Despite the common, proverbial warnings about what happens when you assume, “assuming” isn’t an inherent evil. Our prior experiences, our knowledge, and our biases influence our expectations, and in many situations, those expectations are perfectly reasonable.
The sun is out—I probably need sunglasses. There’s a car coming toward me—it will probably stay on the right side of the road. My Philadelphia Eagles are playing—they’ll probably blow a fourth-quarter lead. Without those everyday kinds of shortcuts, we’d be too busy, terrified, or exhausted to get much productive activity out of our lives. Some assumptions, though, aren’t efficient—they’re just lazy.
For example, people make all kinds of assumptions about a beer, just by looking at its color. But not all dark beers—and most especially not all dark lagers—are the same. They represent different approaches, flavor profiles, histories, and styles. They deserve more than our lazy assumptions, such as “it’s dark, so it’s probably roasty.” That might be true of stouts and porters—though there, too, I recommend developing an appreciation for nuance—but when it comes to dark lagers, that kind of stereotyping is more likely to be wrong than right.
Here, we take some time to parse the different dark lager styles and consider not only how they differ but also how we should modify our brewing approaches to produce them. That way, you’ll be less likely to make an ass out of…well, you get the idea.
International Dark Lager
I don’t know how this beer morphed from Dark American Lager in the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines into International Dark Lager in the 2015 version, but whatever. It’s about as simple as a dark beer gets, almost to the point where the “dark” part is kind of irrelevant in some examples. I’m not kidding—per the guidelines, there can be “medium-low to no caramel and/or roasty flavors”.
It’s dark, and it’s a lager, but that’s about where its relationship to the other dark lagers (or dark beers more generally) disappears. It’s not particularly bitter, nor does it feature hops flavor—what flavor there is comes from the malts, such as they are. This is a simple, generally clean, dark lager that usually features just a hint of sweetness and maybe some light dark-malt notes. I don’t want to give the impression, though, that it’s a waste of your time. Far from it.
International Dark Lager serves as a fantastic base for any number of specialty styles or ingredients. Its neutral (but not absent) flavor profile is an asset that can show off fruit, spices, wood, smoke, and more without getting in its own way. From a production standpoint, this is a good “starter” lager because it actually allows for a bit of fermentation character; if you’re new to lagering and the thought of a pale lager such as helles intimidates you (thanks to the “nowhere to hide” factor), this is your style.
You can produce it without a temperature-controlled fermentation chamber as long as you have a cool spot in the house; you can produce it with a clean ale yeast if that cool spot is below 60°F (16°C); and you can produce it with extracts and adjuncts pretty easily. One word of warning, though: don’t go adding any husky chocolate malts, or you’ll add much more roast than you want. Stick with a Carafa Special, Midnight Wheat, etc., to darken the beer without adding a lot of roasty flavors!
One fun final note: it’s a short hop, skip, and jump from this style to the Pre- Prohibition Porter, which can itself be treated as a quasi-lager. Take the same approach but add some medium British crystal malt and chocolate rye instead of Carafa Special, and you’ve got something with a bit more sweetness and roast but still that clean-ish impression!
Czech Dark Lager
Czech Dark Lager is another one that’s often more dark in color than dark in flavor. Much like how Czech Pale Lagers (Czech Pilsners) are more malt-forward and softly bittered than their German cousins, so too is this one. The roast and dark malt flavors (nuttiness, cocoa, etc.) don’t need to be present, but they certainly can be, and if they are, they complement a rich, bready melanoidin flavor that is also present in paler versions of Czech Lager. Consistent as well is the emphasis on soft water and a pronounced floral-hops character. In other words, you’re making a dark Bohemian Pilsner.
Brewing this one well, much like brewing the International Dark Lager, rests in large part on choosing a grist that’s dark but not especially roasty. You can go to the Carafa Special well again, but don’t be too afraid of a more patently roasted flavor: pale chocolate malt, chocolate rye, and/or Special/Extra Special Roast are all solid choices that add complexity without the kind of sharp roast bite we expect from a stout or robust porter. Since it’s a Czech beer, take a gander at your water chemistry. You want soft—basically as diluted-with-distilled as you can get your usual water and leave 50ppm of calcium (or just build up from distilled or RO to a Plzen water profile). With water like that, you can shovel in the Saaz hops and still end up with a smooth, soft bitterness that complements your rich malt flavors. Finally, you’ll want a proper lager fermentation here—50°F (10°C)—especially if you’re using a Bohemian yeast that’s a little prone to producing diacetyl.
