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Beer: When lagers go dark

By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 5:14 PM

With black IPAs (a.k.a. Cascadian dark ales) proliferating like rabbits in springtime, will dark lagers enjoy a similar hop in popularity?

Dunkel ("dark" in German) is an unappreciated style here but a staple in its native Bavaria. Dunkels are brewed to be quaffable rather than complex. Think of them as comfort beers. Their specialty malts contribute subtle notes of chocolate and toffee, dredging up childhood memories of Cocoa Puffs, Tootsie Rolls and caramel candy.

Hofbrau Dunkel from Munich's famed Hofbrauhaus (literally "court brewery," now operated by the Bavarian government) is typical of the style. It pours a ruddy amber color, with a fresh, grainy aroma and a toffeeish, lightly toasted flavor. Similar is Ayinger Brewery's Altbairisch Dunkel, albeit slightly darker and a touch less sweet. Ayinger is a small but technically savvy operation a half-hour drive from Munich. (It gives a great tour that ends with a 3-D film on the brewing process.)

In a very different category is Kostritzer Schwarzbier ("black beer"), made by a regional brewery in Bad Kostritz in eastern Germany that was acquired by Bitburg Brewery after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Kostritzer's site traces the company's origins to 1543, and its beer is reported to have nourished the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he lay on his sickbed.

Kostritzer Schwarzbier has a deep garnet color, a coffeelike aroma and notes of roasted grain and dark chocolate. It leaves a lingering, dry aftertaste with a hint of burnt toast. Despite its color, the beer is neither thick nor cloying, with a lively carbonation and a light acidity. It's kind of a Guinness Stout for lager lovers.

In searching for American dark lagers, I came up almost empty-handed in the dunkel category.

"I enjoyed dunkel when I visited Germany for a week in college," says Gabriel Allen-Fahlander. "It was a dark brew you could drink like a pale one." Allen-Fahlander is the brewer of Harpoon Oak Aged Dunkel, a limited release in Boston-based Harpoon Brewing Co.'s 100 Barrel series. This is a thoroughly Americanized interpretation of the style, drier than the German versions and aged over oak for six weeks to add a tannic bite to the bittersweet chocolate flavor.

The local Gordon Biersch brew pub used to tap a dunkel, but "they replaced it one-third of the way through my tenure there," says Jason Oliver, who brewed there from 2002 to 2008. He speculated that it was too similar to the brew pub's Marzen, an amber, malty lager.

Most dark lagers from American craft breweries - Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams Black Lager, the winter seasonal Howl from Magic Hat in South Burlington, Vt., and Dirtoir Black Lager from Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore. - fall roughly into the schwarzbier slot, although they tend to be a little fuller-bodied and smoother than the Kostritzer. A common ingredient, says Boston Beer Chairman Jim Koch, is Carafa malt, a variety in which the husk surrounding the barley grain has been removed. "The husk is cellulose; it's paper," Koch notes. Eliminate the husk and you get those nice coffee flavors from the highly roasted grain, but not that singed cigarette butt aroma that mars some dark beers.

Sam Adams Black is exceptionally smooth, with a rummy, molasses-like taste. Dirtoir is the darkest of the beers I sampled, completely opaque, with a chocolate-brown head. It's also the most complex flavor-wise, with a smoky, dark chocolate aroma, a huge mocha flavor and a touch of anise in the finish.

There is a third, intermediate type of dark lager: a Czech style called a tmave ("dark") or cern ("black"). "In general, tmaves have the sweetness of a dunkel combined with the roasted characters of a schwarzbier," says Lyle C. Brown, head brewer for the Battlefield Brewing Co. in Fredericksburg. Brown will tap his own version, Austerlitz Black Lager, in early February. In keeping with the brew pub's name, all of Battlefield's beers are named after famous military encounters. Austerlitz was the site of Napoleon's victory over Austrian and Russian forces in 1805. "Usually I don't name beers after battles where the bad guys won," explains Brown, but he wanted a conflict that took place on what's now Czech soil.

Farther west, Oliver should be tapping a Czech-style dark lager about the same time at Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Va., south of Charlottesville. He's calling it Morana, after the Slavic goddess of death and winter.

For a bottled version, try Session Black from Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, Ore. Deep mahogany in color, it's full of dark chocolate flavor with a distinct nuttiness. "One of my brewers said it's like the Yoo-hoo of beers," said Jamie Emmerson, executive brewmaster. Session Black is available locally in 12-packs of "stubbies," those squat brown bottles your grandpop drank from before long-necks pushed them out of the market.

One advantage of dark lagers is that they tend to be food-friendly. Dunkels pair well with most meat dishes, from chicken to pork to wieners, and they're soothing enough to quench the flames of a spicy Szechuan or Thai meal. Roastier schwarzbiers can be served with chocolate desserts.

Emmerson says his Session Black tmave works particularly well with seafood dishes such as scallops and shrimp. And it's light enough on the palate that friends can polish off a pitcher or six-pack while cheering themselves hoarse watching the Super Bowl or quietly discussing Kafka, whichever their preference might be.

That's exactly what you'd expect from a beer inspired by a nation whose citizens down an average of nearly 160 liters of beer annually, the highest per-capita consumption in the world.

"The Czechs do a lot of things right," Emmerson says.

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