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.
Bavaria is the home and heart of dunkel brewing. Hundreds of breweries pock the landscape in Bavaria from Munich in the south to Franconia in the north. Franconia alone has over 400, many of which are very small. A good percentage make dunkel, some of which is very refined, some unfiltered. Some are deep amber, while others have a rugged, lightly roasted character and an almost black appearance. Most are a rich reddish-brown, all are unmistakably Bavarian.
Dunkels are remarkable beers in that they are deep and complex, but not very heavy or strong. The characteristic ruby brown color comes from the use of Munich malts, which can actually constitute up to 100 percent of the grist. The gentle kilning of pale malt not only darkens the kernels, but also catalyzes a cascade of biochemical changes in the malt that contribute a range of subtle, malty flavors. Munich malt is less fermentable than a lighter malt such as pilsner malt. This results in a fuller-bodied, dextrinous beer. Special malt indeed.
Brewers of dunkel often employ a method of mashing known as decoction. Rather than simply infusing the grains with hot water, decoction brewing involves heating portions of the mash to boiling, and returning it to the main mash to attain the necessary temperature points to convert the starches into fermentable maltose and body-building dextrin. Heating the mash to boiling induces further chemical alterations, known as Malliard reactions, that give the brew its intense, malty character, and further darken the wort.
While the balancing act that is dunkel tips towards the malt character, the hops are subdued but noticeable in the aroma and provide just enough bitterness to keep the brew from being sweet. Of course, the hops are the noble varieties from the Tetnang and Hallertau regions; these augment dunkel’s unmistakable German character.
The cool fermentation and extensive lagering times typical of bottom-fermenting beers are naturally employed in dunkel production. This patient approach to beer maturation provides a smooth platform with which to showcase the prominent malt and supporting hop character of dunkel.
A typical dunkel begins with an original gravity in the range of 1.048 to 1.053, or perhaps a couple points on either side of this spread, giving it an alcohol by volume content of about 4.5 to 5.6 percent.
Bavaria, from Munich in the south to Kulmbach in the north, continues to offer almost unlimited sampling of dunkels from the many world-class breweries. Most breweries will include a dunkel in their portfolio and one would expect subtle variations from brewery to brewery and even some keller-style unfiltered ones on draft. Some might have the designation “Alt” in their moniker. This simple means “old” as in “old-style” and shouldn’t be confused with the top-fermenting altbiers of Dusseldorf. Those from northern Bavaria may be a little darker in some cases and have a detectable roasty edge to them.
One could spend weeks or even months exploring the range of large and small breweries in Bavaria, and several good guidebooks are available. Graham Lees’s Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria and Larry Hawthorn’s The Beer Drinkers’ Guide to Munich are excellent starting points with which to plan a trip.
There is no shortage of outstanding dunkels via export. One classic is Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, which is widely distributed. Other prime examples of the style are EKU Rubin (excellent on draft), Isenbeck Premium Dunkel, Lowenbrau Premium Dark, Dinkel Acker Dunkel, Warsteiner Dunkel, and Hacker-Pschorr Alt-Munich Dunkel.
Across the border in the Czech Republic, brewers often make a dark lager to accompany their golden-hued beers. Similar in strength to the German counterparts, they may in fact be made from dark versions of the renowned Moravian malts used to produce full-bodied pilsners. Hopped with the noble Saaz variety of Czech hops, these beers tend to be a bit more multi-dimensional in their aroma, with the Saaz taking a step farther forward than German dunkels.
On the exports, the label may be a little more cryptic but should say “dark” somewhere on the tag. Samson Diplomat, Lev Black Lion, Lobko Dark Lager, and Rebel Garnet are just a few that this writer has sampled. All fit the dunkel profile deftly. Herold Bohemian Black Lager is labeled as a schwarzbier, with roasty notes reminiscent of a porter.
Made in America
North America is not bereft of dark beers, with some areas producing them as a matter of local history. Pennsylvania is the origin of several tasty dunkels, among them the award-winning Pious Monk Dunkel from the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh. Penn Dark from the Pennsylvania Brewing Co., also in Pittsburgh, is a rich, chocolaty dunkel that also has an impressive résumé. At the Baltimore Brewing Co., the DeGroens list of German-style beers is impressive, with 10 different offerings. Their dunkel doesn’t disappoint. The Gordon Biersch brewpubs, whose chain is now several links strong, produces a wonderfully dry-finishing, malty, unfiltered dunkel, also available in bottles.
Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Weeping Radish in Manteo produces several great German brews. The Black Radish is a very Bavarian dark lager, not surprising, as owner Uli Bennewitz hails from Bavaria. The state of Wisconsin, with its rich German heritage, has a nice selection also. Milwaukee boasts two outstanding versions: the very dark Black Bavarian of the Sprecher Brewery, and Eastside Dark, smooth and creamy, from the Lakefront Brewery. In Madison, Capital Brewery offers Capital Dark, a malty and dry quaff. In the north woods, Leinenkugel’s fairly new Creamy Dark Lager is aptly named, and thoroughly enjoyable.