MOVIES & BOOZE: Fancy a dark beer this weekend?

Dean McGuinness, the Beer Messiah, reviews two dark beers

Winter time – dark beer time!  Today we will have two dark beers – both different variants of porters.  We will be talking about the flavour associated with dark beers – where these flavours come from, how they relate to other similar drinks, and how they fit with the Porter style.  Our beers for to-day are Kona Pipeline Porter – a coffee porter from Hawaii – and Ola Dubh 12 – a whiskey cask aged Imperial Porter from Scotland.

Dark Malt Flavours in Beer

Colour in beer comes from the malt used in the beer.  When a beer is as dark as a porter or stout, this colour is combing from malted barley that has been kilned and/or roasted to a significant extent.  An array of flavours result from this process.

About ten years ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, and a part of this trip involved visiting a coffee plantation.  I got to see coffee beans fresh from the pod – very pale in colour, with an oily residue when the bean is popped from the pod.  It is only through roasting that the distinctive coffee flavour comes through from these beans.

A similar process is involved in roasting malted barley.  With light kilning, malted barley is relatively light in colour – almost golden in its appearance.  If these grains are stewed, kilned to a greater extent or roasted, the result is darker flavours.  A number of options are available to the maltster to develop an abundance of different types of malted barley – each one contributing its own distinctive character to the beer.  The result is a spectrum of colours that can be developed in beer from golden, through amber, red, brown and black, with each of these colours bringing with it a complexity of flavour options.

In the past, porter was brewed with brown malt, and would have been associated with dark colours closer to brown in the beer colour spectrum.  The development of patent black malt changed the malt bill that can be used in this brew, and the associated flavours shifted slightly over time.  Nowadays, many porters are distinctively dark in colour, and the flavours associated with this – chocolate, coffee and roast bitterness – are characteristic of the style.  With these dark colours, the ale fermentation allows for the development of fruity character – often dark fruit character – in the beer as well.

Porter can be complemented by other ingredients or processes.  Using coffee in porter is a direct flavour complement.  Likewise, aging imperial porter in barrels which, most likely, have undergone a degree of toasting before use as storage receptacles for liquid – all of this can complement and contribute to the flavours that are associated with the dark colour of the beer.

Kona Pipeline Porter:

  • Beer Style: Coffee Porter
  • Alcohol by Volume: 5.3% a.b.v.
  • Brewed by: Kona Brewing Company
  • Brewed in: Hawaii, U.S.A.

Without getting into the minefield of the difference between porter and stout, there is a style called ‘tropical stout’.  While stout is most often associated with Ireland, there is an interesting connection with both African and Asian countries, where the style was ‘imported’ to these areas, and brewed by local breweries – often using local ingredients.  Tropical stouts are described as ‘dark, sweet, fruity, moderately strong ale with smooth, roasty flavours and without a burnt harshness’.  While slightly lower in strength that one might associate with the Tropical Stout style, Kona Pipeline Porter fits this style quite well, and might (with some liberties) be described as a ‘tropical porter.

While stout and porter are often associated with colder climate, boosting up the sweetness in this style of beer can make the beer surprisingly refreshing.  The sweetness balances the dark malt flavours, and where it is accompanied by a fruity character from the ale fermentation, the result can be a distinctly dark beer that is surprisingly refreshing.  Tropical stouts are often brewed with local ingredients – using Kona Coffee in the ingredients bill of Kona Pipeline Porter is a similar twist on this idea.  Just like the idea of an ‘ice coffee’ doesn’t sound like it should make sense, this ‘coffee tropical porter’ is both a delicious cold weather beer, and also a beer that could work drunk chilled in warm weather – quite the oxymoron!

Kona Pipeline Porter pours with a distinctly black colour, and a tan coloured head.  Initial aromas give milk chocolate, stone fruit and floral notes in the form of honesuckle or apple blossom notes.  The dark malt character of the beer comes through on the flavour – with a distinct sweet character to the beer balancing the hop bitterness, making is relative unassertive but sufficient to balance the flavour.  An array of dark malt flavours combine on the palate – milk and dark chocolate, coffee together with roast bitterness and background suggestions of caramel sweetness and marshmallow.  Fruit flavour develops in the beer – golden delicious apple and stone fruit flavours playing around behind the malt flavour. The coffee character develops in the beer with each taste.  While substantial on flavour, this flavour is in no way cloying, and the finish is relatively quick – a characteristic that would contribute to this beer working well in cold or hot climates.

Ola Dubh:

  • Beer Style: Whisky cask aged Imperial Porter
  • Alcohol by Volume: 8.0% a.b.v.
  • Brewed by: Harviestoun Brewery
  • Brewed in: Clackmananshire, Scotland

Stepping up the strength in a beer allows the brewer to step up the quantity of malt used in brewing.  The word ‘imperial’ in the style gives the clue that the a.b.v. is moving up a notch in this beer – at 8% a.b.v., this beer is well above average, and sitting at the level that one would associate with strong Belgian ales.  With exclusive licence to age their Imperial Porter in Highland Park whisky casks, Ola Dubh is a beer that brings with it an added dimension of complexity and flavour.

The aromas of this beer bring up impressions that one would associate with classic dark Belgian ales – dark fruit flavours, with boozy fruit and spice all suggested on the nose.  As one drinks the beer, the complexity of the beer contributes to this impression.  However, the more one drinks, the more the sense that this complexity is coming from a combination of classic English ale yeast flavours combined with whisky cask character supplants the idea that Belgian yeast might be responsible for the depth of this beer.

The fruit character of the beer comes through in a surprisingly distinctive fashion given the jet black colour of the beer – cherry and boozy raisins are the first impressions of flavour in the beer.  Coffee and a combination of chocolate (plain and milk chocolate) flavours follow soon after, but are soon joined by whisky cask character.  Peaty scotch whisky character plays to develop the character of the porter, and the above average strength of the beer both supports and reinforces the idea of this character.

Coffees, whiskey, cherry, liquorice, raisin and boozy fruit all develop in the character of this beer.  The fruit harkens back to Christmas day, with the suggestion of Christmas cake flavours.  Interestingly, the malt character of the beer combines with this fruit character to give a further note of cherry coke!  This is a beer with many layers of character – ideal for sipping and enjoying each layer as it uncovers itself.