NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the Dark Lagers category has been replaced with Category 8 Dark European Lager which contains German vollbier lagers darker than amber-brown color. Dark American Lager has been rolled into Style 2C International Dark Lager.
Dark lagers are somewhat of an enigma to most people. These people, and there are many out there, have a mental block against dark beers. Having tasted a Guinness Extra Stout and possibly a porter, they think that all dark beers must taste the same, strong and acrid with lots of roasted grain flavors.These beers do not taste like stouts or porters. They are, after all, lagers. They are clean beers that get their dark color from dark malts that have no roasted character to them.
At one time all beers were dark because all malts were dark. Lighter malts were eventually available everywhere but not everyone could make the pilsner style beers that were all the rage. Some areas, such as Munich, had moderately hard carbonate water. Their water was more suited for making dark beers. So that's what they did. Brewers in Munich used the new lager yeasts that were becoming available but used the darker malts. These new lagers were called Dunkel ("dark") beers. They were a deep-brown mahogany colored all-barley lager. Since they were brewed with high carbonate water and lager yeast, these beers were very soft and elegant. The water accentuated the malt background which is one characteristic of the style.
The high carbonate water made it necessary to keep the hop bitterness subdued. The hopping is gentle with just enough to balance the big malty flavors of these beers.
Schwarzbier means "black beer" in German. They are sometimes called Schwarzpils or "black pils". This style originated in southern and southeastern Germany. It is also a very elegant beer and is one of my favorite styles to drink. The dark color scares many people away, so I have plenty of Schwarzbier to drink all by myself.
The American version is basically just a sweeter version of the standard/premium pils, but darker. It is the least flavorful of the three styles of dark lager. In the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, these styles were:
If you like the clean character of lagers and the dark malt flavors, try brewing one of these beers. They may become one of your favorites.
References: Information for this page was taken from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, and from from The German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America.
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