Schwarzbier (which means “black beer”) is a dark lager from Germany that has its origins in the middle ages. It is a medium bodied dark beer, nearly opaque in color and soft and mild despite its dark appearance. Today Schwarzbier is popular outside Germany as well, with a number of US breweries and micro-breweries producing popular variations. This week we take a look at home brewing Schwarzbier, the black beer style, and some Schwarzbier recipes.
Schwarzbier is actually the oldest European beer that we have hard scientific evidence on. According to a BYO article (Nov 2002), a crock was found near Kulmbach Germany dating back to 800 BC with blackened barley bread inside – the standard material used to brew ancient Germanic beer. Germanic tribes were brewing dark barley based beer in Europe for hundreds of years before the Ceasar arrived and spread the beer brewing knowledge they gained from the Egyptians. Even modern evidence provides documentation of beer brewing in Kulmbach back to 1174 in a letter by the Bishop of Bamburg.
There is also substantial evidence that Schwarzbier was brewed throughout the middle ages in Thuingia and Saxony. The Braunschweiger Mumme brewery in Braunschweig brewed the beer going back to at least 1390 and it was brewed in Thuringia at least as early as 1543. The style is still widely brewed today in Germany from Thuringen to nothern Franconia as well as many other countries throughout the world.
The Schwarzbier “Black Beer” Style
Schwarzbier is a very dark, somewhat mild lager. Some describe Schwarzbier as a darker version of Bavarian Dunkel, but even this description falls short. It is drier than Munich Dunkel with a slight edge to the profile.
It is also much darker than Dunkel. It is very opaque – ranging in color from black ro dark sepia. However, unlike dark British beers it does no use roasted barley or display any roasted flavors. It also lacks the fruitiness and dicetyl of British Ales. It is a lager with a bittersweet, chocolate flavor with hints of coffee or vanilla.
Like most German beers it has a slight malty flavor to it with no up-front bitterness. The BJCP style guide lists it with 22-32 IBUs balancing an original gravity of 1.046-1.052. The final gravity ranges from 1.010-1.016 giving 4.4-5.4% alcohol by volume. Color ranges from 17-30 SRM with many examples on the dark side.
Brewing a Schwarzbier
The key to making a good Schwarzbier is achieving the appropriate balance between the malt base, specialty grains and hops so that none of these ingredients overpowers the others. The base malt for Schwarzbier is typically about 40-50% Munich and 30-40% Pilsner malt with darker specialty grains making up the balance of the grain bill. If brewing with extract, try to find an extract that has Munich malt in it or a mix of Munich and Pale malts.
Specialty grains provide balance to black beer. The key is achieving the dark color needed without providing too much roasted flavor (i.e. it is not a British Porter or Stout). Therefore roast malt and roasted barley should not be used. My preference is to use a mix of medium colored Caramel/Crystal malts with a small amount of Carafa Special II. In a pinch you could also consider adding a small amount of Chocolate malt or dark Crystal/Caramel, but using too much will give an undesirable roasted character.
A moderate single infusion mash schedule in the 154F range is appropriate to the style, as the beer has moderate body and flavor.
Noble hops such as Hallertau or Saaz are used for bittering to the 22-32 IBU level. A small amount of noble hop aroma is allowable, so you could add some hops at flame-out or dry hop if you want a slight hop aroma. Hop flavor should balance the malt, and not dominate the beer.
Clean fermenting German lager yeasts are used for fermentation at lager temperatures, along with appropriate lagering (cold storage) once the beer has completed fermentation. Reasonable choices include White Labs WLP830 German Lager as well as WLP833 Bock Lager yeast.
Here are some black beer recipes from the BeerSmith Recipe Archive:
- Pitch Black Schwarzbier – All Grain
- Pitch Black Schwarzbier – Extract Version
- Schwarzbieresque – Extract
- Storm King – All Grain
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