Appreciating and Brewing Outstanding Dark Lagers

Before he and his two brothers founded Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers, Jack Hendler, the co-founder of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers talks about his fondness for the darker side of the lager style, including schwarzbier and Baltic porter.

Jamie Bogner Apr 29, 2019 - 8 min read

Appreciating and Brewing Outstanding Dark Lagers Primary Image

It started with a trip to Germany, and at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, Jack Hendler had his first taste of an authentic dunkel lager and was smitten.

“It’s one of those beer styles that I’ve always appreciated and look back at for inspiration. I think the style got lost in the shuffle of what people associate with lagers,” he says.

The perception has changed in the past 7 years since the brewery opened. In the beginning, beer tourists would come in, see that the brewery served only lagers, and want to turn right around because they had an idea that they didn’t like lager overall, when it was really more that they didn’t care for the light mass-produced landscape that was long associated with drinking in the United States.

“It was a little frustrating at times, but it was also a huge talking point for us to be able to explain the process,” he says. “And we’ve had a lot of fun with dark lagers since then.” One of the brewery’s best-known beers, Smoke & Dagger, a smoked black lager, has been a part of the brewery’s lineup since almost the beginning.


Smoked Black Lager

“Smoke & Dagger is not exactly traditional,” Hindler says. “It’s about 10 percent smoked malt, so it’s not overly smoky, but it’s a beer that has a really nice balance to it. If you think of it compared to a smoked porter, it has a lighter body to it making it easier to drink but still has the nice smoky roasty flavors to it. It’s so pleasing.”

That’s one of the keys to the beer’s success. Often smoked beers can have a bit of a rough edge, but with Smoke & Dagger, many of those attributes have been smoothed out.

“When you describe beer, you talk about balance, and usually you just associate hops and malt,” he says. “A lot of the beers that we brew, we’re not trying to balance malt and hops; we’re trying to balance two other characteristics, smokiness with roastiness, and have them work in harmony with each other. So, maybe you can smell the smoke, maybe you can’t. Finding the correct percentages was a little tough in the beginning, but we feel much more comfortable today brewing that beer.”

Still, he says, there are differences that arise from batch to batch, depending on the malt the brewery is able to source. “If we get a fresh batch of smoked malt into the brewery as opposed to a batch that has been sitting in a warehouse for 3 months, it will change the balance of the beer, and then sometimes you’ll perceive it as way more smoky and other times, roastier.”

Throughout, Hindler wants to make sure the roast character—along with some other aesthetic qualities—isn’t lost.

“If you put that beer under light, it will have a reddish hue to it, whereas when we brew some of the stouts at Springdale (the company’s other brewery) and you put a light to it, all you see is black. So finding that balance where you find enough roast and chocolate and all those dark-malt characters but also have enough lightness where you’re not getting the astringency and the bitterness from the malts is the challenge.” To cut down on the astringency, the brewery often uses de-husked malts, but Hendler says he’s partial to using chocolate malts, acknowledging that it’s not a traditional German malt but that the roast character it provides, without being overly harsh, is more pleasing than using a lot of other roasted malts. For hops, it’s just enough to keep the beer from being sweet, but they don’t use any aroma hops in the recipe.


Baltic Porter

Jack’s Abby makes a Baltic porter called Framinghammer, which also comes in barrel-aged varieties, and then others with adjunct treatments from chocolate to mole, coffee, and coconut. When it comes to those in particular, Hendler says the brewery wants to balance the bourbon notes along with the other flavors of the beer and the ingredients.

“It’s a consistent base recipe across the board. We’re treating it in the same way, except how we’re treating it with the barrels it’s aging in. We’re always concerned with wood because there are two things that really damage clean beer: bugs and oxygen. So, we designed the beer to give it the best opportunity to store well in those barrels.”

The beer is fairly dry. The brewery adds a fair amount of sugar to help with that. That means there are fewer fermentables for microbes; there’s also high bitterness (close to 50 IBUs), and that helps make sure the bugs stay in check in those barrels. It’s a high-Plato beer, 23° by Hendler’s recollection. He estimates there’s 75 to 80 percent attenuation when it goes into the barrel. The beer is lagered before it goes into a barrel, he says, and usually stays in there for about 3 months, depending on the flavors added. And because of contamination worries, all of the wood-aged beers that come out of the brewery are pasteurized.

However, the biggest concern is oxidation. With that in mind, the brewery works to make sure that the beer has enough time to pick up desired flavors without it turning away from the original intention.

“Most of the time, when we’re doing dark beers, we’re doing a blend of two to three roasted malts,” he says. “We do use our house lager yeast for the Baltic porter. It takes its time, but it’s fantastic. It does what we want it to do, even fermenting at 40°F (4°C). Our lager yeast here is pretty hardy.”

For their lagers, the brewery starts a new culture of yeast every month. “In our opinion, growing it from a single cell is just too much time and effort. We start with a largish pitch, and then we’ll grow it up to a 240-barrel, so it can take 3 or 4 weeks until we’re ready to get that into a full batch here.”

The brewery wrapped up 2018 making about 50,000 barrels of beer, mostly all lager, proving that diversity in a style will bring customers and new fans into the fold regularly.

Hear more of the conversation with Jack Hendler in episode 59 of the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® podcast.

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].