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Spirited Glass: Black beers vary widely

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Single Maltster

Joined: 24 Jul 2005
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 20, 2006 8:30 pm    Post subject: Spirited Glass: Black beers vary widely Reply with quote

Spirited Glass: Black beers vary widely
By Michael Muckian
Special to The Capital Times
Randy Sprecher offers black beer lovers this warning when purchasing Guinness Stout stateside: Not all draughts, bottles or cans of Ireland's trademark beverage are created equal.

"The Guinness you're drinking here was probably brewed in Canada," said Sprecher, owner of Sprecher Brewing Co. in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale. "That trademark frothy head could be the result of the injection of additional nitrogen gas into the beer."

Nitrogen, of course, is what causes the bubbles in Guinness to draft downward rather than rise to the top. Additional nitrogen, added after the beer has been tapped, sometimes replaces characteristics lost during shipment, he said.

Sprecher, a Eugene, Ore., native who studied brewing at the University of California-Davis and worked for Milwaukee's former Pabst Brewing Co. before opening his own brewery in 1985, knows black beer. He brews several, both regularly and seasonally, and is the first to understand that stouts, porters, ales and lagers differ.

A Sprecher dark.
"Black beer is not a defined product," said Sprecher during an after-hours tasting in his brewery's darkened, deserted beer garden. "Generally, it's a lager with a high percent of dark, roasted malt. Many come from Europe, but even the Japanese brewer Sapporo makes a black beer."

All beers fall into one of two groups, depending on how their yeasts are fermented. Ale yeasts like to ferment at warmer temperatures, generally 60 to 75 degrees and sometimes as high as 85 degrees for Belgian yeasts that produce weiss beers. As a result, ales turn out fruitier-tasting, with more aromatics or esters in their flavor profiles.

Lager yeasts, on the other hand, do their primary fermentation at 50 degrees, with a secondary fermentation at temperatures much lower, sometimes just above freezing. Beers fermenting at these low levels are said to be "lagering," German for "storing." The result is a cleaner, crisper-tasting beer. In both cases, however, that beer can be light or dark, weak or strong in alcohol.

Sprecher's classic Black Bavarian, when compared to the brewery's Imperial Stout, illustrated the difference. Brewed at lower temperatures in the traditional Kulmbacher fashion, the Bavarian has a clean taste, its smooth finish accented by the roasted malt that provides the beer's dark opacity. The Imperial Stout, on the other hand, was a much fuller, fruitier and - at 8.5 percent alcohol - stronger beer.

"There are a lot of ways to make black beer," said Sprecher, who released the brewery's first barley wine, a high-alcohol seasonal brew, on Feb. 15. "The choice of hops and how the malt is processed will affect the flavors."

We sampled a number of black beers, finding as many different tastes as there are types.

The Sprecher Generation Porter ($1.99 for 16 ounces) might best be described as black ale run amok. The medium-bodied beer is brewed with Dutch cocoa, which provides a solid, chocolatey base, and raspberry concentrate, subtle in its manifestation. For fruitier, fuller beer lovers, the result is remarkable.

Equally smooth, but a little less compelling, Young's Double Chocolate Stout ($2.89 for 16.9 ounces) poured with a rich, creamy head and offered subtle cocoa finish. The English beer was stout from first to last, with reasonably good presence.

Monchshof Swarz ($3.49 for 16.9 ounces), brewed in the German village of Kulmbach and billed as "The Black Pils," is the antithesis of Generation Porter. Crisp, balanced and refined, the beer exhibits a frothy head, malty nose and clean effervescence, a combination beer guru Michael Jackson calls "a world classic."

For a full dose of richness, few black beers compare to the Neuzeller Kloster-Brau "Black Abbott" ($3.49 for 20 ounces). As the only German beer brewed in a monastery, a practice much more common in Belgium, Black Abbott starts with a strange "dishwater" nose, but delivers a rich, almost herbaceous sweetness that reminds one of blackstrap molasses.

The O'Fallon Smoked Porter ($4.29 for 20 ounces) from its namesake brewery in O'Fallon, Mo., lived up to its name. A Gold Medalist in the 2004 Great American Beer Festival, the brew's porter characteristics were a little less evident under its very smoky patina, yet finished with a clean palate.

The Klaster Dark Beer ($1.39 for 16.9 ounces), from Klaster Hradiste in the Czech Republic, was a rich return to the ale styles sampled earlier. The beer, with a lovely amber hue and rich, malty nose, was slightly sweet on the palate and surprisingly aromatic overall.

We saved the Black Boss Porter ($1.49 for 16.9 ounces) for last. The Polish beer has a thick, creamy head and rich, malty flavor that exhibits a bit of smokiness while, at the same time, offering hints of caramel on the palate.

And at 9.4 percent alcohol, it's clear from the start just who's the boss.

Work is the curse of the drinking class.
-- Oscar Wilde
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