By Paul Sullivan
By now it’s clear that there is a real resurgence of lager beer brewing in the US as craft brewers seek new frontiers beyond the usual IPA varieties. One reason for the increase is that many brewers renowned for producing highly coveted double IPAs actually prefer drinking lagers because of the lower ABV and balanced drinkability. Brewers also enjoy the challenge of honing their brewing chops on classic lager styles of beer where any faults are readily apparent, as opposed to ales with lots of hops and fruity estery aromas or other strong flavors that cover up imperfections. This has led to a phenomenon that seemed unthinkable a few short years ago, the birth and success of lager-focused craft breweries.
To some, lagers bring to mind pilsner and other light colored beers, but darker styles of lager, especially Schwarzbier have also been gaining in popularity in this recent lager wave. About five years ago, ASN conducted a schwarzbier tasting panel and had a hard time sourcing domestic examples, but obviously that has all changed, as the list below shows.
Schwarzbier simply means black beer, in this case a dark German-style lager. Although they may look black from a distance, the color is more of a very dark brown with deep red highlights and an off-white to tan head. And while they may visually appear to resemble a porter, the flavor is much more delicate and nuanced. Some breweries call these beers “black pilsners,” but they are normally less hoppy than this name would imply, usually around 20-30 IBUs and alcohol around 5%. Like all lager beers the key to a great schwarzbier is balance. No single ingredient should stand out; rather they all combine synergistically to make a delicious, drinkable beer. The mouthfeel is soft, with complex maltiness, and although it is black in color the flavor isn’t dominated by roasted malts, just clean, smooth and easy drinking with a light to medium malt body with hints of chocolate and coffee, with the roast contributing to a dry clean finish.
Some classic German examples well worth seeking out are Monchshof Schwarzbier, Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Krombacher Dark, and Einbecker Schwarzbier. As for domestic examples, note that some follow the traditional German model while others put a more American spin on their beers with higher hopping rates (sometimes with newer hop varieties) and the use of smoked malts and other alternative grains like rye. Some readily available popular domestic schwarzbiers are Jack’s Abby Cascadian Dark, Brooklyn Insulated Dark Lager, Westbrook Dark Helmet, Duck-Rabbit Schwarzbier, and Full Sail Session Black Lager. Closer to New York you might find Industrial Arts Night School, Folksbier Nightwalk and Suarez Family Bones Shirt and in New Jersey Ramstein Ink is a new popular debut.
Although schwarzbiers are having a moment right now, the Beer Judge Certification Program style guide lists a number of different types of dark lager to explore. Munich Dunkel has a lighter color than schwarzbier, from deep copper/amber to brown with reddish highlights. As these beers usually derive all of their color from Munich malt as opposed to more deeply roasted malt, the nose exhibits more toasty malt accents, and the body is also more malt forward with brown bread flavors, light chocolate and caramel notes.
There is also a bit less hop bitterness than a schwarzbier, just enough to balance the increased malt. German examples available in the US include Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Hofbrau Dunkel, Weltenburger Kloster Barock Dunkel, and Hacker-Pschorr Munchner Dunkel. Although dunkels haven’t caught on with American craft brewers as much as schwarzbiers there are still many great domestic examples out there. Von Trappe Dunkel Lager, Jack’s Abby Red Tape Lager, Sly Fox Dunkel Lager, Victory Dark Lager, Pennsylvania Brewing Penn Dark, and Heater Allen Dunkel are some of the notable ones to be found.
Czech Dark Lager is similar to the dunkel and schwarzbier styles but with wider parameters that can encompass both. The legendary Prague brewpub U Flecku, which has been operating for over 500 years, only brews one beer, and their dark lager is arguably one of the most popular of that style in the Czech Republic. This style gets color from caramel and roasted malts as well as the Czech version of Munich malt in some cases, and as a result has more caramel flavor and sometimes more roast character as well as a bit more body and hop bitterness. Most Czech breweries brew a dark version of their pale lager; U Flecku is not packaged but served only on the premises (and is a must go if you’re in Prague) but Staropramen, Krusovice, Kout among others can sometimes be found in the US. Budweiser Budvar is sold under the name Czechvar in the US due to trademark issues.
International Dark Lager is kind of a catchall for the other dark lagers that don’t fit the profiles above, and is generally less interesting. Often brewed by large commercial breweries, these are essentially the brewery’s pale lager with caramel or darker coloring added, sometimes with sweeteners as well. As these beers are brewed with adjuncts that thin out the body they typically have little to no malt richness and flavor, and typically lower bitterness as well. Old school mass-market American bock beers used this practice for years until the American bock style pretty much died out. Many international breweries still produce dark beers this way, think Becks, St. Pauli Girl, Heineken and others. American versions include Shiner Bock, Dixie Blackened Voodoo, and Genesee Bock.