Beer Guide - Dark Lager

An Introduction To Dark Lager

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Necessity can be the mother of invention. One of the early stages of the brewing process is to get grains of barley to germinate in order to produce sugars to fuel fermentation. However the grains can be left to sprout into plants so the germination process has to be halted by exposing the grains to heat. Back in the middle ages heat meant fire and so the grains were placed above open fires. This led to many of the grains blackening and burning. This meant that beers in the middle ages turned out dark with bitter flavours to them. It wasn’t until the 18th century that kilns which allowed indirect heating of the grains were invented thereby allowing the growth of pale beers.

As such dark lagers are the precursor to the all the modern lager styles. The combination of the Bavarian Purity Law and the restrictions on summer brewing meant that they were also the first legal proscribed and carefully monitored style of beer. The main styles of dark lagers all have German names – Dunkel, Bock and Schwarzbier – and consumption of dark lagers is still strongest in central Europe, though it’s pretty weak elsewhere. The brewing giant InBev caused confusion in 2010 when they launch Stella Artois Black, which in spite of it’s name was actually a pale lager. The success of pale lagers and the relentless pursuit of the mass market by global brewers has left dark lagers somewhat sidelined, but it has also meant that they have often suffered less corner cutting and dumbing down. Therefore the general quality of dark lagers is higher than pale lagers as there is less space for lowest common denominator blandness. It also shows that unexpected side effects can produce interesting flavours.

Dark coloured lagers are generally referred to as Dunkels whilst strong dark lagers are known as Bocks. There's no clear dividing line between the two so often you will see beers called Dunkler Bocks. These beers generally have roasted or burnt flavours, often with a fruitiness to them. A Schwarzbier is a type of German style of dark lager with chocolate or coffee flavours. They are often regarded as the lager equivalent of a stout or porter.


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Dark lagers may have started off as beers brewed in cold conditions with barley grains that spent a bit too long over the fire. However that doesn’t mean that dark lagers these days are made with randomly burnt ingredients. Carefully controlled kilns are used to roast the barley to very specific levels, producing delicate flavours that have none of the smothering smokiness that the old beers would have had. Dunkels are the most typically dark lagers, traditionally they should be a similar strength to premium lagers at around 5% and have a nutty, malty taste with a hint of sweetness.

The Munich Dunkels are traditionally made with a single type of malt and have a very light hoppiness to them. They will have figs, raisins with a hint of caramel and the bitterness can be light to intense. The gassiness makes them suitable as session beers and helps to broaden their appeal. Brewers as far afield as Japan and Australia make versions of these, such as Asahi’s Munich Style Dark Lager and Matilda Bay Dogbolter. In France you will find dark lagers have the name Brune. The Pelforth Brune has an intense malty flavour akin to some Belgian beers.

The Prague Dunkels are usually hoppier. The most famous is probably the house beer at brew-pub U Fleku which claims to be oldest brewery in Prague. The Flekovsky Tmavy Lezák 13 beer is only served at U Fleku, which packs in up to 1200 people with a traditional beer hall feel – though many of the customers these days are tourists. Another beer style you will find in Prague is Germischtes – a mix of pale and dark lagers that ends up a dark brown in colour. This used to be mixed in the glass in bars, however these days the beers are blended by the brewers, giving smooth, rounded beers that are a can often feel similar to a Marzen.

Five To Try -
1. Pelforth Brune
2. 7 Stern Prague Dunkles
3. Grieskirchner Export Dunkle
4. Matilda Bay Dogbolter
5. Obolon Oksamitove (Velvet)


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A quick check in a German phrase book will tell you that Bock means goat – so why is that the term used for strong lagers? The reason is that it originates from the town of Einbeck in the late Middle Ages. When it made it’s way to Munich the locals started mispronounced Einbeck as “Ein Bock”. Hence from then onwards strong lager and billy goats share the same name.

Bocks are traditionally dark in colour, although the term can apply to any strong lager. They are often brewed for special religious occasions such as Christmas or Easter and many breweries still produce them on a seasonal basis, even if they are not that bothered about paying hommage. They are usually at least 6% in strength and doppelbocks can be even stronger getting up to 10%. Things get even stronger with Eisbocks which are lagers that are “crack distilled” by freezing a doppelbock to be able to seperate out the alcoholic part of the mix. This process often requires a ice cream factory willing to let a brewer play with their equipment.

Bocks usually have a similar flavour Munich Dunkels but they add a warming alcohol feel to the combination of dark fruity and roasted malts. They can also have some surprising flavouts - Norway’s Aass Bock even has a hint of carrot cake. One of the strongest bocks is the Austrian Samiclaus. This is a brewed once a year and matured for 10 months eventually coming out at 14% abv. It has a combination of caramel and raisins that do not get blown away by the alcohol. Over in American the Rogue Brewery brew a robust Maibock called Dead Guy Ale and to give it a bit more of a kick there do a version aged in bourbon whiskey barrels called John John Dead Guy which has an oaky taste with apricots, berries and all sorts of over-ripe fruit.

Five To Try -
1. Kloster Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel
2. Kulmbacher Eisbock
3. Anchor Bock
4. Aass Bock
5. Norrebro Paske Bock


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Schwarzbiers are to lagers what stouts are to lagers – deep and dark with waves of bitter coffee, chocolate and liquorice. They are a far more consistent in style than bocks or dunkels – which end up being used as catch all titles for more experimental brews. The beers originate from what is now the German and Czech border region and date back to the middle ages. Like the Munich Dunkel they weigh in at about 5% abv. The Köstritzer Schwarzbier is one of the first Schwarzbiers and is generally very highly regarded, though I sometimes find it a little on the acidic side. The brewers claim it is based on the pilsner style – even though the original pre-dates pilsners by a good couple of hundred years.

Over on the Czech side of the border the Krusovice Cerne has hints of cherry and raspberry alongside the chocolate foundations which give it a wonderful balance. Up in Scotland Brewdog’s Zeitgeist also has a hint of raspberries in it. Some breweries use smoked malts in their Schwarzbiers, such as Norrebro’s Graupner Schwarz and Flying Dog’s Wild Dog Schwarz. These are probably closer to the original Schwarzbiers that the modern versions of beers like Köstritzer, however they can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming as if they are trying to cram too much in.

Over at St James Gate in Dublin someone had a brand diversification brainwave and thought that if Schwarzbiers are the stouts of the lager world, then surely Guinness should be making one. Guinness Dark Lager started being market tested in March 2010 and is still yet to have a mainstream release. The problem is that dark lagers are not a mainstream product, hence the Guinness Dark Lager just confuses the man in the street and it’s mass market positioning underwhelms the craft beer buyer who will already be wedded to their favourite German or Czech brand.

Five To Try -
1. Krusovice Dark Beer (Cerne)
2. Norrebro Graupner Schwarz
3. Flying Dog Wild Dog Schwarz
4. Bitburger Köstritzer Schwarzbier
5. Brewdog Zeitgeist