All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 1
March 1, 2013 By

Those of us “experienced” enough to remember the beer wasteland before the brewing Renaissance cut our teeth on rather pedestrian European imports. Mostly, they were English or German in origin, with the odd Belgian bauble. There was no special release hoopla or festival hysteria, nor discussion of wild fermentation, new cultivar ale or barrel-aging. We beer hunters were happy just to see a nonfamiliar macro label, anything but the vapid status quo.

We all have moments of epiphany, and for this scribe, that came with my first glass of Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel. The luxuriant malt flavors, smoothness and exotically enticing dark color were captivating. A well-crafted dunkel, straightforwardly robust with a decidedly Old World character, can stand up to any extreme, flavored or wild brew.

Munich dunkel (dark) is the beer that made Munich famous, bringing that city renown as a brewing nexus that endures today. Dark and bottom-fermented, dunkel seamlessly blends depth, simplicity and richness with the clean contours of lagerbier, all in a bundle of modest proportions.

It was long the brew of the commoners, and ultimately refined less than 200 years ago by a well-traveled brewing bigwig, aided by British ingenuity, moving the style into the modern era while clinging to its history. It bears the generous footprint of the eponymous Munich malt, bready and toasty, and remains a virtual symbol of the Münchener beer.

Monks’ Brew

With a brewing history that dates to 800 B.C., the area roughly enveloped today by Munich, Kulmbach and Bamberg makes what would be considered Germany’s most traditional brews: dunkel, schwarzbier (black beer) and rauchbier (smoke beer). We can extrapolate from these three styles that they evolved from a dark and smoky common ancestor, and a period when all beers were of this ilk.

Munich was established in the mid-12th century along the Isar River as a settlement of Benedictine monks (München is Bavarian for monk). Brewing was a common and revered skill among both monks and citizens. Munich’s beer evolved because of its agricultural larder, cool climate and proximity to the Alps, where cold storage (lagering) in the caves of the foothills had been shaping the Munich style of brewing since the 1400s.

Dunkel, which may have existed as a recognizable type, was further refined and protected by the rather misunderstood and oft-cited Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, more commonly known as the Reinheitsgebot. This law was declared by Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X of the royal Wittelsbachs, who ruled Bavaria from 1180 to 1918. They were powerful, heavy-handed rulers who influenced commerce greatly. The law declared that beer could be made only with malted barley, hops and water (and later yeast, which at the time was considered a divine blessing). It helped ensure high quality, but also buoyed the livelihood of farmers and brewers.

The exclusion of wheat and rye parceled those grains for bread making. Wheat was also reserved for royal brews, the rulers being rather smitten with weizenbier (another saga for another column). So the law, whether intended or not, help to distill and define distinctive Munich beer. Add to this a firm grasp of bottom-fermentation and lagering techniques, a 500-year history of hop cultivation, the terroir of local ingredients and maltings and a remote and mountainous location, and we can see how a distinct and early beer “style” took shape.

Though undoubtedly there was some tweaking of the dunkel template after the law was introduced, it would not be until the 1830s that the final touches would be put on the style. The peripatetic and ever-inquisitive brewer at Spaten, Gabriel Sedlmayr II, son of the owner, made several trips to Britain to study its brewers’ methods, and especially their innovative malting technology.

He observed the production of pale malts, made possible by using coke as fuel, and came away duly impressed. His genius was not in trying to duplicate the pale malt back home, but to use these methods to cure his specific Munich malt more cleanly and with greater brew house efficiency. He was able to create his toasty, dark base malt with expert precision, leaving the Munich dunkel style intact and better than ever. It is the malt we home and professional brewers still know today as Munich malt.