Stop 6, Munich and Schwarzbier
And…we are off once again; we jump back into the bimmer and move onward to Munich, our final stop on our journey to Oktoberfest. With the final destination in sight, and only two days before the official start of Oktoberfest on the 17th, we depart Nuremberg ready for a once in a lifetime opportunity. About two hours straight south from Nuremberg, sits the Bavarian capital city of Munich. For most, this place is beer Mecca. Always in your periphery as you stroll through the city will be a legendary brewery or taphouse serving up some of the finest, most historical brews in the world. In Munich and at Oktoberfest it is easy to find a killer 0.5L (or a 1.0L if you are up for it) of helles, märzen, dunkel, or hefeweizen, but we actually didn’t come here for any of those styles, rather something with a bit more specialized, under the radar, and with more character; Schwarzbier.
Schwarzbier (black beer in German), is considered by historians to be the oldest continuously brewed beer style in the world. Just how old is it? Back in 1935, archaeologists were excavating a Celtic tomb in Kulmbach, a town in northern Bavaria, and uncovered evidence of beer being brewed with dark malts. The tomb is nearly 3,000 years old (around 800 BC), which makes it the oldest evidence of brewing ever found in Europe, and dates Kulmbach as the oldest, and continuously active brewing center in the world. Even in more recent times, Kulmbach remains integral to the story of schwarzbier. It was here that our “modern” interpretation of the style began; a dark, roasty, German-style bottom fermented lager. Back in the 16th century, the local monks of the Kulmbacher Kloster first brewed their famous Kulmbacher Kloster Mӧnchshof Schwarzbier, which translates to “black beer from the monks,” and is still brewed to this day. This was the first schwarz that used German bottom fermenting lager yeast instead of top fermenting ale yeast which had previously been used for centuries.
About 500 years later, in 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden assisted local German allies in their revolution against Emperor Ferdinand II. Legend has it that while battling through central Germany, the king was served the local beer brewed for an approaching harvest festival (maybe an early version of Oktoberfest…just saying), and upon finishing his beer, he was so impressed that he presented the brewer with a golden ring inset with a ruby in appreciation.
The 20th century and the Industrial Revolution garnered the spread of more advanced malting technology, and the ability to kiln malt more gently over indirect heat. Pale malts took root with brewers throughout Germany and all over the world, which gave rise to pale lager brewing and a near extinction of dark beers. Though Schwarzbier had been brewed and dominated in the region where it originated for many centuries, Pilsner, which originates next door in Bohemia, boomed in popularity. Pilsner saw a dramatic increase in export shipments, and as a result, the production of dark beer slowly fell into decline. Thankfully, Schwarzbier survived.
About the Style
Reminiscent of a German-style Dunkel or Doppelbock, but roastier, drier, and darker, Schwarzbier is the darkest of all the German lagers. Despite its look, this is an easy-drinking beer style as it is lower in alcohol at around 5% ABV, lighter in body and drier in taste than either of the beer styles previously mentioned. Schwarzbier should have pretty good clarity with some amount of visible light able to pass through the glass. Yes, schwarz translates to” black” in German, but in reality the color can, and should be a rich copper to deep chocolate brown. Atop the beer should sit a half inch or more of a creamy, tan tinged head.
For a traditional, by the book Schwarzbier, it is Munich malt all the way as the base malt. Munich gives off a flavor profile that is heavy in melanoidins, providing a profile similar to that of toasted bread from a wood fired oven. Building upon the base malt, some darker malts are included to provide color and flavor depth and add complexity to the beer. These malts should give off flavors of bitter chocolate and roasted nuts, but there should not be any astringency or overly burnt notes. Additions of malted barley or rye to the grain bill would not have been out of place in the early Schwarzbier recipes, as both are not as suitable for making bread per the Reinheitsgebot regulations that control the ingredients for beer in Germany.
Hop bitterness should be noticeable, but very minimal. The focus for Schwarzbier is to have the malt character be the star of the show. The use of any German noble hop is a must, and will help to provide some additional aroma as well as floral, earthy flavor nuances. The hops additions are used to merely balance and help spruce up the beer.
Schwarzbier is a lager, so bottom-fermenting yeast no doubt. Fermentation should finish clean, with absolutely no presence of fruity esters, as you would find in an English ale or American IPA. Expect a classic lager crispness that aids in bringing out the flavors of the malts and mild hop bitterness.
The beer style is incredibly complex and its flavor, aroma and appearance will pair well with braised or smoked meats, peppered charcuterie with aged and nutty cheese, or hearty soups and stews.
Whats Next for Schwarzbier
Apart from its roots in Bavaria, Germany, and the few historic breweries that are still working hard to keep the style authentic, Schwarzbier has some new found interest in both Germany and America from craft brewers. For them, Schwarzbier is a style that offers an outlet to let their creativity shine.
Craft brewers in both countries have produced notable examples of the style by profoundly accentuating the various elements of the beer through unique combinations of dark speciality malts, roasted barley, and lager yeast strains. They toy with everything from the color and appearance, the wide spectrum of flavor profiles, but stay relative to style guidelines. We see craft brewers finely tuning flavors to their liking for items such as: toasted bread, chocolate, coffee, caramel, licorice, or roastiness. The hopping of the style by craft brewers is less exciting that an IPA for example, but we see brewers playing up or down the bitterness level, using non traditional hop varietals, and even using dry hopping techniques. None of the latter would have ever been considered at the time when Schwarzbier was at its peak in popularity.
Schwarzbier is often met with reluctance at first due to their dark color, and hard to pronounce name, but they are the true sleeper pick of any taplist. For any brewery or beer consumer out there looking to change up the pace, and enjoy something with more seasonality, consider the Schwarzbier. A good rule of thumb, never judge a beer by its color unless you are willing to try it first.
We are pleased to announce a new beer drop coming out of Savage Brewing from Kirkland, WA. In collaboration with recipe development with BeerNav, “The Schwarz”, a German-style Schwarzbier will be released Oct 1, 2022 exclusively at the Savage taproom and at their retail partners.
In our next installment of “the Road to Munich” we will explore Schwarzbier through the lens of Savage Brewing. We will look into the backstory of their brewery, why they decided to brew a Schwarzbier, and how history, tradition and science played part in recipe development to produce something one of a kind.
About the Road to Munich
Hop into your Bimmer and merge onto the Autobahn (rather your Subie and I-5 since we live in WA), and let BeerNav lead you on an educational beer journey to Oktoberfest“The Road to Munch” is our new blog and social media series that will run monthly from May until the beginning of October. BeerNav will highlight six of the most influential, historical beer cities and beer styles across Germany, and how Washington Breweries are influenced by tradition but add their own unique twists to each beer style.