A Light History of a Black Beer

"Enlightened Black Ale…a highly quaffable dark beer" - New Belgium Brewing

Many great things happened in 1554. The city of São Paulo was founded, Lady Jane Grey was executed, pirate-adventurer Walter Raleigh was born, the herbalist Hieronymus Bock died. Well, not all these things were great, but they are important historical facts.

Whilst these matters have some bearing on our modern world (especially if you live in São Paulo), there were even more momentous moves afoot in a monastery somewhere in Belgium during these Dark Ages. There, a group of enlightened monks worked day and night to develop a new style of beer, one that took dark-roasted malts and turned them into a beer worthy of Heaven, but that was dark as the very gates of Hell.

Of course, that’s just a flight of fancy, but what is true is that more recently, a couple of chaps from the New Belgium brewery did some research into early black beers brewed in Belgium, discovered various recipes dating back to 1554 for black ales. Inspired and impelled, they hied back to Colorado to develop this recipe, which by all accounts, was an instant hit. According to NB’s website and BeerNotes they had to decipher many ancient manuscripts, convert from obscure ancient measurements (and in my imagination, evade Indiana Jones-style traps!). What they came up with was a modern brew that emulated the ancient zwartbier, avoiding a style that had anything to do with the later porter style (to which they are not related).

Tasting a Blast from the Past

Finally, to the main event, and what an event it is. Put really simply, this is a yummy beer. In brief, it’s the dark beer lover’s dream – scrumptious, versatile and generally a pleasure to drink.

Christine and I sat in the garden and watched as I poured it from the bottle into a fluted glass and watched it settle. It’s a rich dark chestnut brown, almost black. The head was a fingers-depth and whilst it fell quickly away into the brew, it’s a good colour – pale tan and creamy. I always feel that I should lick the head off a beer, but that's another story.

The nose is wonderful – there’s the chocolatey aroma you’d expect from a beer of this darkness. There's a little espresso and malt, with a very faint hint of banana fruitiness and a whiff of spice, and it really whets the appetite for the palate, which is a roasty-toasty malt-and-cocoa extravaganza, which fills the mouth with flavour.

Now take a good mouthful - it’s quite sweet and warming, there’s a pretty little spiciness to balance the sweetness, and just enough hop to make it interesting, but this is a robust beer that is all about delighting the palate without being overly complex. It’s a great beer to enjoy either by itself or with food. I’ve drunk it with winter stews, strong cheese and also with lighter dishes. Just one thing to note though – for goodness’ sake, let it warm up a little when you take it out of the fridge; it unleashes a full range of flavours when you do, and will delight even more than served well chilled. Think of it as akin to a robust red wine, that you’d serve at close to room temperature.

Getting to the end of the glass, the rich reddish-brown colour looks warm and inviting and that last swallow stays with you for quite a while. The mouthfeel is gorgeous, round and pleasant without being overwhelmingly heavy; in fact the carbonation again balances the robustness quite nicely.

It’s just 5.5% alcohol, which means you can enjoy two or three bottles without falling over. I’m not sure I’d call it a session beer, but it’s dangerously drinkable; all in all, it’s a wonderful brew, one that I could well imagine supping for a long time as a winter beer, but equally refreshing in our early California autumn. It’s hard to say what would improve this blackest of brews, except another one just like it.

Originally posted at http://realbeer.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/1554/

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