March of Lagers: Don’t Judge Schwarzbier by Its Color

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Photo credit: Charlie Perez

Pronounced sh-vahts bee-uh, this beer style is named after its appearance, similar to other German lagers. Schwarzbier translates to black beer and may seem unapproachable, but the reality is quite the opposite. Never judge a beer by its color. This week in March of Lagers, we took a look at this interesting malt-forward lager with a linage found in two German cities. Let’s dive into it!

Kulmbach located in Northern Bavaria has strong evidence of brewing all the way back to the 9th century BCE. Even more interesting is the 1935 archeological discovery of some grain residue in an ancient tomb a few miles outside the city. Although this is not a clear linage to Schwarzbier, it does show that grain harvesting and possibly beer making was being made. Over the ages, through many squalls and even outlasting Roman rule, Kulmbach brewers remained steadfast with their love for bread and barley. Modern brewing dates back to the 1100s with monastic brewing at its roots.

Moving to was used to be known as Eastern Germany to the city of Bad Köstritz, monks settled and found this city in the 1540s and brewed some dark beer of their own. Geographically, it makes since that the monks were making a black ale, as lagering was not the norm. Lagering was not incorporated until 1878. After World War II, progression into more modern brewing techniques were slow to trickle over from the West. This could have helped keep the style from becoming a footnote in a book. To this day, Köstritzer continues to exemplify the style.

Over time, both cities developed synergy with the history of Schwarzbier. Although they are quite far apart, both lay claim as the origin of the style.

The grain bill usually is arranged with a healthy dose of heavily roasted malted barley that has been dehusked, usually one called Carafa, and either light Pilsner or Munich malt or a combination of the two. The roasted malt is what makes this beer stand out. Not having the husk and using malted barley instead of roasting raw barley imparts a soft, rounder roast character as opposed to the assertive coffee-like notes you’d see in a stout. Soft German hops and clean lager yeast complete the package. The beer is usually never jet-black, either. Opposite to what its name implies, it tends to deeply a deep mahogany color with ruby highlights. Usually around an average 5 percent alcohol by volume, with medium bitterness.

Closer to home, TAPS has arguably the best, most readily available example for you to try. It has many awards to its name, as well. Flavors of bitter chocolate, a slight toasted bread crust at the core, and a soft roasted note on the finish. Crisp, flavorful, and not even close to cloying. Be on the lookout for a collaboration between Bottle Logic and GameCraft Brewing. Word on the street is they have a Schwarzbier in the fermenter.

Enjoy Schwarzbier with jambalaya or some backyard grilled burgers. Perhaps the best paring could be a juicy steak. You might never think about red wine and steak again.

Prost!

Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.

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