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Schwarzbier: The Enigmatic Dark Lager

Like a social chameleon, Germany’s unusual black lager—easy-drinking yet richly flavored—seems to adapt to your needs depending on the weather or the season. Jeff Alworth looks closer at the style and its story.

Jeff Alworth Sep 18, 2023 - 11 min read

Schwarzbier: The Enigmatic Dark Lager Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Some beers are “utility players,” happily sipped year-round, while others seem better suited to a particular season or climate. On a hot summer day, one hankers for something light and crisp or fruity or wheaty. During the cold months, however, our tongues seek something heartier, darker, or sweeter. Yet in all the beer world, I know of only one style that’s just as suitable for the beer garden as it is for the fireside—schwarzbier, the dark lager from the heart of Germany. It’s session-strength and lager-crisp, yet its sweet undertones and dark malts can warm like a cup of cocoa.

In this and other ways, schwarzbier is an enigma. Although by no means an obscure style today, it may well have gone extinct had global politics not interceded. Much like schwarzbier itself, its home state of Thuringia is modest and obscure, a place with no large cities and few tourists—and even there, the local style is at best a specialty. Even the name is slightly off—most schwarzbiers aren’t black-black; they’re a gorgeous, dark ruby. For North American drinkers, schwarzbier is hampered by a weird name, an unexpected color, and mutable seasonality.

Despite its enigmatic nature, however, schwarzbier manages to survive and even thrive because it’s such a great, year-round session beer. More than a few people—and I include myself here—consider it one of the most enjoyable types of lager out there.

Brewed by Knights, Counts, Princes, Communists, and Bitburger

By tradition, Saxony and Thuringia claim “schwarzbier,” but its vague name (literally, “black beer”) makes tracing its origins a bit dicey. When I asked Berlin-based beer historian Andreas Krennmair about schwarzbier, he admitted he hadn’t found much on the style. He has uncovered details about more obscure, defunct styles such as merseburger and kottbusser, but not schwarzbier. “To be frank,” Krennmair says, “the style itself is kind of a mystery to me as a whole.”

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Fortunately, one tendril does extend deeply into the past: Köstritzer, the brewery that is almost synonymous with the style. From what Krennmair has been able to determine, the history of the old brewery from Bad Köstritz essentially is the history of schwarzbier.

It’s quite a story, too. Many breweries claim ancient provenance, but with Köstritzer, the lineage is authentic. The brewery can trace its origins back to 1543 and a knight who brewed in his manor house. The knightly beer—we don’t know whether it was an ale or lager then, but probably the former—was well-regarded enough to attract public attention. The nearby University of Jena was founded 15 years later, and students ramped up demand for the “Köstritzer bier” brewed there. (In a number of style histories, popularity among students plays a key role.) A century and a half later, the House of Reuß took over the brewery, and in the early 19th century the then-Counts of Reuß were elevated to princes. Thereafter, the brewery touted itself as the “Princely Köstritzer Brewery.”

It’s not clear when brewers started using lager yeast to make their black beer, though one can’t entirely dismiss an early lager version—one of the places the style thrives today is just south, in Franconia. Nor is it clear how the beer might have evolved over the centuries. Köstritzer’s current managing director, Uwe Helmsdorf, has identified an intriguing reference to the brewery from the 1820s, in a letter by linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. Writing to his wife about his friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm complains that the writer wasn’t eating anything. “He lives on beer and bread rolls and consults with the servants as to whether he should drink dark or light-brown Köstritzer.” Two centuries ago, did schwarzbier come in braun as well? Was it a family more than a style?

After Goethe’s time, the popularity of pilsner in the 19th century and the wars of the 20th decimated local German beer styles. Yet, as devastating as the wars were, Köstritzer may have benefited from a historical quirk: It landed on the eastern side of the border after World War II. The East German government nationalized the brewery, which had the effect of preserving it. While not the case everywhere, small, regional beer styles sometimes fared better under government protection than under the free markets of the West—think gose and Berliner weisse, along with schwarzbier.

