The Magic of Malt
Dunkel owes its character to Munich malt, and may be made from single maltings as specified by the brewer. This is yet another anachronistic nod to a time when beer was brewed with single batches or blends of base malts, before specialty malts were known. The subtleties imparted by the kilning during production are striking, especially when compared with single-malt brews made with pilsner, Vienna and pale ale malts. But beyond the color and main character, there is a continuum of nuances, born of cascades of minor reactions that occur when carbohydrate and proteins metamorphose or interact.
Munich malt is blessed with an intense flavor profile that expresses pure malt, along with lesser recognizable components of fresh-baked or toasted bread, toffee and caramel. It is also marginally more dextrinous and less fermentable than paler malt, and sports an alluring brown and red-tinted wort. The complexity that Munich malt alone can impart is impressive; decoction mashing, still employed by many German brewers, will enhance the wort even more. Some brewers will augment with caramelized malt or even a dash of roasted malt, and in fact, that may be more the norm these days.
Hops of the German noble varieties accent dunkel with great finesse, though conceding to the malt character. They are usually brewed to 5 percent ABV, give or take, making them one of the rare beers that offer an easygoing personality with plenty of substance, made even more appealing through cold fermentation and extensive lagering.
Dunkels are not terribly common as imports to North America, but some stellar examples can be found. For something a bit different, try a bottled “kellerbier” version, unfiltered and unpasteurized, such as Christoffel Robertus from the Netherlands or Westheimer Graf Stolberg from Marsberg, Germany: Both offer a bit more chewy texture and raw flavor.
Many American brewers offer excellent examples, such as Wisconsin’s Capital Dark, Lakefront Eastside Dark of Milwaukee and Olde Mecklenburg Dunkel, a seasonal from the emerging Southeastern market in Charlotte, NC.
A trip to Bavaria would be the ultimate way to enjoy dunkels, as many never leave the area or brewery. Small breweries throughout Bavaria and especially Franconia are even likely to have true kellerbier dunkel served from a cask. Venturing beyond Munich and Bavaria, the Czech Republic also makes some stellar dark lagers, some of which should be on every beer aficionado’s bucket list, including U Fleků in Prague, a true classic.
In this age of experimentation and emerging styles, it is inspiring to see that many of the classic styles can still be found and appreciated. For some of us, it even harkens to a time when things were just as exciting, if not as common as today, when we found a new beer to try or discovered a rare favorite on draft. Dunkel does that for this writer, but it also oozes traditional craftsmanship and history, and above all else, a great sense of nostalgia.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist.