Dark Beer: The BeerHeroes’ Guide
Thursday, March 13th, 2014
In the last of our BeerHeroes series on German beers, we celebrate dark beers, or “dunkels” as they are known in Germany.
While the category is vast, dunkels share some notable characteristics. Generally smoky, roasty and strong, their darker hues reflect the richness of their ingredients. They make great winter beers and go well with the rich, flavourful foods of the colder seasons.
At the beginning of the 20th century, dark beer was the most commonly consumed beer in Germany. This is linked to the technology at the time which had not reached the point where lightly roasted malt could be used. Instead, dark malts dominated. It was only in the 1840’s when breweries in Pilsen started brewing golden lagers that lighter coloured beers became popular.
“Alt” is the German word for old, as this brewing style predates lagering. As you can imagine there is a rich history to this beer, which is brewed exclusively in the Düsseldorf area. Altbier is brewed with a top-fermenting ale yeast, but is ‘lagered’ under cold temperatures.
Bronze to copper brown in colour, it’s one of the lighter of the dark lagers. With a light to medium body, it is characterised by a balanced ‘maltiness’, restrained fruitiness and a dry, sometimes more hoppy flavour. There’s a low hop aroma yet still a medium to high bitterness. Low yeast and low acidity help to make this a very clean, smooth beer.
Some claim that Schwarzbier is the oldest European beer style. As the translation denotes, this beer is “black”. Dark brown to black in colour (though opaque) with a full, coffee, caramel and chocolate flavours. Roasted malts play a starring role here, imparting a malty aroma, low sweetness and a distinctive bitter-chocolate palate. No fruitiness here. Like most traditional German lagers, Schwarzbier has very little nose and up-front bitterness. Schwarzbier is medium-bodied with a pleasantly dry, smooth finish.
Another literal translation, Rauchbier means “smoked beer”. Originating in Bamburg, Germany, this beer style is based on drying and smoking malt at a certain point in its germination. The smokiness and heat from being dried on an open Beechwood fire flavours the malt, which is easily discernable in the intense smokiness of the flavour of the brewed product. It’s a full bodied, generally sweet and malty beer with low to medium hops. Dark amber to dark brown colour, Rauchbier makes an excellent accompaniment to cold weather foods such as smoked hams and cheeses.