Without question my favorite lager outside of the Bock family of beers, Schwarzbier, or simply put, "black beer" is a true unsung hero in the world of beer styles. Amongst lovers of dark beers, it's slowly starting to earn its wings as a fantastic and too often-ignored alternative to porters and stouts. In comparison to those, Schwarzbier is typically less bitter and milder tasting than their stronger, bigger cousins, and lacking the burnt, roasted malt flavor that you would expect from a beer that looks like these. Sneaky stuff, that Schwarzbier.
The History of Schwarzbier
A regional specialty from Southern Thuringen and Northern Franconia in Germany, Schwarzbier is a bottom-fermenting beer and sort of a variant on a Munich Dunkel. It first made itself known in the late 1300's, and the flagship of the style, called Kostritzer, cemented itself in the mid 1500's. It's still produced today, and like many other beer styles, remains an imitated but never duplicated example, and proudly sits in my Top 5.
The aroma of Schwarzbier is of low to moderate malt, with some aromatic sweetness and roasted malt apparent. It’ll be clean and uncomplicated with some hints of caramel and coffee, but nothing burnt. There might be a low hop aroma as well, since the hops are providing a lot of the bitterness. A true beauty, Schwarzbier is medium to very dark brown in color, with some deep ruby and garnet highlights, but will never be truly black. They're very clear, with a large tan foam stand that refuses to budge. Flavor-wise, these beers have a light to moderate malt flavor with a clean, neutral character that can ramp up to a rich, sweet intensity. There will be some roastiness, and possibly some bitter chocolate notes, but again be wary of any burnt characteristics. As with the aroma, there will be some light to moderate noble hop flavor. Since it's a lager, Schwarzbier with have that trademark clean character with a dry aftertaste that will take some time to leave, along with a bit of subtle roasty and residual sweetness. One of the best dark beers for sessioning, these beers have a medium-light mouthfeel, are highly carbonated, and most importantly, smooth.
Schwarzbier Food Pairings
Unlike most other lagers, the roasted malts in Schwarzbier are the backbone of its flavor, and the major proponent for pairing it up with a variety of foods. Steak and burgers and pretty much anything barbecued or roasted are the first thing that should be on your plate with these beers. Right along with the grilling and the roasting comes the blackening – chicken and pork are great choices here, and if it's fairly spicy that's fine – Schwarzbier's high carbonation and delicate sweetness will provide a great counterpoint. Even a simple sandwich at lunchtime would pair very well, especially one with dark bread such as pumpernickel, and on that sandwich some pastrami, ham, or corned beef. These beers aren't as versatile with cheese as others, but a washed-rind muenster would pair very well. The same goes for desserts, however anything with chocolate is a winner, along with any kind of fruit tart made with raspberries, cherries or strawberries.
As I have said before, I have numerous friends that live and die for beers on the darker side. Believe me, I know when it's beer:30 it's pretty damn hard to stray away from the scotch ales, brown ales, porters and stouts you've come to love, but next time I suggest you try and seek out one that I have in my Top 5. You may just find your next favorite session beer.