Ask a Cicerone: The Best Lower-Alcohol Dark Beers
If you love dark beer, you probably find yourself drinking quite a few strong specimens—luscious barrel-aged imperial stouts and robust porters, rich, roasty...and boozy. But what about the sorts of beers that you can drink by the pint all afternoon? What are the options in dark beer under, say, 5% ABV?
We asked our crew of beer experts for their picks: What are the best sessionable dark beers? Here are their selections for the best lower-alcohol options in porters, stouts, schwarzbiers, and more.
"One of my newest favorite low ABV stouts is the Peat Smoked Stout from Newburgh Brewing Company in upstate New York. It's 4% ABV with a hint of smoke, slight dark chocolate notes and a ton of flavor coming from such a small beer."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)
"Good low alcohol dark beers tend to be few and far between. The majority being English ales brewed for high drinkability, my personal favorite being Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout. With all the roasty, chocolately complexity found in American interpretations of the style, Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout clocks in at exactly 5%. This is a beer brewed for those who want to drink pint after pint without compromising their love of dark beers."—Ryan Spencer (Bailey's Taproom)
"Köstritzer Schwarzbier is a light bodied dark German lager with lots of roasty dry chocolate malt flavor, but very little bitterness. The style name 'schwarzbier' translates to black beer, they're among the darkest of the German lagers but aren't at very strong. Köstritzer, one of the world's best and most available schwarzbiers, comes in at only 4.8% abv, so you can have a few without worrying about how you'll feel in the morning."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)
"Victory's Donnybrook Stout is just 3.7% ABV. From a nitrogen pour, the creaminess balances the roasty malts to make it a smooth and surprisingly flavorful beer for a beer with such low alcohol. Or try Kulmbacher Schwarzbier (4.9% ABV), an easy drinking dark lager that has round dark fruit, chocolate and toffee flavors, with only a mild coffee-like bitterness to balance the sweetness."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)
"The Solidarity from Eagle Rock Brewing in LA immediately jumps to mind. Seven types of malt are used in this 'Black Mild', which creates a wonderful interplay of caramel, chocolate, nuts, and even hints of Oolong tea. Being 3.8% ABV yet full of flavor, it definitely works to the advantage of the session tippler. It is also always a safe bet to look for Dry Irish Stouts when considering lower alcohol dark beers, and I really like the example from Yonkers Brewing. Clocking in at a shade under 5% ABV, this nitro-dispensed example pours like a frothy milkshake and exhibits predominant notes of dark roast and velvety chocolate."—James Tai (Pinch)
"Grognard Session Stout from Bellwoods Brewery. It's a 3.8% ABV stout that has great, complex chocolatey and roasty flavour, some notes of cherry and blackberry, and a good dose of Legacy hops in the finish. My favourite time to drink is in the middle of the day, and this is a great beer for spending the afternoon by a fireplace, relaxing."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)
"Other than the ubiquitous Guinness Draught, there are not a whole lot of bottled low alcohol dark beers which is a shame. A few weeks ago I had a sub 5% Oatmeal Stout on draft from Founders that I could have drunk all night, but it was draft only. There are a few imported Stouts low in ABV that I really enjoy when I have the opportunity to get them. The first is the Caribbean-brewed Mackeson Triple XXX Stout imported from Trinidad. It's a Sweet/Milk Stout style at 4.9% and it's divine. A friend of mine from Anguilla first gave me one to try and I was shocked how much I loved it. I also like the new Fuller's Black Cab which is a Dry Stout. This venerable London brewer makes some of my favorite English session beers and this is definitely a sessionable stout at only 4.5%. It's black as night and plenty interesting while still supremely drinkable. Last but not least is Schlafly Black Lager in their Can Sessions series which was specifically formulated to be under 5% yet leave nothing to be desired in terms of flavor. Like most Schwarzbier, Schlafly's is refreshing and easy drinking while still expressing a very light roastiness. I refer to the style as 'dark beer that doesn't taste like dark beer.'"—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)
"Low ABV dark beers are my favorite beers to drink. I have already used this platform to wax rhapsodic about Solidarity from Eagle Rock, to that I would add HenHouse's Oyster Stout and the Whippersnapper from Berryessa Brewing, a Southern English-style brown ale. The HenHouse beer uses Drake's Bay Oysters as well as some additional sea salt to arrive at a delightful licoricey, briny 4.9% ABV treat. Most batches of Whippersnapper clock in under 4% ABV and the beer always showcases a bold sarsaparilla-like sweetness and a quenching bit of roast on the finish."—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)
"One of my laments in the world of beer has long been the lack of low ABV beers with substance. Classic British and Irish porters and stouts offer a number of good options. American interpretations are often much higher in alcohol but a few gems like Ale Asylum's Contorter are welcome exceptions to the rule. While no longer in production, Pour Decisions Brewing Company's Pubstitute, a light Scottish ale, came in at a mere 3.1% and offered true sessionability with substance. I'm still looking for something to fill that low alcohol void. My local standard go-to for a deeper session beer may be slightly outside the definition of 'session' but at 5.1%, Summit Oatmeal Stout is rich and creamy with a full mouthfeel and a clean finish that encourages sip after glorious sip while leaving you coherent enough to remember the encounter."—Dan Parker (Stout's Pub)
"A well crafted Schwarzbier combines the dark roasty notes of a stout with the body of a lager and a desirable low ABV. The most traditional example found in the US is from the German brewery Kostritzer but I really enjoy Baba Black Lager from Unita (Utah) which is very sessionable at 4% ABV."—Tyler Morton (Taste of Tops)
"On the ale side, it's hard to find porters and stouts 5% or under, but one classic that fits the bill is Samuel Smith Taddy Porter. It's got that great chocolate/coffee taste with that classic Northern England hard water minerality that Samuel Smith is famous for. At 5.2%, which is slightly above the question's limit, Deschutes Black Butte Porter is loaded with rich, dark, chocolate notes that are balanced with a nice mix of hop and malt bitterness. It's highly flavorful and easy to drink."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer and Columbia Distributing)
"The LAB Brewing Company in Agoura Hills, California has, hands down, the best Schwarzbier I've ever had the good luck to stumble upon. Schwarz Schaf Schwarzbier is the creation of head brewer Roger Bott's brilliant black lager that comes in around 5.0% ABV—layers of roast, hints of dark cocoa and coffee finish cleanly with a crisp bite."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)
What's your favorite sessionable dark beer? Tell us in the comments below.