Darker Days

, from Issue #104. July 25, 2022
dark beer frothing in a glass

The days are shorter, the shadows longer and the temperatures lower, but our judges have uncovered New Zealand's best dark beers to light up your life…

Growing up in the 1980s, all I knew about beer was that the good stuff (according to my dad) was called Tui. It was copper-coloured, it came in 725ml bottles and dark beer was the nasty stuff that the gossipy old ladies on Coro used to sip down the Rovers. Fast forward a few years and my first pint of stout as a uni student on a frosty Saint Patrick's Day in 1992 turned me into a dark beer fan. But back then, apart from the Guinness, Murphy’s and Kilkenny, there was sod all else to choose from. Today, however, the category is absolutely steaming. So we invited local brewers to send in their darks for us to see how they stacked up. The judges (me, Yvonne Lorkin, brewer extraordinaire Chris Willis and social media malt maven Hannah May, aka
@nz_craftygirl) sipped their way through 41 entries covering dark ales, black lagers, flavoured darks, porters, black IPAs, Munich darks, Belgian strongs and stouts of all stripes, and it was an exceptional day.

We saw experimentation with aromatic and resinous hops and brewers getting more adventurous with specialty malts and varying fermentations, but it’s definitely not the easiest task crafting a great dark beer. “There are serious challenges around getting the beer just right,” explains Hannah. “For example, if it's a flavoured stout, there’s pressure to perfect the balance. Too much coconut and it can be sickly, too much lactose and it just tastes off, not enough raspberry and it's too bitter. ABV balance is extremely important too. There's nothing worse than drinking a high-ABV dark beer with perfect colour and viscosity to find it unbalanced and leaving an alcohol burn.” Chris agrees. “Robust flavours from dark malts and higher ABV can stand up to other strong flavours like coffee, vanilla, chocolate, berries, fruit and even oak barrel aging. They’re fun to brew and the combinations are endless,” he says. “But with strong flavours, it’s easy for things to fall out of balance. Some of the faults I saw were due to beer being too cloyingly sweet, too bitter, too smoky… it’s tricky keeping those things in harmony.”

You’ll hear people describing a dark beer as ‘a meal in itself’ but here at dish, we think all dark beers are food-friendly. “Strong flavours need to be matched with robust, hearty meals, like porters with beefy winter dishes,” advises Chris. "My favourite is a smoky porter with barbecued brisket and don’t forget to add any dark beer into your stew for great depth of flavour. And stouts are amazing with decadent desserts like sticky date pudding and ice cream.” Hannah also recommends reserving the big boys for dessert: “The likes of Imperial stouts or anything with an ABV higher than 9-10%. They’re amazing with chocolate brownie.”

So why don’t we drink more of it? “Dark beers are still a hit and miss for many drinkers,” shrugs Chris. “People either love them or turn their backs completely, possibly due to a lack of understanding about how diverse the dark beer family is.” We found thirteen gold medal examples and a tonne of silvers and bronzes – there really is a whole world of deliciously deep, dark beer out there, so get sipping!

Top of the Tasting

1. Bach Brewing VELVET MARLEY Chocolate Cherry Stout 440ml 6.6% ($9.99) - Gold Medal

Bach Brewing VELVET MARLEY Chocolate Cherry Stout 440ml

The instant each judge got to this entry, there were audible 'oooh's and 'aaah's. All were seduced by its incredibly lifted dark berry and cherry nose and creamy vanilla and cacao nib character. “Powerful cherry and raspberry layers lead to a slightly funky, smoky mid-palate and a sherbert-like finish,” noted Chris, and the whole team agreed it was an impeccably balanced dark beer with exotically creamy, fruit jube freshness and marathon-like length of flavour. X-factor overload indeed. bachbrewing.co.nz

2. Good George Campfire Toasted Marshmallow Stout 946ml 5.5% ($16) - Gold Medal

  Good George Campfire Toasted Marshmallow Stout 946ml 5.5%

Absolutely stunning. Yvonne was wowed by its sexy-sweet, creamy aromatics, “like a dark, vanilla and marshmallow Chupa Chup”, and its silky mouthfeel, while Chris loved its white chocolate and coffee characters and Hannah noted “great head, great colour, great nose and gorgeous milkshake and marshmallow notes”. goodgeorge.kiwi.nz

3. 8 Wired iStout Affogato Imperial Stout 440ml 10% ($10.99) - Gold Medal

 8 Wired iStout Affogato Imperial Stout 440ml 10%

"Deliciously dark, inky and espresso-coloured, the espresso character in this beer roars across the palate in rich, luscious, concentrated fashion,” said Yvonne. Hannah noted its vanilla and cacao-crammed palate and Ghana coffee finish, while Chris loved its smoked mocha mid-palate. This iStout is iMazing. 8wired.co.nz