If we hop in our car and head 3 hours west from Plzen to Munich, our dark lager changes slightly. Munich Dunkel tends to focus more on the bready richness of its flavor profile than its darker flavors and tastes, for all the world, like bread dipped in dark toffee, with just a touch of roasty background to dry out the flavor. This beer—like the Altbier from a little farther up the road—epitomizes the “malty yet dry” phenomenon that requires surprisingly little balancing bitterness. Bread on bread on bread is the name of the game here, with some mild chocolate notes. Blasphemous though it might seem, I always picture pain au chocolat when thinking of the Munich Dunkel: mostly bread, but with chocolate hiding underneath (and my blasphemy is tempered by the fact that, despite its French name, pain au chocolat is actually a Viennese creation).
Brewing Munich Dunkel is surprisingly simple, since its recipe can be as straightforward as “lots of Munich malt, plus something darker.” I prefer heading back toward the dehusked chocolate malts here, since we’re not working with super-soft Plzen water anymore, and a husky roast ruins the feel and can overpower the flavor. We want chocolate flavor, not roast flavor. Keep this one simple, and let the malts do the hard work. A convenient cheat is to use something in the 20L range (Victory, melanoidin, biscuit malt, etc.) to really bump up the impression of fresh-baked bread crusts—pick your favorite, and use about as much of it as you do the chocolate malt.
Strange to say, but for all we’ve been talking about Dark Lager, we haven’t yet discussed a style that should actually feature a noticeable roasty “edge.” That ends with the Schwarzbier. Schwarzbier—“black beer” in German—has a proper roasty character that contributes to a drier, starker palate than you find in the Munich Dunkel. Even here, though, we’re not swinging for the roasty fences as we might be with a stout or porter. Instead, we want a crisp-and-roasty, drinkable lager that features traditional roast flavors—coffee, dark chocolate, cocoa powder—that are apparent without being “high.” This isn’t simply a stout brewed with lager yeast. Pale chocolate malt is your friend in this style, since it’s more lightly kilned than many chocolate malts, which has the double benefit of being less acrid and more complex. At least as important as the roast, though, is the dryness, and the easiest way to ensure yours finishes dry is to brew a beer that’s light in gravity: 5 percent, or just a shade under, is a good place to start.
It will allow the roasted character to linger through the aftertaste rather than letting the sweet alcohols take charge after you swallow. Some noble-hops flavor is a nice addition, as well, and completes the portrait of what is effectively a black German Pilsner.
As the boys in Monty Python might say, “Now for something completely different.” Okay, not completely different: Baltic Porter has the same “will they/won’t they” relationship with roast that the other dark lager styles have, but there’s no question that it’s dramatically different in other ways. If we take the “kind-of roasty” character of Schwarzbier and essentially double the recipe, we get Baltic Porter. The best examples pour like motor oil, taste like chocolate-covered currants, and finish like a quavering sax note at the end of a good jazz ballad—smooth and deep. It’s quite a bar to set and not an easy one to reach: Baltic Porter can be a challenging style to brew well.
Lots of beers are better with simpler grists (see Munich Dunkel, above), but Baltic Porter isn’t necessarily one of them. Maybe a more-talented brewer than I am can get this done with the right blend of just a couple of grains, but I don’t mind admitting that when it comes to Baltic Porter, I cheat: Pilsner and Munich malts, 60L crystal (I don’t mind the oxidation risk because the high alcohols lend a great sherry flavor to it when they oxidize), Briess Extra Special Roast, a handful of pale chocolate—there aren’t many grains I wouldn’t add to this recipe, if I happen to have an ounce or two sitting next to the mill when I’m putting it all together. Pair that complex grist with a tight, controlled, and attenuation-aggressive fermentation regimen that ferments as cleanly and completely as possible, and you have got a crusher of a beer. Those Finns, Russians, Lithuanians, et al., really do know what they’re doing.
Dark Doesn’t Have to Mean Roasted
There’s a delightful diversity to dark lagers—and incidentally, we could easily expand this list to include can-be-dark-ish lagers such as Rauchbier, Dunkels Bock—that deserves to be explored and understood. Don’t let your assumptions get the better of you.
Get to tasting, get to brewing, and start dispelling those assumptions. You will need those sunglasses on a sunny day, that oncoming car will stay in its lane, and the Eagles will be left trying to explain how they blew that three-touchdown lead in only 8 minutes—but dark lagers will surprise you, if you let them.