Dunkel is the dark lager style that for many years was the everyday beer of Bavaria. Although it has now been dethroned by helles, dunkel can boast a reign that lasted centuries. The German word “dunkel” simply means “dark,” and most dunkels have colors that range from a deep reddish mahogany to full, rich brown. The flavor profile is malt-forward, often showing notes of nuts, toffee, freshly baked bread, chocolate, and even licorice, but never veering off into heavily roasted coffee-like accents. Hop bitterness is moderate, with international bitterness units usually in the low 20s, and hop aromatics are subtle. Lager yeasts lend these beers clean flavor profiles; they are round and brisk, with a hint of malty sweetness, but devoid of spice or fruit. They are average in strength and rarely exceed 5.5% alcohol by volume. The best of them are wonderfully direct, deeply satisfying, and a great accompaniment to hearty Bavarian food.

Early 20th-century postcard from Nuremberg, Germany, depicting a traditional pairing of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and dunkel. pike microbrewery museum, seattle, wa

The golden helles may have taken over in Munich, but dunkel remains popular in the city’s beer halls. The dark lager still holds sway in Bamberg, Bayreuth, Kulmbach, and Lichtenfels and in the tiny hamlets of Franconia. There, small breweries continue to make dunkel beer exclusively for local markets. They are essentially brewing for their neighbors, and their neighbors seem to have little interest in other beers. The Franconian versions tend to be drier than the Munich versions and the smaller breweries sometimes show charming eccentricities of flavor. Dunkel is traditionally brewed largely from dark Munich malt, which has a toasty, slightly caramelized character. These flavors are often deepened by intensive decoction mashing, which helps develop the toffee-like melanoidin flavors.

To a certain extent, dunkel was the world’s first beer style to be fully codified and regulated. When the Reinheitsgebot first came into force in 1516, most of the beer made in Bavaria was an early form of dunkel. The dunkel beer style did not stay home in Bavaria. The Czech černé pivo style is a very close relative, if often slightly sweeter. Dunkel jumped many oceans, and the style was once very popular in the United States and Mexico and also throughout parts of South America, where many Germans settled in the 1800s. Today, many American craft brewers, no doubt inspired by trips into the Bavarian countryside, are starting to brew their own versions of one of the great quaffing beer styles of Europe.

See also munich malt and decoction.