by Roger Clapham
It’s complete darkness every morning when I get up these days, and similarly black when I come home from work again. I’m not sure whether that is to blame, or simply the cold weather reflecting a need for more solid sustenance, but I always find I’m drinking dark beers at this time of year – stouts in the main, as black as the skies outside (London light pollution levels not withstanding). Now I could bore on here with some cod psychology about some need to either reflect or consume this inky blackness that surrounds me but no-one wants to hear that do they? It’s certainly not what we’re here for, so like a late arrival at the office Christmas party, let’s get on to the beer pronto.
First up, something more unusual from West London’s Ellenberg brewery – their Black Ale, which based on the German schwarzbier style. Dark and malty, and full bodied with a good head on it, not the usual dark ale at all this. Some fruit and hops are noticeable but mainly it has the flavours you might expect from a beer this dark, but with the body, carbonation and alcoholic strength (5.7% in this case) you see with many German beers.
Over on the other side of the city is the Crate brewery, at Hackney Wick, in the shadow of the Olympic Park. They have a great modern operation there, including a bar and a pizzeria, and you can get their beers pretty much across London and beyond now. The Crate stout is one of their standard range, and is one that means business. Sticking with the more traditional definition of stout (simply “strong beer” originally) its relatively strong – like the Ellenberg offering above it weighs in at 5.7% – with a strong coffee flavour to the fore and a bitterness that is almost astringent, but there’s a flavourful background carrying some chocolate and liquorice too. Really lovely stout frankly, and ideal on a cold evening.
Jack Black from South Wales’ Brains brewery is another choice stout – an oatmeal version in fact, named after Dylan Thomas’ unsettling cobbler in Under Milk Wood. A mere 4.3% and super smooth with a hint of creamy porridge to it it’s easy to drink at any time of day (in keeping with the old workman’s ethic of having stout for breakfast). It’s got a smoky bonfire feel to it, and an uncomplicated taste of dark roasted malts in the main with a little sweetness in the flavour too. Only usually available in the autumn this is highly recommended if you do come across it.
Finally, and perhaps the easiest one of these to find, is Shepherd Neame’s Double Stout. A classic age-old style (complete with rather sharp retro bottle labels – more of that here if you’re into that sort thing), this is a belter of a stout. Black as night, 5.2% so just about right to have at least a couple of, and tasting exactly as a good stout should – all coffee and burnt flavours, with a smooth dryness to boot. Frequently on offer in some supermarkets and well worth picking up – and hands down way better than Guinness. Cheers.