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  • Writer's pictureCalgary Brewery Tour Guy

A Guide to Dark Beers in Winter: The Perfect Companion for Cold Weather

an image of different kinds of dark beer

As the winter season is upon us and the temperatures drop, many people seek out the perfect craft beers to warm their taste buds. While everyone enjoys the light and crisp flavors of a pale ale or a pilsner, during this time of the year it is time to turn to the rich and complex flavors found in darker beers. Styles such as stouts, porters, and dark lagers take center stage, offering us a depth and character that perfectly complements the cold weather. 

But what are they and why are dark beers the go-to choice for winter drinking?

different coloured malts used for making beer


Firstly, to really appreciate what a dark beer is and how it is different from lighter beers, we need an understanding of the basics of malting. Although any cereal grain (rye, wheat, rice, corn, oats) can be malted and used in beer, unless noted otherwise, today we are speaking about malted barley. Barley is a key ingredient in beer production and its basic malting process involves soaking the grains and allowing them to germinate, then they are either roasted, toasted or stewed. The process of germinating activates enzymes in the barley, converting starches into fermentable sugars which the yeast will then eat to create the precious alcohol in beer. 

Lighter colour malts, also known as base or pale malts, are kilned for short amounts of time, resulting in a pale colour. They have a milder flavour profile and contribute to the body and sweetness of the beer without adding excessive colour. They also have something called diastatic power, which basically means they contain lots of sugars for the creation of alcohol.

Pale malts are most commonly used in lagers and lighter styles of beer. However, they are also called base malts because they make up the ‘base’ of most beers. For example the world famous Guinness stout is made with 75% light colour/base malt. It is the remaining 25% darker malts that gives this stout its colour and contributes to its flavour.

Medium toasted malts are called crystal or caramel malts and they provide more reddish colours and sweeter malt, caramel and toffee flavours to beers like Amber or Brown Ales. As the process for arriving at these types of malts often involves heating or cooking the sugars inside the grain, creating caramelization or the Maillard reaction, much of the diastatic power has been lost, so it is difficult to generate alcohol with these malts alone. Therefore they must be combined with base malts and are generally added for colour and flavour.

Dark malts on the other hand, undergo a longer kilning process, resulting in a deeper colour and more robust flavours. Like crystal malts, dark malts can not be used alone to create alcohol as their sugars have all been roasted away. These darker malts can bring rich notes of roasted grain, chocolate, coffee, caramel, nuts and dark fruits to the brew and are typically used in porters, stouts, and other darker beer styles and will provide mouthfeel along with colour.

Lastly, we should mention un-malted barley as it is the use of this ingredient that separates a stout from a porter. Here, the barley is simply not malted. It is roasted raw and provides deep, dark flavours and colours. 

a collection of different dark beers in glasses

Dark Beer  

One common misconception we find on our Calgary Brewery Tours is that people believe that darker beers are stronger in alcohol. While some dark beers like a Baltic Porter, Eisbock or Imperial Stout do provide a higher alcohol content, most varieties of Stouts, Browns, Porters and Schwarzbier come in around 4-5.5% ABV, making them no more dangerous than most beers. While alcohol content may not be the sole reason for enjoying a darker beer, the increased alcohol level certainly adds to their appeal during the colder months. 

Some dark beers like stouts will also have a more substantial mouthfeel compared to their lighter counterparts. This thicker and more viscous texture adds to their overall appeal in winter, as it creates a sense of indulgence and comfort. Not all dark beers however have this creaminess. Schwarzbiers, which are dark lagers contain all the roastiness, but none of the thickness. When paired with hearty winter meals or enjoyed on their own, dark beers provide a satisfying and decadent experience.

Like most beers, dark beers are adaptable to a wide range of brewing techniques and ingredient variations. From barrel-aged stouts to chocolate-flavoured porters, breweries often experiment with different ingredients and ageing processes to create unique and seasonal offerings. These limited-edition brews provide any beer enthusiasts with an opportunity to explore new flavours and get into the festive spirit of the winter season.

Dark Ales 


Mostly due to the popularity of Guinness, which is an Irish or Dry Stout and is poured using nitrogen, stouts are known for their rich and creamy texture and are the epitome of darkness in the world of beers. Made with additions of roasted raw barley, stouts often contain a distinct roast, coffee or chocolate-like flavour with depth and complexity. From dry and bitter to sweet and decadent, stouts come in various variations to suit different palates. 

Sweet Stouts offer a creamy sweet espresso flavour, Tropical Stouts are somewhat fruity,  Oatmeal Stouts offer a smoother, silkier mouthfeel, Milk Stouts boast a touch of sweetness and American Stouts are stronger in alcohol and contain higher hops. 

Stouts came around after Porters and were created by brewers adding raw barley to avoid 'malt tax'.

a pint of stout


Porter is another classic dark beer style that has been delighting beer enthusiasts for centuries. With its roots tracing back to 18th-century England, porters came around before stouts and were originally made by blending different varieties of malt to create a well-rounded and flavorful beer. Similar to stouts, porters also offer a range of profiles to suit different tastes.

A traditional porter typically features a balance of roasted malt flavours, along with hints of chocolate, caramel, and even a touch of fruitiness. Its medium body and smooth mouthfeel make it an incredibly versatile choice that pairs well with a variety of foods.

