Stouts, be they conventional or imperial, and porters are the most common of the so-called black beers. But only one brew uses the designation “black” in its formal stylistic name. These are the schwarzbiers of Germany, literally translated as “black beers.” Schwarzbiers are perhaps the “Lucy” of all Germanic beers, with their old-style rusticity and connection to the cradle of German brewing. They are deep red-black in color and elegant, exhibiting all of the roundness that is characteristic of traditional German lager brewing. These most venerable of beers are thankfully wending their way back into the mainstream after a long period of obscurity.
Land of Plenty
Authentic schwarzbiers of today make their home in what could arguably be considered the most important brewing region in the known history of the craft. Encompassing portions of both Germany and the Czech Republic, the area is famous for fostering many innovations and establishing an unprecedented number of breweries in the past few centuries. Initially, ales were brewed here, but eventually lagers took over. Modern brews are either holdovers from this technological turnover, or simply started anew, as is case with pilsner, the namesake of Plzen. In both cases, little has changed, as the conclaves within the region remain true to their ancestry. Many of these brews, oddly enough, are viewed as “specialties.”
Southern Bavaria, and Munich specifically, brought lager brewing to the forefront. Münchener beers like helles and märzen are stylistic innovations of the craft, whereas the beer that made Munich famous, dunkel, is its own anachronistic remnant. In Lower Saxony to the north, the city of Einbeck was once a brewing epicenter with over 700 breweries during the Middle Ages. It is famous as the birthplace of bock. To the east, in the Czech Republic and not far from the modern German border, lies Plzen. It is responsible for perhaps the most significant permutation of brewing ever. The development of pale, golden lagers literally changed the face of brewing forever. Pilsner-style beers are the most widely duplicated and ubiquitous beers today. Lying smack in the heart of this territory are the brewing cities of Bad Köstritz and Kulmbach, in Thuringen and northern Bavaria, respectively, home of schwarzbier and the origin of Germanic brewing. Also in the vicinity is Bamberg with its rauchbier. All have an opulent, agrarian appeal, juxtaposing a rough edge with mostly smooth contours.
A rich mosaic of tribal people inhabited this region during the first millennium BC. Some of Germany’s states still bear the names of those tribes. One of the settlements was the modern-day locale of Kulmbach. In 1935, an amphora was unearthed from a burial site near the city that contained the residue of charred bread made with barley. It was dated to about 800 BC. This is the first evidence of brewing in today’s Germany. It can be assumed from this evidence that Kulmbach is the home of the most ancient continuous brewing culture in the world. It could also be argued that a beer made from such ingredients is a forerunner to schwarzbier.
The first historical mention of brewing in Kulmbach is from 1174. Through the middle of the second millennium AD, lager brewing practices gradually replaced ale techniques in central and eastern Europe and stylistic niches developed along cultural, geographical, and agricultural lines. Many of the beers we know today are remnants of those times. Schwarzbiers are no exception, and may be the most seminal of all the Germanic brews, with the rauchbiers of Bamberg in the running also. The use of roasted and smoked malt, respectively, are the characteristics that have endured to modern times in these two beer styles even as brewing became very refined.
Modern schwarzbiers are produced throughout southeast and eastern Germany, some from breweries in the former East Germany. One such is from the spa town of Bad Köstritz, in Thuringia, whose commercial brewing roots can be traced back to 1505. It is considered the benchmark of the style. Breweries in Leipzig, Berlin, Einbeck, Neuzelle and, of course, Kulmbach, among others, offer schwarzbiers.
Implicit in the moniker, a schwarzbier is at first glance indeed a black beer. Upon closer inspection, it is far less inky and opaque than the more familiar stouts or porters. It will cast a deep garnet or brown, black-tinted color. Still, it is the darkest of the lagers made in Germany. Schwarzbier brewers get the desired color by using roasted barley, albeit at much more reserved proportions than required for a stout to achieve its opacity.
The German roasted barley is quite different from the product used in ales. German roast is often de-husked and produced from malted barley (Reinheitsgebot friendly), whereas roasted barley for ales is simply roasted, unmalted barley. The result is a softer roast flavor. Though the malt is used sparingly, it leaves a profound and unique footprint in the beer, making a schwarzbier what it is. The remainder of the grist is usually a combination of the pale pilsner malt, and some version of Munich malt. Munich malt is used copiously in Münchener dunkels and especially bocks. Its contribution to those beers is a perfect complement to the character of a schwarzbier. The aromatic quality of the Munich malt is evident as well, presenting a toasted malt, bittersweet nose.
