Taste: Spirits: Black Beauty

There’s more to black beer than Guinness

If you take your coffee black or fantasize about bittersweet chocolate, chances are you’ll like the pungent flavor of black beer, too. Black beers look heavy but are remarkably quenching. Most are as low in alcohol as the average lager, if not lower, and they’re traditional partners for raw oysters and clams.

To make beer, grains are malted to convert starch into sugar, the raw material of alcoholic fermentation. If the malt is scorched rather than simply toasted in this process, pungent flavors develop. Reminiscent of other black foods like espresso, cocoa and molasses, these roasted malts supply the distinctive burnt color and flavor of black beer, which can vary from dry to sweet and subtle to strong.

Dry Irish stout and porter have the lowest alcohol levels, perfect for hours of quaffing and conviviality. Guinness holds a near monopoly among Irish stouts and is widely available. Local brewpubs make reliably delicious versions, too, like the Sly Fox O’Reilly Dry Stout on tap at Grace
Tavern in Grays Ferry.

English-style sweet stouts are richer and bolder, and many include unusual ingredients, like Rogue’s decadent Chocolate Stout at Isaac Newton’s in Newtown. Yards revisits a classic British style with its Oyster Stout, brewed with shellfish in the boil, featured at the Sansom Street Oyster House and known as Love Stout elsewhere. For judicious sipping, Baltic porters are richer still, and imperial stouts get as sweet and strong as port wine. But of all the black beers, German schwartzbiers can be hardest to find locally. As flavorful as stout, but with a whip-crack lager finish, the legendary ­Kostrizer can be tasted at Ludwig’s Garten in Center City.