A beer flight

Not All Dark Beers Are Created Equal: Here’s How To Tell The Difference

The leaves are turning brown — and so are the brews in our pint glasses. But don’t let your eyes deceive you: All dark beers are not created equally. While you might think that the porters, stouts and brown ales so ubiquitous right now on brewery taps, restaurant menus and store shelves are interchangeable, each actually has its own thing going.

“Brown ales, porter and stouts are always a favorite when the weather starts to get chilly,” says Erin Wallace, owner of Devil’s Den, a New American gastropub in Philadelphia, PA. She goes on to explain that while all beers are made with water, hops, yeast and malt, darker expressions use caramel, chocolate and roasted malts, which lend them their color.

And these malts do more than make seasonal suds match our earth-toned suede boots and fuzzy sweaters; they provide richer mouth feel and flavor, according to Andrew Felty, vice president of Yee-Haw Brewing in Johnson City, TN. 

“Browns, porters, and stouts are malt forward beers, [meaning] that the grains they are brewed with are what primarily creates their flavor profile. “Brown ales look just like the name, stouts appear black and inky [and] porters tend to sit right in the middle.”

Nonetheless, things have gotten a bit, um, murky over the years as producers play around with different brewing techniques, Wallace admits. “The lines that distinguish between different styles of beers have been blurred over the years, especially with the additions of untraditional ingredients and the experimenting that brewers have been doing to stand out.”  

Here is a primer to help you make sense of things, comparing and contrasting the three categories and giving you some liquid inspiration to add to your fridge this fall:

Brown Ale

Of the three beer styles, this is the lightest in both color and flavor, with an amber or tan color and sweet malt flavor with notes of caramel and toffee along with a lower ABV and less hoppy bitterness than a porter, Wallace says.

English examples tend to be nuttier and fruitier than their drier, hoppier American counterparts, though. Pair brown ales with grilled meats, roasted pork, Gouda cheese, almonds and fall fruits like pears.

Beers to try:

  • Bell’s Best Brown, a smooth and toasty craft beer from Michigan with hints of cocoa and caramel that bridges the gap between lighter-style beers and maltier stouts.
  • Cigar City Maduro Brown from Tampa, with a nose of toffee and chocolate macaroons, low abv and moderate body, flavors of semi-sweet chocolate, almond and brown sugar and a dry, coffee ground-tinged finish.
  • Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale, brewed in Missoula, Montana with four different malts as well as East Kent Goldings, Willamette and Liberty Hops, it touts a rich mahogany color and tinges of coffee and cocoa balanced with a pleasing bitterness.
  • Sam Smith Nut Brown Ale, brewed in England with well water and fermented in stone, resulting in a relatively dry ale with a rich nutty color and flavors of beech nuts, almonds and walnuts.

Porter

According to Wallace, a porter has less in common with a brown ale than it does with a stout. “Stouts were originally called ‘stout porter’ which simply means strong porter,” she says. Brown to black in the glass and medium-bodied on the palate, porters have more roasted flavor and a higher abv than brown ales. Muddying things even further, what one brewery calls a porter, another might refer to it as a stout, and in both instances, brewers might add flavorings or ferment or age in different barrels. 

Felty also points out that sub-categories exist, including a Baltic Porter, a stronger style fermented as a lager at a cooler temperature rather than as an ale, which is traditionally brewed warmer. Porters go well alongside roasted and smoked foods, barbeques, sausages and gruyère cheese or with desserts with chocolate, nuts and peanut butter, or those with toasted coconut and vanilla ice cream.

Beers to try:

  • Yee Haw Winter Porter, a complex, malt-forward beer with hints of dark fruit, blackcurrant and Madagascar vanilla.
  • Sierra Nevada Porter, a classic porter brewed in California in a hop-forward American style with a deep malty flavor along with black coffee and cocoa.
  • Yards Brewing Co. Washington’s Porter from Philadelphia, whose recipe is based on an idea from George Washington to use molasses to add caramel aromas to his ale; it’s dark, smooth and complex with a touch of dried fruit on the finish.
  • Duclaw Brewing Sweet Baby Jesus! from Maryland, which is a full-bodied porter flavored with peanut butter, enough hops to balance the aromas, roasted malt on the palate and a smooth, dry finish.

Stout

Ask most beer drinkers for the brand they most closely associate with this category, and they will probably point to an iconic beer from The Emerald Isle. Guinness Stout, considered a dry or Irish stout, is arguably the most famous expression produced, though people are often surprised to find out that it’s way lighter in abv and body than it’s inky black color would have you believe. Guinness clocks in at just 4.2% ABV, and the alcohol content of other stouts averages from 4-5%.

As with porters, brewers sometimes experiment by letting these brews rest in casks formerly used for spirits like rum or Bourbon, which can boost alcohol, body and taste. An imperial stout is a sub-category dating back to the eighteenth century, which does pack more of a wallop — usually around 9% ABV.

Milk stout, also called sweet stout, contains lactose which adds sweetness and body, while oatmeal stout uses up to 30% of oats during the brewing process; the higher percentage of oats, the more astringent the final product. Wallace says stouts pair well with rich and spicy food, braised meats, Szechuan pepper, aged cheddar and parmesan, as well as rich dark chocolate and raspberry mousse. 

Beers to try:

  • Rogue Shakespeare Stout, the highest rating and most award-winning beer from the Oregon brewery, an English-style oatmeal stout with a rich creamy head and a slightly chocolate finish.
  • Left Hand Milk Stout, a slightly-sweet milk stout from Colorado with flavors of dark chocolate, brewed coffee, roasted malt and caramelized sugar.
  • Founders Brewing Co. Breakfast Stout, a double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout from Michigan with a java nose and frothy cinnamon-tinged head.
  • Great Divide Brewing Company Yeti Imperial Stout from Colorado, an unapologetic big, roasty stout with bold hoppiness, rich caramel and toffee notes and 9.5% abv.
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