Yet if Köstritzer survived thanks to nationalization, its signature style didn’t influence many outside Thuringia, and it was a tiny footnote in German consumption. The final, ironic twist came in 1991, following reunification, when Bitburger took over the brewery. Committed to sending schwarzbier out into the world, the parent company marketed and exported Köstritzer, and in doing so helped create modest interest in the style.

In the decades since, Köstritzer has become the ambassador for one of the more obscure styles in Germany—enough so that it has developed a healthy following outside its home country.

The “Bad” Means Bath

When Köstritzer was born in the 16th century, dark beers were the norm. It took a few more centuries and the success of certain Viennese and Bohemian lagers to convert people more widely to pale beer. So, why did Köstritzer stick with the black even after the pilsner revolution?

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The water may have something to do with it. The town that gives the brewery its name, Bad Köstritz, picked up the “Bad” after the discovery of a salt spring in the 1830s. In German, “Bad” indicates a spa town, which is what Köstritz became. The water of Bad Köstritz is especially hard—about 350 ppm of calcium carbonate—and, as fans of Irish stout have learned, acidic dark malts and hard water are natural dance partners. So, it makes sense that Köstritzer stuck with its dark malt in tiny rebellion against the popularity of pilsners.

That said, schwarzbier isn’t a particularly roasty style, and this is a key to its nature.

Flavorful yet Restrained

At Zoiglhaus Brewing in Portland, Oregon, cofounder Alan Taylor isn’t just a German-trained brewer—he’s also connected to Thuringia through in-laws. He has explored the local schwarzbier there more than all but a few Americans. “We went to all the bottle shops when I was there, and we tried to find as many as I could,” Taylor says. “I don’t think a lot of the brewers in the U.S. have tasted them in their native state because they’re so rare. That’s not a part of Germany tourists go to.”

It’s not a broad style, and Taylor says the examples he tried weren’t acrid. “Part of the problem is people see the word ‘black,’ and they put far too much roasted material into it,” he says.

Just up the street from my own house in Portland is a pub called Stammtisch, which serves only German imports. The beers rotate in and out, except for a couple stalwarts that never go off—including Köstritzer, which I’ve been getting to know better for nine years or so. The beer is flavorful yet restrained, which is why it can adapt to cold or warm weather. It’s not as if there’s no roast—it’s just a more subtle note that reminds me of cocoa nibs, with a fruity quality to go along with that light touch of drying roast. That subtle fruit character seems to come out in the sunshine, as does the crisp lager finish—yet the malt seems silkier and fuller in the winter months, and the roasty hint seems more obvious. It’s a Zelig-like, social chameleon of a beer that seems to know what we want from it, depending on the situation.

It’s worth contrasting schwarzbier with German dunkel as well as Czech dark lagers. Dunkels are much rounder and sweeter, leaning more heavily into Munich malt flavors. Czech versions can be sweeter and fuller because of decoction, but some versions I’ve tried are also quite bitter and roasty. Unlike schwarzbier, Czech dark lagers encompass a broader and shaggier range.

As a testament to its obscurity, schwarzbier isn’t listed in Wolfgang Kunze’s Technology Brewing & Malting, the bible of German brewing. Taylor at Zoiglhaus owns a copy but had to find references elsewhere. Trying to replicate the flavors he found in Thuringia, he reconstructed it by memory. “When I craft this beer,” Taylor says, “the fundamental structure of it is mostly pilsner malt, but there is some Munich character, a bit of round sweetness, a little bit of the toasted crust of the bread. It should just go down like water. It’s a darkish beer, but it’s really thirst-quenching.”

I rarely pass up a schwarzbier when I see one on the menu. It’s such a simple beer, one immediately accessible with the phrase “black lager.” You don’t have to be a beer geek to get it. Yet within that simplicity is that rare capacity to satisfy in any condition, a clue to how much is actually going on inside a pint. Admire the simplicity, but look more closely and see if you don’t find something special.

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