Black beers have been winning over the hearts of craft beer devotees for 30 years now, but until quite recently, stout and porter have dominated the affair. In the past few years though, the unusual black lager known as schwarzbier has been crashing the party with both American microbrews and German originals. Schwarzbier, literally “black beer,” is probably the longest continuously brewed beer style in the world, with its known ancestors close to three millennia in age and with definitive origins in the modern brewing cradle.
Today’s schwarzbier combines Old World rusticity with the graceful smoothness of lagerbier, and a clean roasted edge with German malt complexity. It’s deep, ruby-black color and modest strength makes schwarzbier the lager equivalent of basic stout.
The origin of schwarzbier lies in what perhaps the most significant historical brewing region in the world: southeastern Germany, including some of Bavaria, and portions of the former Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. The most famous, and arguably the most important, development from there was the invention of pilsner beer less than 200 years ago in Plzen, Bohemia. But the true gems from the region are the ancient, but modernly polished styles: schwarzbier and the smoky rauchbier.
There is concrete evidence that crude schwarzbier was being brewed there as long ago as the ninth century B.C. (and undoubtedly, well before). This proof comes from an 1935 archaeological discovery seven miles west of Kulmbach in Northern Bavaria. The venture unearthed an Iron Age Celtic tomb that dated to about 800 B.C. That grave held an amphora with some residual brewing material and the charred crumbs of partially baked wheat bread, known to be the raw material for Celtic and Germanic brews of the time. Since this discovery places the oldest evidence of brewing in Central Europe in Kulmbach, and that beer was black, we can deduce that the world’s oldest, and still-produced, style of beer was schwarzbier.
A tapestry of Germanic tribes gallantly defended this region with pure tenacity against the Roman armies, and had an ardent preference and fondness for barley- and wheat-based beer over wine. This went a long way towards establishing the territory as a relatively ancient brewing center.
The perseverance of brewing in Northern and Central Europe into the Dark Ages is nothing short of miraculous. Continuous tribal feuds, political upheaval and control, and even the formidable Roman Army could not squelch the resolve of brewers and the development of local brews. These forces helped to shape the nascent brewing cultures and its respective seminal, localized beer styles. Brewing was also protected or “cloistered” in monasteries all over Europe. The craft went from monastic to secular and from the home to commercial breweries gradually during the first and into the second millennium A.D. The Kulmbach region followed a parallel path, and even today is the recognized home of the world’s finest schwarzbier, its indigenous style.
As a modern brewing center, Kulmbach is a scant 800 years old. The first documentation of brewing there comes in 1174 in the form of a charter letter scribed by the Bishop of Bamberg. That alone demonstrated the skilled hands of the monks, and indirectly a faith in divinity in the brewing arts. Another manuscript indicates that local Augustine monks had a fully operating brewery in their cloister in 1349. Undoubtedly, these were very dark brews, and had to have been ales, as all beers of the period were. (Lagerbier brewing would not become common, even in Bavaria, until the fifteenth century.) The Kulmbacher cloister is the original site of the brewery that today produces Kulmbacher Kloster Mönchshof Schwarzbier.
The oldest reference to schwarzbier came in about 1390 from the city of Braunschweig. The beer was known as Braunschweiger mumme, and as Braunsweig was a member of the powerful and far-reaching trade consortium called the Hanseatic League, mumme may have had something of a following outside its immediate region. Kulmbach in Franconia, Northern Bavaria, and Thuringia, a state in the former East Germany, also had thriving brewing culture and commerce at the time. Their specialty was what we know today as the Kulmbacher-style, or schwarzbier.
From the Thuringin spa hamlet of Bad Köstritz comes one of the classic remnants of the style, Köstritzer Schwarzbier (perhaps the precursor to most modern versions). The monastic brewery here was founded in 1543 and secularized in 1791. So adherent to its past was Köstritzer that they used top-fermenting yeast until 1878, when they made the switch to bottom-fermentation. Also, Münchener dunkel may be a refined version of schwarzbier and is the beer that made nearby Munich famous. Clearly, dark lagerbier has made its imprint on the region.
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.