These aren’t the Dark Horse beers I thought I’d end up writing about.
I thought for sure that I’d talk about the brewery's crazy good, underappreciated Double Crooked Tree double IPA, or one of their many hearty winter stouts (variants of which include blueberry, smoked and sarsaparilla) or even their peaceful-easy-feeling Raspberry Ale. And then I picked up a couple four-packs of Perkulator Dopplebock and Scotty Karate on a whim at the Beer Temple, and plans changed.
It was actually an evening of Dark Horse stouts that got me into this whole beer writing mess in the first place—we conceived of Guys Drinking Beer after drinking through their full stout series, in ascending order (among other things) and realized at the end of the night that maybe one of us should be writing it all down. Even if no one read our tasting notes, at least when we went back and tried the beer again, we’d have some self-provided knowledge to compare it against. No one mentioned that the much easier way to do that would be to just join BeerAdvocate or RateBeer, but then the URL was purchased and it was too late.
All this is a long way of saying: I love Dark Horse. So it came as a surprise that a couple of their more “regular” beers could surprise me with such large flavors. Did I just forget that the Perkulator was so boldly coffee-tastic? Did I ignore the sweet, creamy Karate for too long?
Either way, I’m telling you to drink these now not because they’re brand new awesome beers or because they’re single-run one-offs that may never exist again. Simply put, they’re just damn fine dark beers, and it’s gonna get warm soon, and then we’ll be drinking light-bodied pilsners and pale ales galore. So drink them now, while you’re still wearing a sweater.
The Perkulator Dopplebock is an occasional release and Dark Horse’s only lager beer. Philip Montoro at the Reader did the heavy lifting on the history of the style and why so many of them have “-ator” names, so I’ll spare you the lesson, but suffice to say we’re on the waning days of the style’s season. It’s worth noting that I can only find two examples of a coffee-infused doppelbock anywhere, this one and a collaboration brew between Ska Brewing, DC Brau and ska band the Pietasters. (Feel free to correct me in the comments if you know of any others.) Folks must take that German purity thing pretty seriously.
Leading with a hearty nose of cold-brewed coffee, hazelnut, Bailey’s and a little smoke, this beer pours massively foamy over a deep oak-brown brew. After a half hour or so, the head dissipates and reveals a light-to-medium bodied beer that’s very coffee forward but not to the extent that it covers up everything else. For comparison, the Surly Coffee Bender basically tastes like a cold cup of coffee that may or may not have some brown ale mixed into it.
This is a well-blended dark lager with chewy caramel, more roasty hazelnut, a touch of chocolate, some rye bread, and more coffee with a dollop of sugar and creamer. It finishes a little dry, a little sharp, and leaves you reminded that despite the sweet rich roasty aspects of this, it’s still a lager at heart. Style snobs may scoff at this beer; Perkulator doesn’t care. This is a doppelbock with a Slayer soundtrack.
The Scotty Karate is more well-known, but since scotch ales live in the nether regions of the beer dork Venn diagram—not hoppy enough, not Imperial enough, not weird enough—they don’t get a lot of thought. Where the Perkulator is aggressive, the Scotty is seductive—it’s a nice syrupy amber-brown beer that smells like chocolate syrup with a splash of rum in it.
Dark fruits are prominent up front along with butterscotch and molasses, which coats the palate then backs off. It finishes with a rush of cola flavor along with yeasty, earthy bitterness. And where’s the near-10% ABV? Pretty damn well hidden, that’s where. Forget stouts and porters, I want some of this barrel-aged, asap.
Dark Horse seems to have a lower profile around Chicago, despite years of exposure along with champions at places like Local Option and Fountainhead (DHBC regularly collaborates with chef Cleetus Friedman on beers, including the aforementioned Sarsaparilla Stout).
Their biggest pop of cultural awareness came after a brief moment of Nickelback shit-talking, and beyond that it seems many aren’t super aware of what they’re doing out there in Marshall, Michigan. With things like a growing 4 Elf annual event, some great job postings, a total devotion to beards and some just-plain-great beer, you should probably try to find out. (It would have been too easy to end this by saying something hack like "they truly are a Dark Horse" or some shit like that.)
Both beers can be found in four-packs at Binny’s, Whole Foods, and better bottle shops around town.