Bavaria has a well-earned reputation as an epicenter of brewing. Fine pilsner, weizenbier, bock and Münchner helles are all brewed there. But the brew that first brought fame to Bavaria, especially Munich, is its dunkel, or dark lager. Dunkel means “dark” in German. The style is quaintly anachronistic, rich and complex in character, and robust without being overbearing. Munich dunkel is an old-fashioned beer that resisted change but took advantage of brewing innovations en route to becoming a venerable and elegant beer.
Dunkels are remarkable beers in that they are deep and complex, but not heavy or strong.
Before modern brewing, as we know it, beer was made primarily to preserve and sanitize water, as a legitimate foodstuff for sustenance, and as a way to store grain. We’ll assume that the inebriating side effects were very much desired also. Most brews were dark and turbid in appearance, and rather sketchy in consistency, given the poor understanding and control of the brewing process.
Some settlements, however, were quite adept at making consistent, appetizing beers, and monasteries were among those establishments that gained some brewing notoriety. The skilled craftsmen of the monasteries located throughout Europe developed localized, stylistic beers. Those in Bavaria especially became known for their reddish-brown, malty lagers, which were often referred to rotbier (red beer).
Most of the significant changes in brewing technology occurred in the early part of the 19th century. Indirect heating of green malt became the norm and resulted in very pale malt with none of the smoky residues of previous maltings. Hydrometers and thermometers were invented which allowed control over mashing and wort production. Many centuries of misunderstood yeast behavior came into focus through breakthroughs in microbiology and a shift in scientific dogma. The result: light golden, crystal clear beer that was the same from batch to batch. This nouveau sparkling beer was impressive, especially when drunk from the newly available glass drinking ware. The pale beer craze swept through Europe and many cities in this period developed their signature pale beers. including London, Vienna, Dortmund, Plzen, and Munich.
The controlled malting contributed another significant breakthrough to beer production. The pale malt could be further heated beyond normal temperatures to produce a vast range of malts from dark gold to black in color. The dunkel brewers of Bavaria could still make their darker malts without compromising the fermentability, and without the smokiness previously produced by drying the malt over open fires. The additional toasting of the malt gave the grains a great depth of character. Today, this malt is known simply as Munich malt. It comes in various color degrees and is used as the primary malt in today’s dunkels. Its character is very much in evidence in each sip of these luscious nectars.