What makes a great dark beer?

If you’re a brewer focused on improving the quality of your beer and the enjoyment others get from drinking it, understanding what makes it ‘good’ in the first place is going to help on your journey. With this in mind, we thought it’d be worth taking a look at what competition judges are looking for when appraising stouts and porters. When it comes to judging these beers, there are several key criteria that experts consider. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Appearance

The initial presentation of the beer is the first criterion a judge will assess. Stouts and porters are typically characterised by their dark colour, which can range from deep brown to jet black. Clarity, although harder to discern in these darker beers, should still be considered, unless the beer is intentionally cloudy due to ingredients or the brewing process. The beer should also have a persistent, healthy head that is harmonious with the beer style.

2. Aroma

Next, the judge will assess the beer’s aroma. Stouts and porters should have a rich, malty scent with possible chocolate, coffee, or caramel notes. Depending on the specific style of the beer, there may also be hints of fruits, nuts, or even smoky elements. Any hop aroma should be balanced and not overpower the malt characteristics. There should be no off-putting smells, such as a sour or rotten scent, which could indicate a problem in the brewing process.

3. Taste

The most critical factor in judging a stout or porter is its taste. These beers should have a robust and complex flavour profile that reflects the beer’s aroma. The maltiness should come through strongly, with possible chocolate, coffee, caramel, or even toffee undertones. The sweetness of the malt should be balanced by a certain level of bitterness, often coming from the hops or roasted grains used in the brewing process.

4. Mouthfeel

Mouthfeel refers to the physical sensations experienced when drinking beer. Stouts and porters are typically full-bodied beers with a smooth, creamy texture. They may have a certain level of viscosity or thickness, and the carbonation should provide a pleasing sensation without being overly fizzy. The finish should be pleasant and encourage another sip.

5. Style Accuracy and Drinkability

Finally, the beer should be judged on how well it fits within its declared style (e.g., Russian Imperial Stout, English Porter, etc.) and its overall drinkability. The beer should deliver on the characteristics expected of its style, and it should be something the drinker would want to drink again. The balance of flavours is important here; no single element should dominate to the detriment of others.

6. Creativity and Complexity

While this is not a strict requirement, many beer competitions also consider the creativity and complexity of a beer. This can involve innovative use of ingredients, unique brewing techniques, or the successful fusion of different beer styles.


So, how does your porter or stout stack up? Hopefully, the criteria above will help you in appraising the quality of your brew, which will no doubt be appreciated by friends and family!

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