Whether you're enjoying a porter with a hearty meal or sipping it on its own, you'll appreciate the complexity and depth of flavours that this dark beer style has to offer.

a pint of porter  beer

Brown Ale

Brown ale is another popular dark beer style that beer lovers should not overlook. Originating in England, this beer style is known for its rich and malty character, often with notes of caramel and nuttiness. Brown ales typically have a medium body, making them easy to drink and enjoy.

In terms of flavour, brown ales offer a nice balance between sweetness and bitterness, making them a great option for those who prefer a smoother and less bitter dark beer. The malty backbone of brown ales pairs wonderfully with roasted meats, hearty stews, and even chocolate desserts.

a glass of English brown ale

Belgian Dark Ale

Belgian dark ales are a captivating addition to the world of dark beers and one of our favourites here at YYCTOURS. With their deep complexity and character, they offer a truly unique drinking experience. These beers showcase a wide range of flavors, including caramel, dark fruits, spices, and even hints of chocolate.

Belgian dark ales are known for their rich, malty backbone and their ability to age gracefully. The depth and complexity of these beers make them perfect for savoring slowly and contemplating their intricate flavors.

When it comes to food pairings, the versatility of Belgian dark ales shines through. They can be matched with a variety of dishes, from robust stews and grilled meats to rich desserts and strong cheeses. If you're ready to embark on a flavorful journey, Belgian dark ales are a must-try.

a pint of Belgian Dark Ale

Dark Lagers 


Dunkel, which translates to "dark" in German, is a delightful beer style that originates from Germany. Similar to brown ales, dunkel beers are known for their rich, malty flavours. However, what sets them apart is their distinctively smooth and clean taste.

Dunkels typically exhibit flavours of bread crust, toffee, and even a hint of chocolate. These beers have a medium body, making them incredibly drinkable and satisfying. The low bitterness of dunkel beers allows their malt-forward flavours to shine.

When it comes to food pairings, dunkel beers complement a wide range of dishes. From traditional German fare like sausages and pretzels to hearty American BBQ, the subtle sweetness of dunkel beers acts as the perfect accompaniment.

a pint of Dunkel beer on a mountain


Scwarzbier means ‘black beer’ in German but it can be brown as well and often will feature ruby highlights when held up to a light. It is argued to be the most continuously brewed beer style in history. It contains all the colour and deep flavours of a stout or porter, but instead of the roasted or burnt flavour providing bitterness, here that is derived from the hops. It is known for its smooth and rich flavour, with notes of roasted malt, chocolate, and coffee. Schwarzbier is typically light to medium-bodied and has a moderate level of bitterness.

a glass of Schwarzbier

Czech Dark lager 

Czech Dark Lager, also known as Tmavé Pivo, is a traditional beer style from the Czech Republic. It is a dark lager that is known for its deep amber to dark brown colour and rich malt flavours. Czech Dark Lager is brewed using a combination of caramel and roasted malts, which give it a slightly sweet and toasty taste. It has a medium body and a smooth, clean finish. This beer style is often characterised by its balance between malt sweetness and a subtle hop bitterness. Czech Dark Lager is a popular choice among beer drinkers who enjoy flavorful and well-balanced dark beers.

two glasses of Czech Dark lager at christmas


Rauchbier is a type of German beer that is known for its smoky flavor. "Rauch" means smoke in German, and this beer style gets its distinct taste from the use of malt that has been dried over an open flame. The smoke from the fire imparts a unique smoky aroma and flavour to the beer.

Rauchbier and other smoked beers can vary in colour, ranging from pale to amber or even dark brown. It is typically a lager beer, but there are also ales that fall under this style. The smoky character of Rauchbier can be quite pronounced, reminiscent of campfire or smoked meats.

This beer style originated in the region of Franconia in Germany, particularly in the town of Bamberg. The most famous example of Rauchbier is the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which has been brewed in Bamberg since the 17th century.

Rauchbier is not as widely available as other beer styles, but it is appreciated by beer enthusiasts who enjoy the unique and robust smoky flavours it offers.

a glass of rauchbier in front of a fireplace

Guide to Dark Beer Conclusion 

In conclusion, indulging in dark beers during the winter season can be a delightful and comforting experience and many local craft breweries create these types of beers in the winter months. The rich and complex flavours of these beers, with their notes of roasted malt, chocolate, and coffee, provide a perfect companion to the colder months. Whether you're sipping a Czech Dark Lager, enjoying the smoky nuances of a Rauchbier, or savouring the smoothness of a Schwarzbier, dark beers offer a warmth and depth that can enhance the cosy ambiance of winter gatherings or quiet evenings by the fire. 

So, embrace the season and treat yourself to the pleasures of dark beers, as they bring a touch of indulgence and a taste of winter's allure to your glass. Cheers to the joys of winter and the delicious world of dark beers!

We hope you enjoyed this guide to dark beers, please do like, share or comment and be sure to follow us on social media.

To learn more about dark beers, please visit the YYCTOURS community beer education series here, or sign up for Calgary's best brewery tours.

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41 views1 comment




Great stuff. Thanks !

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