Turn Out The Lights: Dark Lagers And My Next Beer Road Stop
Looks can often be deceiving with most things, and certainly can be in beer as well. After plowing through several brown ales, mostly English ones, on what I’m calling my official first stop on the road to better beer, I revisited an old friend – the black lager, or “Schwarzbier”. Black lagers can be as dark as night itself, and one would think full bodied and certainly heavy, but are usually surprisingly light. In an earlier post, I wrote that without really knowing much about what I was truly getting into, one of the first beers I tried outside the realm of American mega brewery product was one of these dark beers, Xingu Black Lager from Brazil. Whether it was the thought that it might have the toasted malt character I was pretty sure I’d care for, or that it was somehow “exotic” in its Brazilian origin, or whether I was just so ready to try something different and the completely lights-out black color of the beer attracted me, I ended up purchasing it again and once again enjoying it quite a bit. Soon, I was off to try more, the Sam Adams Black Lager, the more regional Weeping Radish (Outer Banks area) Black Radish, and eventually what one review calls a model for the style, the Köstritzer Schwarzbier from Germany. I have also recently tried the Saranac Black Forest (The Matt Brewing Co.), and with that one, fallen head over heels for the style once again.
Each one of these of course was somewhat to quite a bit different than the next. Generally speaking, though, Schwarzbiers do have some defining characteristics. First, you can’t get away with not mentioning that color – which is again, truly deceptive at first. With their almost pitch black coloring that the light from an oncoming train would barely pass through, you’d expect a heavy, perhaps full bodied brew, but these range from light to medium light in body. At the first taste of the often recommended Köstritzer, I was blown away by just how lean it is. The coloring can be deceptive in flavor anticipation as well. Instead of having what you might think as a heavy, very roasted flavor, they are usually very subtle in flavoring, often featuring a mild toasted or perhaps roasted malt flavor, with some malt “breadyness”, light caramel, and some are said to have mild vanilla, or an ever so slight coffee taste, usually towards the end. Another surprising characteristic is that these beers are often surprisingly well balanced, with some noticeable hop bitter flavor as well, running alongside the other flavors.
These are of course, as always, somewhat general guidelines to the style. My most recent try of the Saranac Black Forest Black Lager showed me a beer that has a delicious, deep toasted sweet malt flavor that veers towards the dark fruit flavors of other beer styles with a much less hop bittering than other black lagers I’ve tried. Maybe this one is on the fringes of the stereotypical Schwarzbier. At any rate, there beers mentioned above are all wonderful examples. Unfortunately, black lagers are not too terribly common to find. If one can find the Köstritzer, or even the Sam Adams Black Lager, I’d jump at it for a try.
So looks can be deceiving, and without getting lost in too many mysterious-travel clichés, I’ll just leave it at this – on my always somewhat unexpected road to better and different beer, the dark Schwarzbiers definitely surprise with wonderful, tasty, and welcome unexpected results.