I have to file today’s beer in the “They still make that?” category. As a teenager upstate, I — brace yourself — sometimes drank alcohol. I liked to think I was drinking something outside the norm sometimes, and so that meant any of the various “Dry” beers, and the “Dark” ones.
I haven’t seen Michelob Dark or St. Pauli Girl Dark in forever, so when I was notified that a mixed Heineken case at Costco contained not just Heineken and Heineken Light, but also Heineken Dark… well, I jumped at the chance. I knew I could pawn the other beers off on non-beer-geek friends, so it was a no-brainer to have the chance to reminisce with an old snobbish (at the time) beer.
Interestingly, Heineken exports the Dark in brown glass, rather than the signature green. Of course, most of that has to be because the regular and Light versions are light lagers, so the green looks attractive and Americans expect imports to be in green glass. However, green glass — almost as readily as clear glass — allows light in, or more specifically ultraviolet light, which reacts with components in hops to create mercaptans. Sadly, these chemical compounds are the same ones you’d find in what a skunk “sprays”, and they smell pretty much exactly the same.
This “skunked” smell has long been associated with imported beer for this reason, and rumors persist that overseas light lager producers will intentionally skunk the beer prior to shipping because “that’s what Americans want”. Or, perhaps worse or at least irritatingly, they will promote the use of citrus added to the beer bottle in order to “taste more refreshing”, though what they’re really doing is masking that unpleasant odor. On the bright side, if you can smell those compounds and you don’t like them, they’ll blow off over time; stirring the beer vigorously also helps matters.
Brown glass drastically reduces the amount of UV penetration, leaving your beer in the same state it was bottled. So by drinking darker export beers, you’re probably getting a better-preserved drink.
Heineken Dark pours a clear bronze-garnet, throwing up a thick, foamy, lasting tan head, which eventually settles down to a thin skim on the beer. Surprisingly, I do get a whiff of sweet maltiness in the aroma — I expected virtually nothing interesting after all this time away from the beer — as if Heineken threw some actual German malt, like Vienna, into the mash tun, in addition to what is surely caramel malt for darkness. I’d hate to know that they just used malt “coloring” to darken this beer, so I’m going with dark, sweet grains in the grist.
So what am I rewarded with once I take a taste? Not really all that much — a little sweetness, though not sugary, a little of that bready maltiness, and a bit of bitterness, just above the detection threshold. There’s also a touch of graininess set against a bit of milk chocolate. Yes, all those adjectives all center around “small”; there’s a small amount of everything, and it doesn’t add up to very much other than a pleasant refreshing liquid. The finish reveals a slightly sour note, too. The beer is rather thin, by design, and not nearly as carbonated as its lighter brethren. In short, it’s an inoffensive, unchallenging refresher, just darker than the usual suspects.
Overall, I’d rate Heineken Dark as a mediocre curiosity, interesting to try again to see if your taste buds evolved since the last time you drank it. Apparently mine have, as I wouldn’t expect the recipe to have changed. A case of Heinekens ran $28 at Costco, which puts a six-pack of the Dark at $7. For a try and a trip down memory lane, it’s worth the money. I doubt that even if I could find it in sixers that I would buy it again, though. I’d much rather pick up a few good German dunkels, such as Einbecker or even cheaper ones by Warsteiner or Hofbrau, instead. Those at least have a bunch more character than Heineken Dark. Even if I can’t go home again, and I can’t relive my late teen years, I can still see how far I’ve come by looking to my past in beer.