I first fell hard for Schwarzbier six years ago when I tasted Silversmith Brewing’s black .lager. Made inside a former church in Niagara-on-the-Lake it poured dark black like a stout with medium-roast coffee and bready notes, but it finished more like a crisp pilsner. Schwarzbiers have the best personality going: bold but laid back, so you want to hang out with them all day. And you can take them anywhere – they’re awesome on a sunny patio or by a toasty fire after tobogganing. If Schwarz were a man, I’d marry him.
There aren’t many of these dark and bubblies being made in Canada – but I’ve scoured the country to find the best – and they run the gamut from linear German interpretations to lusher, fuller New World spins on the style. But before we get to those, let’s look at the beer’s history.
Schwarzbier originated in two German regions north of Munich – the Franconian city of Kulmbach and a small town in Thuringia called Bad Köstritz. Read a little about Schwarzbier and you’ll hear an often-repeated fact: that Schwarzbier is the oldest beer style in the world. This “fact” is recited in many beer magazines and it’s based on a 1935 archaeological dig in Kulmbach where archaeologists unearthed an Iron Age Celtic tomb dating back to 800 BC.
Brewing residue was found on pottery shards in the tomb – specifically charred wheat bread and oak leaves. Some writers have then said it’s easy to deduce that this beer was black, and that therefore the world’s oldest and still produced style of beer is a Schwarz. But think about it – that ale, a mixture of charred black bread crumbs and water, fermented warm with airborne wild yeasts, and then bittered with oak leaves was about as close to modern-day Schwarzbier as a gruit is to an American IPA. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that the grains were charred.
What the discovery does tell us is that Schwarzbier comes from one of the oldest continuing brewing regions in all of Central Europe. Written evidence of today’s “classic” German dark beers pops up in those regions in the 1390’s. It was brewed by Augustine monks, but the style started off as an ale – the switch to lagering didn’t happen in full force until the mid 1800’s.
Many popular medieval beer styles have died off completely, and are only now being revived by craft brewers, but black lager has continued to be made in Germany for nearly 500 years, with no breaks. In fact, the division of East and West Germany after World War II may have helped preserve this beer style – the Soviets weren’t big on market innovation – so Schwarzbiers continued to be brewed in exactly the same manner during the Soviet occupation through to today.
If you want to get into Schwarzbier, start by tasting the two original gangsters from Kulmbach and Thuringia: Köstritzer Schwarzbier and Kulmbacher Brauerei’s Mönchshof Schwarzbier, which dates back to the Middle Ages and was originally brewed by Augustine Monks. Only the former is available in Canada (but look for Kulmbacher in the U.S.), so let’s focus on that one.
You know a brewery is serious about a beer when it names itself after the style – Köstritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei (Black Beer Brewery) dates back to 1543 and has been brewing beer continuously in the village of Bad Köstritz for 474 years. By the time the Berlin wall fell, only 7% of the brewery’s production was Schwarzbier, the rest were light beers. After reunification, the brewery was taken over by the Bitburger Beverages Group who decided to revive the Schwarzbier style – today 50 percent of its production is dedicated to the black lager.
Grab it fresh and Köstritzer is flawless: a light-bodied, highly carbonated sipper with delicate aromas of fresh pumpernickel bread. A wash of toasted pumpernickel and dark molasses dominates the sip, finishing with a crisp, dry cacao note.
The style lies somewhere in between a nutty dunkel, a dry golden pils, and a sharp, roasty, fuller-bodied porter or stout. When I taste this one blind, I can always tell the difference between it and a stout by concentrating on how it finishes: it’s squeaky clean, crisp and without that lingering astringency, bitterness and sharp, roasted flavour of a stout or porter. It’s often dubbed the Black Pils, so look for a light-medium bubbly body and thirst-quenching, dry finish. Indeed, if you tried serving Köstritzer Schwarzbier in an opaque glass you might even fool a few drinkers into guessing its colour is amber or even golden. That’s because it’s brewed largely like a German pilsner: using Tettnang or Hallertau hops, German lager yeast and a mix of Pilsner and Munich base malts with a sprinkle of de-husked roasted malt for colour.
The de-husking bit is what really separates a Schwarzbier from a stout. The husks are where stouts and porters get their sharp, roasted astringency and edge. Remove the husks, and you remove the astringency. Stefan Gotschall, customer consultant at Weyermann Malting says that regular Carafa malts, used in stouts, are roasted in drums heated up to 250°C, but the Carafa Special barley, developed for black lagers, has its husks peeled off before it goes through a gentler roasting process designed for de-bittering the grain.
Brewmaster Geordan Saunders of Ontario’s Napanee Beer Company, which opened in May 2016, uses Carafa Special in his Blacklist German Black Lager (an homage to Köstritzer) that took gold at the Ontario Brewing Awards this year. “There’s a remarkable difference between a husked and de-husked black malt,” says Saunders. “In a malt that’s not de-husked you get a lot of puckering astringency, like an old over-brewed coffee bite, which comes out of the tannins in the husks. But with a de-husked black barley, you end up with a really nice, round, cold brew coffee and baker’s chocolate character.
