Beer Enters the Dark Ages

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Is black the new pale yellow? Things are looking that way when it comes to beer.

While the typical light American lager has been suffering through years of watered-down sales, breweries big and small are following the craft beer trend by focusing on darker, more flavorful beers.

Sift through the recent coverage of the beer industry, and there’s a good chance you’ll run across something dark and strong. Samuel Adams, for instance, has been in the news lately due to the release of Utopias, a $190-per-bottle dark brew that’s aged in single-use bourbon casks and tastes more along the lines of cognac or sherry than anything that comes out of a tap at the local tavern.

The San Francisco Chronicle notes that beer aged in charred wooden barrels that once held bourbon is “all the rage” nowadays. The trend seems a direct reaction to mass-produced light beer that can be drunk like water. Instead, at one high-end brewery tasting—yes, a tasting, whereas the typical beer isn’t really tasted, but simply consumed—the “dark liquid that comes out of the barrel” is said to be “viscous, reeking of caramel and vanilla.”

I don’t recall hearing many conversations along these lines around the keg in college.

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Most beers produced in this fancy fashion are strong—perhaps 12% alcohol by volume. Even that is weak compared to a Scottish beer called Armageddon, which at 65% alcohol is now in contention for the Guinness Book of World Records title of World’s Strongest Beer. The Daily Mail put things in perspective by writing that one glass of Armageddon (roughly $130 per bottle) is as “potent as ten pints lager.”

While the strongest, darkest beers target a tiny niche audience of beer nerds, the nation’s top-selling trio of beers are still as pale and smooth as they come: Bud Light, Coors Light, and Budweiser. Nonetheless, the mainstreaming of darker, stronger beers appears to be well underway.

Even Anheuser-Busch, the quintessential king of “American” light lagers—the quotes are there because the company now has foreign owners, InBev—is keen on expanding into strong, dark beer territory, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The company’s five new lagers all pack a decent wallop with 6% alcohol by volume (Bud Light is just 4.2%), and they’re all darker, heavier brews, as their names indicate, including Michelob Black Bock, Budweiser Black Crown, Rolling Rock Black Rock, and Busch Black Light Lager.

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Despite the “black” label, these beers aren’t necessarily as dark as Guinness. Bud Black Crown, for instance, is an amber lager along the lines of Yuengling—which is “America’s Oldest Brewery” and also America’s biggest now that Anheuser-Busch isn’t American. The hope, though, is that brews like “Crown” and its dark siblings manage to help Budweiser live up to its slogan as the King of Beers. “Crown” is expected to go on sale in February 2013.

Budweiser sales have been falling for decades, especially among younger drinkers. According to AdAge, Bud Black Crown grew out of a company initiative to give the brand a younger, more small-batch, craft-beer-like feel:

The brew was part of “Project 12,” in which brewmasters at 12 AB InBev breweries created their own small-batch “tribute” beers, each with a distinct style. “Though originally created in L.A., it’s a beer born out of the collaboration of all of Budweiser’s 12 brewmasters,” [Budweiser Brand VP Rob] McCarthy said. “The beer is an amber lager that is a little darker than Budweiser, but is flavorful and like Bud very drinkable.”

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Anheuser-Busch is hoping that its new beers are also something else: very buyable.