Beer II.II – Beers of the Former British Empire – Dark Ales

Tony Sig

I: What Is Beer? II.1: British Pale Ales II.2: British Dark Ales III: Belgians
IV: Coming Soon

Last time we left off with the Double IPA.  Remember the “number line” of British Beers?  Pale Ale at 0 and some are to the right and the left.  We are now going to get to know the darker siblings in this glorious family.  We can imagine either the “line” going further to the right, or we can imagine a second number line superimposed on top of the pale one.  Or you can ignore the entire picture, it’s really only there to help one imaging the strength and maltiness of beers.  Like all analogies, there are holes in the application.

First, let us pray:

“Hear, O Theophiliac readership, The Stout, The Stout is One.  You shall love the Stout your King with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and strength.  You shall also love the Barleywine as yourself – Amen”

Scottish Ales tend to put the focus on the malt of the beer.  Though quality hops are always necessary, we do well to think of Scottish Ales as malt-forward.

60-/shilling Scottish Ale.  The shilling number on a Scottish Ale (not to be confused with a “Scotch Ale”) indicates increasing amounts of malt and hops used to make the beer.  So a 60-/ could be ordered saying “A pint of 60-bob please!”  The category expands to include a  70-/ and 80-/.   A 70-/ is not too dissimilar to an Extra Special Bitter of a maltier variety and an 80-/ could easily be confused for a Brown.  These go especially well with the writings of that Scottish “liberal evangelical” – Williams Barclay; and also skinny dipping in the Loch Ness.

The next step up is a 90-/ to 120-/ shilling beer called by several names, especially “Scotch Ale” or “Wee Heavy”. Like those lesser shilling ales, this beer is heavy on the malt and the beer ends up being a deep dark mohogany color.  The alchohol % peaks pretty high, so high in fact that it requires of us to put it into a different beer genus, despite the fact that it is still very similar to the 60-/ to 80-/ Scots.  A classy example of this is the Traqair “House Ale.”  The philosopher David Hume is famous for saying that at the end of the day they way he escapes despair from his extremem skepticism was to get the heck out of his study, go play cards and have a drink.  I imagine he drank something very similar to this.  Make sure to wear a kilt!

Scots tend to use special bittering agents, from pepper to a wild grass “heather.”  Moreso than others they also ferment their beers cooler than most and were the first on the Island to make lagers.

Before moving on we should here insert the works of the Irish.  As with their whisky and their dancing, Irish beer tends to be mild and deceptively simple.  Though good crafters always know how to make them enjoyable.  We shall save mention of their famous stouts for later in the post and here mention their other primary beer besides Stouts:  The Irish Red Ale is a unique Pale Ale which uses a variety of unique roasts for their malt.  The end result can be anything from a bright orangy-red to a deep crimson.  They are generally marked by a dry’er taste in the mouth than most Scots, from a brighter hops, and they go down easy (ie-they are “session” beers.  Low in alchohol and texture so as to allow for multiple pints).  Three examples I can think of off the top of my head are Finnegan’s Irish Amber – made by the Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul – all of whose profits go to local charities and the beer is make with real potatoes; Smithwick’s made by Guiness – a darker and stronger example; and the Rush River “Unforgiven Amber” which is dry hopped and has a subtle hop flavor which delivers.

Pause. Contemplate. For we are about to enter into the land of Stouts, Porters, Browns and Barleywines.  A more glorious land I cannot think.  Perhaps a prayer of humble access would be appropriate?

Asking a beer snob the difference between a Stout and a Porter can be like asking a Quantum Physicist to quickly explain Quantum Theory to you.  Its not that it can’t roughly be done, but only education (id-drinking) can adaquately give one the training to dicifer the difference.  Give this a quick read as help.

For our purposes I will not differentiate between them.  My research has led me to understand that the names come from different geographical regions and say more about those who drank them, as in Porter’s, than it does about styles.  But, Breweries sell both, so try both.  For many a Porter is a bit fruitier and “bigger” than Stouts, but that is to discount Imperial and Russian Stouts, which are easily the “biggest” of this category.  I tend to think along the lines of beers I have already tried and not a strict beer theory to which all beers must conform.

Brown Ales, like most Scotish Ales, are generally mild, easy to put down, low in alchohol % and all around confusing.  It is a rare thing to find an actually well crafted Brown.  The most famous example of this style is the widely distributed “Newcastle Brown” but this beer actually sucks.  Like Killigan’s, this is more like a lighter tasting beer with food coloring than a crafted and well thought out ale.  In fact for a while I despaired of ever finding a Brown that could truly satisfy.  But if you confess with your lips “I will not be satisfied with Newcastle!  And believe in your heart that it can be found –  To you I say that you must not say “I will go up to the local bar” (that is, to bring the Brown down) or “Who will descend into the Applebees?”(that is, to bring the Brown up from the dead) But what do I say?  The Brown is near you, on your lips and in your mouth (that is, the word of faith I proclaim). So how are you to taste if you’ve never been told?  And how are you to hear without someone to proclaim it?  And how is it to be proclaimed unless one is sent?

