If you think of classic styles like mild, bitter or even an old-school West Coast IPA, malt plays a key role. However, as craft brewers increasingly seek to experiment with alternative ingredients – such as fruit, vanilla, chocolate or coffee beans – the flavour and character that malt gives a beer has increasingly slinked into the background.
In terms of dark beers – where malt forms the central identity of the style – this has come to a point where artificial flavourings now play an increasingly vocal role in styles like pastry stout. I’m not against experimentation and try not to dump on other people’s experiences, but sometimes you’ve gotta call a spade a spade and ask why these fake flavourings are being used in a product made up of ingredients with true agricultural provenance…
If only there was some way to prove to drinkers that these core ingredients could produce flavours similar to, if not superior than, those that have been artificially created? Well, with Complicated Dark Beer, a collaboration between the alchemists at Sweden’s Omnipollo and the pub beer fanatics at Newbarns of Leith, Edinburgh, I think I have the answer.
While Newbarns has quickly built a reputation thanks to its exceptional lagers and pale ales, Omnipollo is known (and worshipped) because it makes beers served with cake in the glass, or via a Slush Puppie machine. The combination of these very different approaches has produced Complicated Dark Beer - a riff on Newbarns’ Plain Dark Beer imperial stout. No adjuncts were used in the creation of this beer, just good old water, hops, yeast and barley malt.
It pours like a glass of sump oil; so viscous you almost need a spoon to scrape out the can. The head is a deep tan brown and the beer itself is so dark it’s like you’re peering into the abyss itself. Aromas of crème brulée and burnt toffee fill the nostrils, causing you to lean further toward the darkness.
But that’s where comparisons to visages of Lovecraftian horror end, because this beer is as friendly as a fireside cuddle in a favourite pub. Despite the name, Complicated Dark Beer is actually pretty easy to enjoy, thanks to its rich flavours of toffee, chocolate and caramel, but with a finish that’s dry enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the palate. It’s a marvel that all of these flavours come together so well, in what is easily one of the cleverest, and the finest beers I have enjoyed all year.
Matthew Curtis is a writer, photographer and editor of Pellicle Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @totalcurtis and @pelliclemag. Sign up to our All Killer No Filler subscription box and you'll find incredible beers like this one every month, plus more great writing from Matthew and our food writer Claire Bullen.