Beer: Xingu Black Beer Brewery: Cervejaria Sul Brasileira Style: Schwarzbier ABV: 4.7 percent
I'm not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the line casual beer drinkers got the wrong idea about dark beer. Every day, all across the land, you'll find drinkers turning down black-colored brews because they think these beverages are too heavy or boozy. Misconception abounds.
That's why the presence of soccer on my TV machine this month, though not completely appreciated, is nonetheless appropriate, for I too have a GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL -- changing minds about dark beer. That the beer to do it comes from Brazil -- host of the 2014 World Cup -- is all the more fitting.
See also: Dragoon Sarcosuchus Double IPA
The story of Xingu (pronounced "shin-goo") begins in 1986, when a group of women founded a company called Amazon, Inc. (not the Amazon you're thinking of) in an effort to prevent the extinction of some of the world's oldest beer styles. To carry out the mission of researching and recreating these native styles, the beer-loving ladies hired historian Alan Eames, considered by some the "Indiana Jones of Beer." Eames found records dating back to 1557 of a dark ale brewed with roasted corn and manioc root by the tribes of the Amazon rainforest and, along with one of Amazon, Inc.'s founders, traveled to Brazil to find a brewer who could create a beer that honored this ancient brew. The resulting beer was Xingu.
Xingu is named after a tributary of the Amazon that was home to the indigenous tribes who first brewed the original black beers. Though the beer it's based on was brewed with indigenous ingredients and was spontaneously fermented, the version we know has more in common with schwarzbier, a type of dark German lager. In fact, Xingu is compliant with the Reinheitsgebot -- the old German food purity law that said beers could only be made with water, malt, hops and yeast.
This is what makes the brew such a great mind-changer for those who fear dark beer. The body of schwarzbier is as light as any mass-produced lager you'll find; the ABV is pretty much the same as well. The only difference is that the malted barley used in the beer was roasted before it was added to the mash. This changes the color, sure, and adds toasty coffee and chocolate flavors to the finished product, but does not affect the thickness of the liquid or the alcohol content.
From afar, Xingu Black Beer looks, well, black. But get closer and you'll notice the beer's thinner and less imposing than all that. A hold to the light will even reveal some clearer ruby hues at the edges. Atop the brew, a head the color and consistency of latte foam gives off the faint fragrance of anise, treacle and prunes.
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In 1999, Chicago's Beverage Tasting Institute awarded Xingu a gold medal and a 91-point rating, calling the brew "black silk." This description is apt -- the body is delicate and satin-smooth. While the front of the flavor is surprisingly fruity, as if it were stuffed with figs and topped with reduced wine, prickly carbonation awakens the tongue to deeper notes of earthy hops, cocoa powder and toasted wheat bread. A well-balanced finish deposits just a touch of brown sugar sweetness and raisiny tang.
Xingu is a better beer for what it is not than for what it is. It is not heavy. It is not boozy. it is not palate-wrecking. And it is not going to upset the palate of someone afraid of dark beers.