You need to try Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, or Bell’s Brown, or if you live in MN, you absolutely must try Surly’s Bender.  These are three good browns I have found.  They are able to be mild and sweet without being confused as a Scotish ale or a mellow Porter.  Surly Bender is dry hopped for a spectacular hop flavor unexpected in a Brown and it is also brewed with a dash of oats, and this gives it a thickness perfect for sipping slowly with a variety of foods.

Stouts and Porters are my favorite beers.  Now don’t get me wrong, I like a great variety of beers.  But there is just something about a dark, black, thick, beer that makes me love being alive.  Guinness was my first beer and I hope it will be my last.  These beers can range from mild and dry (such as Guinness and Irish stouts in general) to deep, heavy and bitter, like Imperial Stouts.  I tend to classify these beauty’s into three categories.

Dry – Dry stouts are easiest to understand if compared to Guinness.  Though I’ve heard it a million times from lite beer drinkers that Guinness is like a shake or a meal in a glass, in point of fact it is rather mellow.  Perhaps it is thicker than one is used to, but this is just as much a result of the typical Nitrogen pour as it is about the beer itself.  Dry stouts can be drunk colder than most stouts and should have pronounced toasted flavors and a subtle crispness from hops should be available.  Many note coffee flavors. These are generally light on the alchohol % and so can be drunk as a session beer.  Some varieties of Coffee stout can be placed here, especially those who use “cold pressed” coffe as opposed to brewing coffee in the last minutes of a boil.  Pairs especially well with potatoes and U2

Sweet – Sweets can be sweet from several angles.  Some are “Milk” or “Cream” stouts; these are brewed with Lactose, which is an unfermentable part of milk added to some stouts.  This renders the beer genuinely “sweet” and “creamy.”  Some are even brewed especially to be drunk in place of chocolate milk for breakfast!  These beers were long marketed for pregnant and nursing mothers in the UK.  Which might explain why they are so ugly 🙂  One might also place here the Oatmeal Stout.  The oats render the stout thick and though not as sweet as a cream stout, they can be in this category.  Highly recommended.  Others in this style could include Vanilla Stouts, Fruit Stouts (usually rasberry or cherry), some “chocolate” stouts, and any stout which ably utilizes malt and hops alone to yield a “sweeter flavor.”  Chocolate stouts have a confusing name.  Only a couple actually use small amounts of real chocolate.  There is a particular “roast” color which is commonly called a “chocolate” roast and this is the one used often for this style, which usually has no chocolate at all.

Imperial – Included here are “Imperial” stouts, “Balitc” porters, and some chocolate and coffee stouts.  Imperial stouts and Baltic porters are essentially the same beer.  Like IPA’s before them, these beers were brewed heavy for transport over the sea.  Especially to Russia.  The Russians ate this up!  Heavy on the malt, heavy on the hops, these beers have massive alchohol %’s and should not be drunk lightly.  Often they yield something like a malty sweetness, but this is much less pronouced than in most porters and sweet stouts.  Think chocolate covered cherries or port or something.  Great for those deep MN winters, or with roasted meats and heavy breads, Imperial stouts should have a place in everyone’s heart.  There are some varieties of coffee stout that should go here.  Try to find stouts that aren’t brewed with “cold pressed” coffee.  I don’t know why people keep making this crap but it renders the beer acidic and unpalatable.  A good coffee stout should be bitter like a well pressed esspresso and go well after dinner and/or with ice cream or a pastry.

Finally I should note two beers, Barleywines and Winter’s.  Winters are usually simply Scotish ales which are brewed with spices like orange peel, coriander, anise seed, cinnamon and the like.  Think spiced wine, only for beer, and not hot.

Barleywines may look by casual ovservance to be a mellow beer, given that it is not nearly as dark as a brown or stout.  But these dark red mohogany beers are among the strongest beers in the world.  Utilizing obscene amounts of red-roasted malted barley, these beers approach alchohol %’s near to a wine.  Though the name is not from that but from the sweet and pungent flavor of the beer, which borders on sour.  Barleywines should not be drunk alone, but in concert with meats or sharp and blue cheeses with bread.

Next we will be moving onto Continental beers especially from Germany and Belgium.  Till then, go experiment!



  1. Besides Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown, the two best Browns I’ve ever tasted are Brooklyn Brewing Company Brown Ale and Rogue Brewery’s Hazelnut Brown Nectar. Those three are the top of the pack for me.


    1. Barleywine is a tough sell. I haven’t had many if for no other reason than that they are pretty expensive. But I have not yet given up. The next time I have one it will be with the appropriate food. I’ll get back when I do that.


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