I love dark beer, especially in the middle of winter. But my friends only drink suds as blond as Barbie. Help me set them straight.
Tell your friends they have nothing to fear but fear itself, and maybe a dark-tan beer mustache. It's sad enough that most drinkers are fixated on factory brews that are as tasteless as most things that come out of Donald Trump's mouth. In my experience even many people who profess allegiance to the craft-brew movement sadly hold fast to the pallid confines of lagers and golden ales. They're missing much of what beer's about.
The best way to cure their dread of the dark is not with words but with a magic potion. I am of course talking about free beer. Pour your nyctophobic friends a glass at home or offer to buy the next round at a bar – on one condition, that it's got to be black or you take it back. I suspect most beer drinkers have never tasted a dark beer; it's an irrational food phobia, not something based on direct physical contact or flavour.
Usually when we speak of dark beer we mean porters and stouts, the blackest of the bunch. But other murky styles also tend to elicit irrational fear, including darker bocks, Belgian abbey ales, black lagers and black India "pale" ales. There's nothing spooky about them beyond the colour, unless you count certain black-beer oddities, such as the stout made by Sankt Gallen in Japan that's fermented with prized coffee beans pooped by elephants (no joke). Colour generally reflects the degree to which the grain, usually barley but sometimes wheat, has been roasted. Think of dark beer as espresso versus Maxwell House.
What you get from that roasting is tons of flavour. Darker beers also tend to have a seductively velvety texture, only moderate bitterness and crowd-pleasing flavours reminiscent of dark chocolate, licorice, vanilla, caramel and coffee. Frequently, brewers will add complementary ingredients like chocolate, vanilla and baking spices to the mix for added richness and complexity. The key with these beers is not to guzzle but to sip and savour slowly.
I'd brazenly suggest that your friends steer clear of Guinness, the big kahuna of dark beer. While delicious and low in alcohol, at just over 4 per cent by volume, it's hardly mind-blowing. If they prefer something similarly light, consider the Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, a gem from England, or the terrific St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from Quebec.
Fancy something stronger? Explore the world of craft-brewed porters and stouts (especially high-alcohol imperial stouts, among my favourite beverages on the planet), some with added spice or matured in used whisky barrels for ramped-up richness. They're heartwarming and much better than watery lager for the dread of winter. Yes, I said "dread."
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.