Ale. There are also a number of American Brown Ales that can vary from the nutty English template. Neither of these types of beers should be confused with the Brune beers made in France and Belgium which are of a whole different lineage. Whatever brown ale you try, just make sure you don't drink too much and end up troubling the Tyneside constabulary.

Five To Try -
1. West Berkshire Old Brown Ale
2. Robinsons Double Maxim
3. Thornbridge Ashford
4. Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale
5. Unicorn Cheshire Brown Ale


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No-one grew up wanting to be mild mannered Clark Kent, they wanted to be superman. Similarly beers ate not marketed in half measures these days - they are full flavoured and premium strength. Microbreweries can seem almost aggressive with their Brutal Bitters and beers as strong as wines. All of which leaves Mild with an image problem, sounding like a bland watery stale beer drunk by people who couldn't handle a real beer. It has got to the point where a number of brewers do not use the word Mild in the name or description of the beer to avoid putting people off - you'll be more likely to hear actors heartily saying Macbeth in a theatres green room. This is a real shame as they can have incredibly vibrant flavours.

The origin of the term Mild refers to young beers where the flavour has yet to develop the kind of tangy edge that ales can with age. As such you could have Mild Bitters and Mild Porters but they are basically "fresh" ales. Some brewers also take the term to mean mildly hopped or to mean beers under 4% abv in strength. Some of the best Milds allow the malt flavours in the beer come through quite clearly allowing a surprising depth of flavour for it’s strength. JW Lees Supernova blends biscuit and coffee malt flavours whilst Hobsons Mild has coffee and toffee. Attempts to lure regular ale drinkers in have been driven by the release of a number of Dark Mild with more intense flavours. These can have low alcohol like the fruity Bateman's Dark Mild or can be as strong as Sarah Hughes Ruby Red Mild that weighs in at 6% abv and has won many awards.

Some Milds have incredibly dominant roasted malts. The St Peter Mild, Vale Black Swan and Thwaite's Highwayman could all pass for a Porter in a blind tasting such is their dark burnt maltiness. You'll struggle to find many Milds outside the UK, but the Campaign For Real Ale is pushing hard to bring the style back to popularity. Maybe there is something to be said for Clark Kent after all.

Five To Try -
1. JW Lees Supernova
2. Hobsons Mild
3. Thwaite's Highwayman
4. Batemans Dark Mild
5. St Peter Mild

Biere de Garde

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When you think of France you think of chateaus and vineyards. Of stories of 80 year old estate Burgundy with a price tag bigger than your house being drunk at lunchtime by an investment banker. Or maybe you think of caves lined with champagne bottles as far as the eye can see, being rotated by hand using age old methods before being drained by a hip hop star wanting some old school cache. You don't think of beers, and if you do you think of cheap supermarket lager or Kronenbourg - difficult to tell the difference really. However in farmhouse breweries there is a secret worth discovering.

In Northern France there are a range of "keeping beers" known as Biere De Garde. Like Marzens these are beers that are brewed during favourable conditions in the winter or spring and are then traditionally kept in cool conditions over the summer to preserve them. The beers can be light or dark but will display a prominent hoppy flavour that gives them a rural farmyard feel. Castelain's Ch'ti range of biere de garde is named after a regional dialect, comes in corked 75cl bottles and covers every colour you could wish for. A sour apricot Blonde, a bitter malty Ambree and a caramel edged Brune. The best of the range is the hoppy, spicy Blanche that combines the best of biere de garde and Witbiers. Also coming in 75cl bottles is the potent 3 Monts that has spirit like alcoholic intensity combined with a smooth hoppy, yeasty flavour.

One of the most widely available biere de garde is the Jenlain range from Duyck. The Ambree is made with 3 types of Alsace hops and tastes like a Czech dark lager. The beers from the Thiriez brewery are much harder to find but have a superb rustic hoppiness that typifies the best biere de garde. Although this is a French style, and one with limited international distribution there are a few examples in other countries. The Flying Dog Garde Dog adds US IPA style intense dry hoppiness and bitter porter roasted malts. You won't see people investing fortunes in classic vintage bottles of biere de garde to lay down for years like they do with French wine - but the beer is better opened up and drunk anyway.

Five To Try -
1. Thiriez Ambree du Esquelbeck
2. Duyck Jenlain Ambree
3. Gayant Goudale
4. St Sylvestre 3 Monts
5. Flying Dog Garde Dog