The hop profile of a schwarzbier is marginally pronounced for a German lager. While most rely on the malt background to chauffeur the beer through the palate, schwarzbiers can have a little extra bitterness, giving them an eclectic personality as the hops combine with roasted barley and maltiness. This is not to say that they are overly hoppy, just well balanced and quite similar to a Dortmund-style lager in that respect. Hop aroma is reserved, but evident. The hops are usually German noble varieties like Halletauer and Tetnanger.
Schwarzbier is distinctive in combining lots of characteristics into a diverse outline of style. It has great depth of color, equidistant between a stout and a dunkel. In a sense, it might be considered the “stout” of lager beers, but the roast is much more timid and clean. These beers share a soft maltiness with the Munich helles and märzens, giving the brew a mellow, bittersweet flavor, reminiscent of dark chocolate. They embellish themselves with a light brown, chocolate malt head upon pouring. Strengthwise, they are dead in the middle of the bell curve at 4.5 to 5.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Complementing the subtle roastiness is a hearty smack of hop bitterness, leaving a dryish impression. But the quality that makes the beer uncannily coherent is that it is a lager. Cold fermentation and a lengthy period of cold conditioning soften the edges and round the beer out in typical German fashion, eliminating any hint of fruitiness. Lagering also lends a lucid and bright appearance. It is a straightforward beer, with enough nuance to be complex.
There may be no higher concentration of breweries in the world than the region where schwarzbiers are brewed. The numerous small breweries there might produce a schwarzbier that never leaves the city limits. It might even be unfiltered. The style is by no means limited to Germany. Czech brews that are quite dark in color would be considered within the style parameters. At least two of them, Herold Bohemian Black Lager and Lev Black Lion, are sent abroad. They are a little fuller in body and less hoppy when compared to the German varieties, much like the difference between a German and a Bohemian pilsner. They are also quite tasty.
As the Japanese have learned brewing from the Germans, it is not surprising that Japan, too, makes its own schwarzbiers. The most likely brand found outside Japan is Sapporo’s brew, known as either Black or Draft Stout. It is an outstanding interpretation. The United States has numerous offerings also, from coast to coast. One of the heartiest of the lot is Black Bavarian from the Sprecher Brewery in Milwaukee. Saranac Black Forest is widely available, delicious, and spot on for style. For something a little more exotic, try Xingu Black Beer from Brazil. It is a bit sweeter than most, with notes of coffee and molasses.
Schwarzbiers have gained quite a bit of notoriety in recent years. Whether it’s because of the consumer’s penchant for undiscovered beers, or because of a unified Germany making more of them available, is of little matter. Of note, however, is that one of the newest faces on the beer scene is perhaps its oldest resident. Sweet, and delicious, irony.
Köstritzer SchwarzbierABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Bad Köstritz in Thuringia, Germany, since the 16th century, it is probably the best-known schwarzbier. It is quite dark, almost opaque, with deep burgundy highlights. The aroma presents a mixture of coffee, chocolate and malt, with a little hop nose as well. It is drier than one would expect and packs a nice balance of hop bitterness. Very complex, a world classic for any style.
Mönchshof SchwarzbierABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: Brewed by the Kulmbacher Brauerei in Kulmbach, Bavaria. Named “black beer of the monks” and dubbed “the black pils.” It pours with a nice, lacey, tan head, and is deep brown in color. The complex aroma is roasty and malty at the same time with a noticeable hop character. Rich, medium body and great mouthfeel. Bittersweet, dark chocolate is in the flavor, which is backed up by a pronounced and lingering hoppiness. Very smooth and drinkable.
Einbecker SchwarzbierABV: 4.9
Tasting Notes: From the Einbecker Brauhaus in Einbeck, Lower Saxony, and the birthplace of bock. Dark ruby-brown in appearance, it has a decidedly malty nose, with more Munich character than roast. Soft malt flavor and quite dry, with a stiff hop bitterness that loiters a bit in the finish. Some caramel notes also. Medium-light in body with a well-rounded flavor.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.