4. Bootleg Brewery Belgian Quadruple 500ml 9.6% ($11.99) - Gold Medal

 Bootleg Brewery Belgian Quadruple 500ml 9.6%

“Dark, complex and heaving with chocolate, licorice and rich, spiced fruit lusciousness,” said Chris, while Yvonne applauded its inky-dark cocoa and spice aromatics and how beautifully balanced and buoyant in the mouth it is. bootlegbrewery.co.nz

5. Isthmus Brewing Figaro Fig and Chocolate Imperial Stout 440ml 9% ($10.99) - Gold Medal

 Isthmus Brewing Figaro Fig and Chocolate Imperial Stout 440ml 9%

Our judges were unanimous in their appreciation of its buttery, golden syrup-soaked, spicy nature. Chris noted a vanilla, chocolate and cardamom character, while Yvonne singled out its dark, creamy head, aromas edged with coffee and juicy, long and satisfying finish. This Auckland brewery is one to watch. isthmusbrewing.co.nz

6. 8 Wired iStout Imperial Stout 440ml 10% ($9.99) - Gold Medal

8 Wired iStout Imperial Stout 440ml 10%

With its cola-dark colour, smoked espresso nose, silky mid-palate and powerful length of flavour, Yvonne was hugely impressed. Hannah added “smooth head, viscous dark appearance, yummy, yeasty, Vegemite notes on the nose and palate and beautiful balance to its CV”. Deliciously complex, showing caramel, licorice and a whisker of cherry on the finish. Fantastic. 8wired.co.nz

7. Cassels Brewery Triple Cream Milk Stout 440ml 9% ($9.99) - Gold Medal

Cassels Brewery Triple Cream Milk Stout 440ml 9%

We were thrilled when this beer was unveiled in our top-ranked group, as it occurred just four weeks after the sad passing of company founder and visionary, Alasdair Cassels. This outstanding milk stout is, according to Yvonne, “super-dark and luxurious, with rich toffee, coffee cake, walnut and molasses notes.” cassels.nz

8. Bootleg Brewery Trunk Imperial Stout 500ml 9.4% ($12.99) - Gold Medal

 Bootleg Brewery Trunk Imperial Stout 500ml 9.4%

Hannah was wowed immediately: “Great head, great colour, deliciously viscous, with a subtle sweet nose, a rich palate and great balance." Chris loved the deep red-black glow and tangy finish, while Yvonne felt its cola-dark colour, subtle nose and fresh, spicy personality lifted it into the stratosphere. bootlegbrewery.co.nz

9. Wigram Brewing Company Ace Smokey Porter 500ml 7.2% ($10) - Gold Medal

Wigram Brewing Company Ace Smokey Porter 500ml 7.2%

An outstanding entry that erupts with smoky, single malt notes and a luxurious palate stacked with toasty, tarry mānuka smoke, peaty notes and roast chestnuts, this perfecto porter from Wigram is the business. wigrambrewing.co.nz

10. McLeod's Brewery Harvest Moon Dark I.P.A. 440ml 7.2% (9.99) - Gold Medal

McLeod's Brewery Harvest Moon Dark I.P.A. 440ml 7.2%

McLeods are IPA masters so it’s no surprise to see their dark IPA here. “Very hoppy on the nose and a palate that’s fruity, beautifully balanced and all-round lovely,” said Hannah, while Yvonne was seduced by its rich citrus and tropical hops and fresh, herbaceous finish. mcleodsbrewery.co.nz

11. Cassels Brewery Double Cream Milk Stout 440ml 8.1% ($9.99) - Gold Medal

Cassels Brewery Double Cream Milk Stout 440ml 8.1%

When it comes to stout to shout about, Cassels have it sewn up. With its rich choco-spice sweetness, ballerina balance, fulsome body and Vegemite and molasses-like finish, it’s pudding proof. cassels.nz

12. Altitude Brewing Moonlight Track Peated Stout 440ml 6.5% ($8.99) - Gold Medal

Altitude Brewing Moonlight Track Peated Stout 440ml 6.5%

If rich smoked malt, herbaceous hops, Jaffas and a long, earthy finish spin your wheels, then hop in and pop your seatbelt on, because sipping this beer is going to be a hoon. Hannah loved its beautiful colour and balance, while Yvonne and Chris noted its fresh bitterness and tarry complexity on the finish. altitudebrewing.co.nz

13. Lakeman Brewing Hairy Craic Irish Cream Stout 440ml 9% ($9.99) - Gold Medal

 Lakeman Brewing Hairy Craic Irish Cream Stout 440ml 9%

Hairy by name and hairy by nature, this espresso-dark brew heaves with chocolate and vanilla notes, and a briny, mineral-licked mid-palate. A prickly texture wraps around a core of cocoa and beautifully balanced bitterness, and Hannah was especially taken with its excellent weight and smoothness. lakemanbrewing.co.nz