Dunkel - The first beer-purity-law lager

By Horst Dornbusch

The Bavarian Dunkel lager (as well as its darker siblings, the Schwarzbier and the Rauchbier) is the historical precursor of all modern lagers. These include such Bavarian hallmark beers as the Helles, Märzen/Oktoberfest, and Bockbier, as well as the Vienna lager, the Bohemian pilsner, the Dortmunder Export, the German Pils, and even North American mass-produced generic pale lagers.

Dunkel is the German word for "dark." It refers to the deep brown, mahogany, or sepia color of this opaque, all-barley based lager. The Dunkel, like all Bavarian-style beers, tends to be low in hop bitterness. Brewed with a large portion of Munich malt, a Dunkel is soft and elegant, with almost no nose. Malt, not hop, flavors dominate in a Dunkel. It has a rich, malty, mildly vanilla, nutty-sweet palate and a dry, rounded finish. Its alcohol-by-volume level ranges broadly between 4.8 and 5.6%. It has a full-bodied texture, rich mouthfeel, and creamy, long-lasting head.

From the early 16th to the late 19th century, dark lagers were the most common beers in Bavaria. Initially called red beers, they came to be called by their modern name only in the 1840s, probably to distinguish them from the growing variety of paler lagers that were being introduced then.

A Beer Style...By Law!
Before the introduction of the indirect-heat kiln in the early nineteenth century, which allowed maltsters to make pale malt, all beers were more or less dark. Depending on the climate and the season, the beers were either ales or lagers. Most beer became ales, because uncontrolled fermentation in unrefrigerated, open vats was usually by top-fermenting yeasts. They would be lagers only in the winter in colder regions, such as Bavaria, when ale yeasts would be dormant and only bottom-fermenting yeasts were still active. These medieval beers often tasted sour and medicinal, especially in the summer, when the chance of infection from airborne wild yeasts and bacteria was greatest, and brewers would use any number of strong herbs and seeds to cover up bad flavors.

The famous Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot, began a momentous process that would change beer making not just in Bavaria, but the entire world. In Bavaria, after 1516, beer could be made only from water, malted barley, and hops. The importance of yeast in beer making had not yet been discovered. In spite of the Reinheitsgebot, however, summer beers remained of poor quality. In 1553, therefore, the then-Bavarian ruler Duke Albrecht V of the mighty House of Wittelsbach (a resilient dynasty, which occupied the Bavarian throne between 1180 and 1918), simply forbade all brewing between April 23 and September 29. As a result of these two regulations, a new beer evolved. It was always a dark lager, barley-based, and hop-flavored. Fixed by government decree, it became the staple beer of Bavarian drinkers. Both brew-technically and brew-culturally, this beer was the world's first recognizable modern beer style.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the new (lager) beer style spread from Bavaria to neighboring Austria and Bohemia. As pale malt became available around that time, brewers started to create blond lagers as well. After the invention of refrigeration near the end of the century, cold-fermenting lagers replaced ales as the favorite beers in all parts of Europe except for the lower Rhineland, Holland, Belgium, Britain, and Ireland. On its home turf, however, in Bavaria, as well as in the world's brewpubs, the historic Dunkel has retained a good foothold.

Portions of this article first appeared in Brew Your Own magazine.