Ask Beerspotter: What Gives Beer Its Color?
Editor's Note: Want beer advice? Our columnist Orr Shtuhl is here to help, and no topic is off the table. Got questions about beer drinking, beer shopping, cooking with beer, beer etiquette, or anything else to do with beer? Ask away! Newbies welcome.
What is a "black" lager? As in Guinness Black Lager or Samuel Adams Black Lager?
Good question, Andrew. And I'm not sure if you planned this, but in a way that's actually two questions: what makes a beer lager, and what makes a beer black?
What's in a Lager? Cold.
In a nutshell, almost every beer is either an ale or a lager. (The are, of course, delicious exceptions.) Because lagers are fermented at colder temperatures than ales, they tend to have cleaner flavors and tamped-down aromas—after all, yeast are living creatures, and cold makes them sluggish and less aromatic.
But that's a broad generalization; both lagers and ales stretch across the beer spectrum. Budweiser and similar mass-produced yellow beers are lagers, as are some black beers like Köstritzer and some amber beers like Yuengling. Meanwhile, ales include hoppy IPAs as well as roasty stouts, and tons of styles in between. So while the difference between a lager and an ale is nice to know, it's not the biggest determinant in a beer's flavor—not the first question you should ask when you're scanning a bar menu.
So Then Why Black? It's Like Toast.
Essentially, darkening a beer is like toasting bread. After water, the main ingredient in beer is malted barley ("malt" for short). If you toast that barley before brewing with it, you get a darker beer. And as you might imagine, lightly toasted grains make for a lighter brown brew, while deeply toasted grains give you black.
It's not just for show, of course. Like a slice of toast, barley darkens when the sugars caramelize, adding roasty layers of flavorful complexity—dark-roasted coffee is another good analogy.
The black lagers you're asking about are usually modeled after the schwarzbier style, which is German for "black beer." (Creative, right?) These are often roasty but not particularly bitter. Despite their hefty appearance, they're generally light-bodied, even downright refreshing, and because of that combo I drink schwarzbier all summer and winter—when I can find it. It's not the most common style in America, but Samuel Adams, Saranac, and the classic German Köstritzer, all have versions you might be able to track down. Give it a shot, and you might find that it's, ahem, a beer worth toasting.
About the author: After serving for three years as the Washington City Paper's dedicated beer columnist, today Orr Shtuhl writes and drinks in indiscriminate order. You can follow him on Twitter at @beerspotter.