Make Your Best Schwarzbier

The Schwarzbier is similar to a lightly roasted coffee, with a low alcohol content, and much more restrained in flavor than a Munich Dunkel. Longtime homebrewer Josh Weikert walks you through the process!

Josh Weikert Feb 26, 2017 - 7 min read

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One of the first craft beers I ever really engaged with was Sam Adams Black Lager. I’d drunk them, of course, but I can’t honestly say that I’d been paying any attention—this was different. I had agreed to help my brother-in-law, Stan, prepare for the BJCP exam (something that I found incredibly interesting and that propelled me into the far-flung world of beer styles), and he asked if I had any beer around that he might be able to practice on. This was one of them: a remnant from a mixed case served during our Christmas party. I had no idea then what a Schwarzbier was, but I immediately noticed that, unlike a lot of the stouts and porters I’d had, this was a dark beer that wasn’t aggressively roasty, or syrupy, or alcoholic, or “creamy.” It was more like lightly roasted carbonated coffee plus a low level of alcohol, and it worked for me.

Style

Schwarzbier is a dark lager, traditionally thought of as being the dark cousin to German Pilsner. It differs substantially from Munich Dunkel, however, in that Munich Dunkel is noted for its complex and rich malt flavors (especially Munich malt) while Schwarzbier is much more restrained. Instead of the rich bread-and-Nutella-like flavor of Munich, here we get a much simpler but roastier dark lager that stops far short of the dominant roastiness of even the lightest stouts. It also features a bit of hops flavor and aroma, which lends a floral tone and adds an element of Old World spice to the overall flavor profile. The name of the game here, though, is restraint. In some beers, you’re trying to clear a flavor bar to ensure that you have the “right” flavors in evidence (think phenols in lots of Belgian styles). Here, you can almost totally whiff on the roast character, but so long as you have a clean black lager (and color is easy to add, even without roast), you’re very much in the ballpark. Too much roast, on the other hand, and people are just going to wonder why your dry Irish stout is so roasty and lacking any esters.

Ingredients

You’ll still want a bit of what Munich offers, so start with a 50/50 split of Munich malt and Maris Otter, about 4 lb (1.8 kg) each. On top of that, I add half a pound (227 g) each of Fawcett 45L British Crystal and pale chocolate, and a quarter pound (113 g) of Carafa II for color (and as a de-husked malt, this will add just a bit of bittersweet chocolate flavor but not the intense husky roast that a roasted barley would impart). If you find this grist produces a beer that’s too rich, cut down on the Munich (replacing with Maris or Pilsner) until it levels off. I implore you to resist the urge to balance this beer by upping the roast—it’s far too easy to go overboard with it. Worst case, leave the specialty grains as they are and replace the entire base-malt addition with Vienna, and if it’s still too bready and rich for you, then you just have an insanely low threshold for melanoidins! You should end up at about 1.045 OG, post boil.

In terms of hopping, add 30 IBUs of anything you like at the start of the boil, and then add an ounce (28 g) of Hallertau at five minutes to go (or in the whirlpool, if you whirlpool). You’ll add a nominal amount of bitterness, but the resulting noble hops flavor and aroma are a great complement to the grist.

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And for yeast, I hope you made a big starter of that Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager) that we used for Dortmunder Export and [German Pils(https://beerandbrewing.com/1MVwhd2deYCIAyamEwcqks/article/better-german-pilsner] —if so, you can use it for your Schwarzbier, too! It’s nice and clean, and it won’t scrub out too much of your hops flavor.

Process

If you have slightly hard water (like I do), you might consider adding a ¼ teaspoon of baking soda to the mash to help round out your roasted grains’ flavors; it’s certainly not a requirement, and this beer can have a bit of an edge, but I find that it makes it easier to appreciate the more subtle flavors you’ll get out of the Carafa and light crystal.

Mash and boil as usual, and aerate your finished/chilled wort well to promote healthy yeast growth and get a good, clean start to fermentation. Your yeast will thank you to ferment at (or even just below) 50°F (10°C) for the first week or so, but after that let the temperature rise by a few degrees until fermentation is complete. If you don’t start sufficiently low, you might produce esters that will stand out against your mildly roasty background; on the other hand, if you stay too low for too long, you might not effectively off-gas your sulfur compounds, and while sulfur isn’t a deal-breaker (in this or really any German lager, in my humble opinion), it’s not really called for.

In Closing

You may find a lot of variability in Schwarzbier recipes, but as always, I try to minimize the variability I’m likely to experience, which limits the downside risk. A lot of brewing is about having a safe “bail-out” area, like in golf, and if “too roasty” or “too rich” are faults, but “clean and dark” isn’t, then that’s the side I’m going to lean toward. I think you’ll be very, very happy with the result—and if you want more roast, you can always brew up a stout next time!

Prost.

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