Schwarzbier - The 'stout' of lagers

By Horst Dornbusch

Schwarzbier is to lager what stout is to ale. This is the quickest and easiest way to understand the true nature of this beer style. Schwarzbier is German for black beer. As such, it is a darker version of the Bavarian Dunkel. The Schwarzbier style originated in southeastern Germany. Among the best-known of today's commercial versions are the Köstritzer Schwarzbier from the Thuringian spa town of Bad Köstritz, not far from Germany's cultural capital of Weimar, and the Kloster Mönchshof Schwarzbier from the Franconian city of Kulmbach, in northern Bavaria.

Schwarzbier is very opaque. Its color ranges from solid black to almost deep-sepia, depending on the choice and quantity of black malt in the grain bill. But unlike British-style dark ales, this German-style black lager leaves next to no perception of butterscotch or fruitiness on the palate. Instead it produces very mild, almost bittersweet, notes of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. Like most traditional German lagers, Schwarzbier has very little nose and up-front bitterness. Considering its dark color, Schwarzbier is unusually clean tasting. Nonetheless, it has a rich, malty, faintly nutty-sweet middle, but the sweetness is never cloying or overpowering. The finish is dry, but never toasty, harsh, or acrid. The body is medium.

A Prehistoric Beer Style
Schwarzbier is arguably the oldest European beer style for which we have hard, scientific brewing evidence and, because of this, Kulmbach is probably the place with the longest uninterrupted brewing tradition in the world. The evidence for these assertions is an amphora-shaped crock that was discovered in a prehistoric burial site seven miles west of Kulmbach, in 1935. The grave dates from the early Iron Age, around 800 B.C., and belongs to the so-called Celtic Hallstatt culture. The crock is now in the Beer Museum in Kulmbach. And inside the crock scientists identified residues of crumpled up, blackened bread - the standard raw material of ancient Germanic brews. In this particular instance, the bread was baked from wheat flour. It ranks as the oldest evidence of brewing in Central Europe. Because the beer made from such toasted loaves would be dark, too, we can reasonably assert that the Hallstatt crock contains residues not only of the first known beer in Central Europe, but also of the first Schwarzbier!

Kulmbach is not the oldest brewing center in the world. This honor goes to the Stone-Age Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, started beer making at least 4,000 earlier than did the Germans. But Kulmbach is arguably the oldest still active brew center, because the entire Middle East embraced in new religion, Islam, in the seventh century B.C., after which all breweries had to shut down there, because the Koran demands total sobriety. No such calamity befell the Kulmbach brewers. The oldest documentary evidence of modern beer brewing in Kulmbach is a reference in a charter letter from 1174, written by the Bishop of Bamberg. Another document dating from 1349 confirms that, by that time, local Augustine monks were already operating a complete brew house in their cloister. Though we have no clear evidence of brewing activity in Kulmbach between 800 A.D. and 1174 B.C., there are scattered brew-archeological finds from other parts of Bavaria as well as written records of Germanic brewing for much of that period. These strongly suggest that the practice of brewing - once mastered - was never unlearned by the Germanic tribes.

Although it is likely that the fourteenth-century monks of Kulmbach brewed ales instead of lagers (lager brewing took hold in Bavaria only in the 16th century), their brew house is significant because it served as the original source of the now classic Kulmbacher Kloster Mönchshof Schwarzbier. Hence the brew's name, which means literally translated, "black beer from the monks' courtyard cloister."

The cloister brewery of Kulmbach was secularized in 1791, and its Schwarzbier is now made by the Kulmbach A.G. brewing conglomerate. The Kloster Mönchshof is brewed to an original gravity of almost 1.050 and it finishes at roughly 1.011. This gives the beer an alcohol-by-volume level of 4.9%. The Kloster Mönchshof has a lingering hop aftertaste that is well balanced on the palate by a strong, dark maltiness.

The Köstritzer Schwarzbier brewery is to the east of Kulmbach, in the neighboring state of Thuringia. That brewery was founded in 1543. The Köstritzer Schwarzbier is a bit heftier than the Kloster Mönchshof Schwarzbier and is today the biggest seller among all the German dark lagers. It has a slightly bitter-toasty to chocolaty middle that is almost edgy, followed by a smooth, rounded aftertaste that lingers gently in the dry finish. The Köstritzer has an alcohol-by-volume level of 4.8%.

Outside of Germany, prominent commercial Schwarzbiers are made mainly by Japanese breweries. Asahi, Suntory, Kirin, and Sapporo all make black lagers. Another interesting black lager is the Xingu Black Beer from Cervejaria Colonia in Brazil. Several North American microbreweries, too, have started to take an interest in this venerable lager style, and German-Style Schwarzbier is now one of the categories judged at the Great American Beer Festival. Clearly, this old beer style still has a future.

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