The stereotype of Germany is that of a country with everything fitting into scrupulously neat compartments, thoroughly regulated, and suiting the tastes of the residents like a pair of custom-fitted lederhosen. I’ve heard brewers there bemoan the situation that brewing a beer outside of well-established styles is not only frowned upon but, in some cases, simply not permitted.
It’s a cool-weather beer for sure, but one that’s crisply drinkable.
This is belied, of course, by a strong interest in such things as American free jazz and the artistic oeuvre of David Hasselhof. And if you look really carefully, by an occasional beer that slips outside the carefully constructed framework of allowable brews. Black, roasty, caramelly schwarzbier is such a product.
The real deal is brewed only at Bad Köstritz, a small town in the former East Germany. Schwarzbier is a remnant of a time when every town had its own famous–or infamous–style. In northeastern Germany, especially, out of the clinging grasp of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, many of these medieval treasures lingered into the 20th century.
It should be noted that brewers in northern Bavaria use the term “schwarzbier” to describe their dark lagers, which are somewhat paler there than in Munich and its surroundings. But these merely amber beers, delicious as they are, don’t quite do justice to their name, which translates as “black beer.”
Early on, brewing towns were known for either white beer or red. Schwarzbier is clearly in the latter category, being described as having the color of red wine. Bad Köstritz is situated near two towns famous for red beer, Jena and Leipzig, the latter of which was known for a dark beer called rastrum.
Whatever the historical origins, one of the clearest stylistic connections is to porter, especially, the cocoa-malt tinged varieties still brewed in nearby Poland (previously Prussia, which extended to within a few kilometers of our town of interest). Whether this relationship is due to a diffusion of porter exported from England through North Sea and Baltic shipping routes, or just to a spontaneous creation, I cannot say. Either way it’s a tasty beer.
Köstritzer schwarzbier is a mahogany-colored lager of above average strength. Its two-headed malt character is key: a creamy, mellow caramel base drawn from Munich malt, balanced by a soft roastiness provided by a debittered black malt. On top of this, further balancing the malt, is a solid 40 IBU of hop bitterness.
Lager fermentation smoothes out the mix and prevents extraneous flavors of fruit or spice that higher temperatures can bring. It’s a cool-weather beer for sure, but one that’s crisply drinkable, thanks to its well-balanced personality–deeply malty without being cloying.
Brewing Your Own
For your own perfect schwarzbier, the following malt bill will give you the character we’re looking for–rich and malty, with a chocolaty edge:
9 pounds Munich malt
1 pound pale or pilsner malt
6 ounces black patent malt, preferably European (usually debittered)
For mashed brews, a decoction procedure would be traditional, and this indeed accentuates the rich maltiness here. However, this is a complex scheme which space prevents me from detailing here. If you’re familiar with decoctions and have the time and inclination, by all means, go for it. For normal mortals, a stepped infusion works well. Use a protein rest at 122 degrees F for half an hour, then step up to 153 degrees F–a little on the high side, to emphasize unfermentables for a sweeter, fuller beer. Hold there for an hour before mashing out at 170 degrees F and sparging as usual.
If you want to do an extract and adjunct version, try this mix:
7 pounds amber malt extract
1 pound dark crystal malt, crushed
6 ounces black patent malt, preferably European
Crystal and black malts can be put into the kettle in a grain bag while the brew is coming up to a boil, or (better) steeped in hot water at 160 degrees F for half an hour, then strained out and added to the kettle.
Hopping for either method is as follows. I like Northern Brew hops for bittering. Not strictly traditional, but I think their chocolaty quality accentuates the roast malt in the recipe very nicely. This should work out to about 40 IBU.
.75 ounce Northern brewer hops, 1.5 hours
.75 ounce Hallertau or Crystal hops, .5 hours
.75 ounce Hallertau or crystal hops, 5 minutes
This is a lager, so lager yeast and cool fermenting temperatures are recommended, with a long (six weeks), cold lagering period. Pick your favorite lager yeast, preferably one with a malt-accentuating character.
If you can’t manage the cool temperatures required for true lagers, you can make this beer as an ale or a steam-type hybrid (lager yeast at warmer temperatures). Just do what you can to keep the temperatures from getting over 65 degrees or so, or you’ll end up with more fruity, spicy notes than are appropriate.