Though the name itself implies that the beer is as inky as stout, this is not really the case. The cast is indeed dark, but more of a deep brown, or black with red-toned highlights. Not nearly as opaque as the more familiar stouts, it falls somewhere between stout and Munich dunkel in color. The truth is, schwarzbier also actually falls between the two in character, striking a delectable balance between the sharp edge of roasted barley and the mellow contours of Munich maltiness, something quite evident in both aroma and flavor.
Roast is what separates schwarzbier from other lagerbier, but its uniqueness relative to stout is a bit more involved than a simple scaling back of the roasted barley component. The barley that is used for stout is a nothing more than barley roasted in raw, unmalted form, whereas barley used for schwarzbier is made from malted barley, and often dehusked. The lack of husk eliminates the some of the harsher components inherent to barleycorns.
But the fact that the barley is malted means that it has much more depth than unmalted roast. The very process of malting sets in motion that magically complex cascade of metabolic events that transforms barley from starchy, inert cereal grain into the enzymatic powerhouse and effusive envelope of flavor, the very essence of beer. Simply though, it gives schwarzbier a tidy, bittersweet edge without an onslaught of harshness. The color alone attests to that strategy of reservation.
The remaining, and overwhelming majority of the grain bill consists of German base malts like pilsner and Munich. The pilsner malt provides a crispness that complements the roasted finish nicely (not unlike a dry stout), and the Munich malt offers up its pronounced toasted malt, and light nutty and toffee notes, accounting for the wonderful bittersweet nature of the brew.
Schwarzbier has often been called “black pilsner” because of the lithe body and perceived bitterness. Actually, it is more of a black Dortmunder or Vienna beer, as balance and background malt character are its key attributes. The hop profile of schwarzbier serves to balance the brew, but should nevertheless have a firm presence. German noble varieties, like Hallertau and Tettnang pedigrees, complete the picture, showcased up front with a soft, complementary aroma, flavorful middle and medium bitterness in the finish. American brewers might employ Mt. Hood or Liberty hops, whose pedigree is German noble, in their interpretations, and go a bit heavier on the roasted component, given American’s love affair with dark beers. Perhaps these even mimic the original Kulmbachers more than the modern, more refined German versions.
Being bottom-fermented and fully lagered, schwarzbier is very easy and supple on the palate, in spite of its deep, mysterious, edgy promise. It is also one of the more underrated and underrepresented styles of beer in the world.
The arrival of fest and Märzen biers in the autumn is always anticipated greatly by the masses, and with good reason, as they suit the season perfectly. Schwarzbier, though, seems just as appropriate. With its Old World German personality and culinary versatility, it is festive in its own right. Sturdy enough to cut the chill, and refreshing enough to conquer an Indian summer day, schwarzbier has autumn written all over it.