“It’s so nice and so predictable that you can do some great stuff with it,” he says. “It’s my secret weapon.” Take a peek at the former homebrewer’s recipes and you’ll see a sprinkle of Carafa Special in almost every beer he makes, from “like a percent of a percent” in Mayday, a Belgian Pale Ale, to the black saison and Monstrous Things, a Belgian quadruple.
All of Saunders’ specialty malts come from Weyermann. “When I was homebrewing I developed my recipes knowing someday I’d open a brewery, and Weyermann was readily available, so I’ve used them ever since,” he says. In fact, 90% of the malt Saunders uses is made up of five varieties: 2-Row, Munich, Vienna, Caramunich, and Carafa Special II. The small playbook gives Napanee’s beers a real house character. “The beer styles have evolved around the barley,” he says.
Spindrift Brewery in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, has a house style too – they’re one of the few dedicated lagerhouses in Canada – so it makes sense that they’d have a black lager in their year-round line-up. Their brewmaster, Kellye Robertson, is brewing a modern style of Schwarzbier.
North American brewers like to riff on traditional styles and when it comes to Schwarzbiers that means playing around with nearly everything except its jet-black colour and the lager yeast. Look for “Schwarzbiers” in taprooms around North American and you’ll find some are “Cascadian Schwarzbiers” packing a pine-like bitter punch from judicious amounts of American hops. Others are fuller-bodied and higher alcohol “Imperial Schwarzbiers,” which often employ a broader mix of malts. Then there are ones that have been barrel-aged, and others containing delicious ribbons of cherry or blackberries thanks to fruit juice additions.
Roberston’s recipe beefs up the malt profile. It begins with about 70 percent pilsner malt and a combination of seven Weyermann speciality malts. Robertson uses a mix of chocolate wheat which lends a coffee character, and Carafa Special for chocolate notes, some Vienna, Special W for a hint of sweetness, and a pinch of smoked malt. “When the beer is really young you get a bit of smokiness, but when it ages it fades out,” she says. The brew day is the same as for Spindrift’s pilsners or Helles, including a step mash and a 35-day minimum lagering time.
Both Blacklist and Abyss have that signature quick and squeaky-clean finish I look for in a Schwarzbier. The more traditional Blacklist starts off deceptively creamy thanks to a big, fluffy, long lasting tan head – but once that disappears the body is lighter with a round, mocha nose and flavour. Saunders is right, it drinks remarkably smooth, like a fresh, cold brew coffee.
Abyss is fruitier with light notes of black liquorice and purple grape on the sniff. Its more complex malt profile is apparent from the first sip: swirling notes of dark bread crusts, dark chocolate bar, light ash, toasted nuts, and black licorice come together in each sip. The beer is expertly integrated: one flavour never overpowers the other.
“What really stuck out to me about Schwarzbiers is how it’s still a lager in style – light and crisp – but they don’t feel empty,” says Robertson.
And that’s what I love about them too. They’re easy drinking but packed with delicate flavours. The clean flavour profile gives brewers a blank slate to paint on, which they’re doing with abandon much to drinkers’ delight – check ratebeer.com’s best Schwarzbiers and Beau’s Dark Helmut, a 7.3%, full-bodied Imperial Schwarz comes in at #2. Jack Abby’s Cascadian Schwarzbier is in the top five, and it’s heavily hopped from kettle to dry-hop with Magnum, Cascade, Columbus, Centennial and Cluster.
Robertson likes to experiment too. She took Abyss and aged it for a year in Colio Estate red wine barrels and then left it for another month on sour cherries from Cherry Lane in Niagara. The result is nothing short of spectacular: notes of black cherry, fig, prune and liquorice pipe candy dance up to the nose; the sip starts with dark chocolate then a pop of black cherry comes in and lasts to the finish, with whispers of toasted nuts, cocoa, damp earth and a crisp, quick ending.
So whether it’s a wine-barrel-aged version, a crisp, linear German take, a hopped-up twist, or a nuttier, more ruminating brew, Schwarz’s have nowhere to go but up on the craft brew’s ladder of popularity. “It’s underrated,” Robertson notes, quick to add “and I think it’s going to make a little come back.”
Abyss | Spindrift Brewing Co, Dartmouth NS
Black List | Napanee Beer Company, Napanee ON
The Black Lager | Silversmith Brewing Co., Niagara-on-the-lake ON
Dirty Bird Black Lager | Last Best Brewing & Distilling, Calgary AB
33 Acres of Darkness | 33 Acres Brewing, Vancouver BC
Persephone Black Lager | Persephone Brewing Company, Gibsons, BC