To fully understand and appreciate Dunkel, one must first take a step back in time, back to the Old World in the early 1500s and perhaps even earlier. Dunkel translates to “dark” in German, not to be confused with black beer (schwarzbier). As a style, Dunkel has a lineage and history that’s as rich as its flavor.
Brewing of some kind was done for at least a few thousand years in notable areas such as England and, of course, Germany. Munich has a record of lager brewing in as early as the 15th century. The event that helped shape Dunkel was the infamous Reinheitsgebot in 1516. Enacted by the Bavarian royal family, the Wittelsbachs, it was not intended to be a purity law as it is now referred to, although it did have that side effect. It did indeed lay the foundation for what could be used to make beer in Bavaria.
Speaking of ingredients, all beer of that time was dark, harsh, and smoky due to the common malting process. In 1833, brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten Brewery and a colleague made a research trip to England. They went to study a revolutionary hot-air kiln, patented by Daniel Wheeler in 1818, which kilned green malt to a relatively pale color. Equipped with this new knowledge, Sedlmayr released an amber lager during the 1841 Oktoberfest known simply as Märzen made with his pale grain dubbed Munich malt. With raw flavors of rich cereal, honey, and biscuit, this malt would also shape the current expression of Dunkel.
The final piece of the puzzle is the tradition of decoction mashing. In very basic terms, this is when a portion of the mash is removed, brought to a boil, then added back to the main mash to raise the temperature. Removing a portion of the mash, grain and all, and bringing it to a boil results in complex Milliard reactions that remain in the beer. Once the boiled portion is added back to the existing mash, the temperatures slowly rise to activate enzymes for starch conversion to fermentable sugars. This may be done several times, resulting in even more complex malty notes.
A quick note on the use of decoction mashing. Although some breweries in Germany and elsewhere still use this method, it is argued that it may not be necessary today. The argument is supported by continued malting improvements and tasting panels results. My stance on that is the choice is ultimately made by the brewer, so long as the beer is good.
Dunkel is usually made using a high portion of Munich malt. Hop notes are muted, but there is still a bitterness there to prevent the beer from cloying. Expect flavors of Milk Duds, vanilla cookies, bitter cocoa powder, and some light toffee with a clean lager character that may have a slight licorice or nutmeg notes. It’s of average strength with only about 5 percent ABV, so you can feel comfortable ordering another. It’s deep crimson to dark garnet in color and wonderful partner with food. Try it with roasted duck and marvel when the malts link up with the crispy skin of the bird. Sausages are perfect with Dunkel, the pork flavors harmonizing with the sweetness of the Milliard reactions in the beer.
Currently, TAPS in Tustin has a unique example of Dunkel that has been aged in bourbon barrels for six months. Yes, a bourbon barrel-aged Dunkel, and it is delicious! Notes of roasted nuts, cocoa, dried dark fruit, charred wood, and caramel with a sweet bourbon-glazed candy finish. TAPS won some notable awards with the base Dunkel last year, including a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival and gold at the California Craft Brewers Cup. Named “Don’t Drop That Dun Dun Dunkel,” it was one of the better examples to hit O.C. in a long time. I hope they brew it again soon.
Chapman Crafted has a version available with some added texture. Dark garnet in color and flavors of dark cereals, slight caramel, and a touch of bruised apples. Brewery X has a crisp version with a bit more of a chewy malted grain character. Many others have made them in the past as well. Look out for this style and ask your local breweries about it. They may currently have one or will soon!
With the ingredient restriction of the Reinheitsgebot, the development of Munich malt, and improvements and perfection of lager brewing techniques, the Dunkel has evolved into a wonderful dark lager. No need to fear the darkness when this style shines bright with flavor.
Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.