Beer

Beer Education: Schwarzbier

(Note: This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. Cloudspotter members.)

As many of you may know, at Stormcloud Brewing Company we have a brand new beer on tap—the Foeder Aged Schwarzbier. This beer has been dubbed the Official Beer of Stormcloud Curling, and is delicious both on and off the ice. In this post, I want to give you a little insight into the Schwarzbier style.

The Beer Judge Certification Program Guidelines describes Schwarzbier as, “a dark German lager that balances roasted yet smooth malt flavors with moderate hop bitterness. The lighter body, dryness, and lack of a harsh, burnt, or heavy aftertaste helps make this beer quite drinkable.”¹ This style is sometimes simply called a black lager, which makes sense, as “schwarz” translates to “black” in English.

The difference between an ale and lager is that ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at higher temperatures for a shorter amount of time; and lagers are fermented with bottom fermenting yeast at lower temperatures for a longer time.

Color: The color range for the Schwarzbier is between 17 and 30 SRM¹ — see image below for reference. It can be between medium and dark brown in color, often with deep ruby to garnet highlights.¹ Beer writer Joshua M. Bernstein calls it a “Darth Vader-colored brew” as well as “Germany’s inkiest, most delicious beer.”⁴

Aroma: Low to moderate malt, with a low aromatic malty sweetness and/or hints of roast malt often apparent. The malt can be neutral or rich and bready, and may have a hint of dark caramel. The roast character can be somewhat reminiscent of dark chocolate or coffee. There might be a low spicy, floral, or herbal hop aroma, but this is subtle and optional depending on the brewery.¹

Flavor: Similar to the aroma. Light to moderate malt flavor, which can have a clean, neutral character to a moderately rich, bread-malty quality. Light to moderate roasted malt flavors can give a bitter-chocolate palate that lasts into the finish, but which are never burnt. Medium-low to medium bitterness, which can linger in the aftertaste.¹

The Schwarzbier originated in Germany, and may be the oldest continuously brewed beer style in the world.⁵ The true origin of this beer style is “a bit sketchy”¹ but here is what we know:

To examine the history of the Schwarzbier, we first must look at the beginning of the German lager tradition. In the early 1400s, brewers in Bavaria started storing their beer in cold caves at the base of the Alps to stop it from being ruined by the heat of the summer months. They observed that “something about cold aging had given the beer a special keeping power, even when it warmed up.”⁶ Soon after this revelation, brewers created their own cavelike cellars in closer proximity to their breweries, and allowed the beer to ferment there in addition to being stored in them.

One piece of history that I find interesting is that in 1553, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria became worried about declining beer quality. His solution? Outlawing brewing beer during the summer months.⁶ This ban encouraged an even further exploration of fermenting beer in cold temperatures, and yeast that fermented at warm temperatures (what we know as ale yeast) disappeared and had been replaced with yeast that liked the cold (what we know as lager yeast.) 

This is where the history of the Schwarzbier beaches a little murky. We know it was born early in German lager tradition, but the where and when are unclear. Fast forward a few centuries, and the Schwarzbier style had all but died out, with the exception of the town of Bad Köstritz in what at the time was East Germany.⁶ Its unknownness quickly changed with Germany’s reunification in 1990.⁷ Soon it swept across Germany and then the world. Renowned beer writer Garrett Oliver shares that, “The Japanese brewers Sapporo and Asahi make very similar beers” and were probably inspired by the German Schwarzbier. He supports this theory by pointing out that, “most older Asian breweries were originally started by German monasteries, and it is likely that the monastic breweries brought this style of beer to Japan with them.”⁶

Garrett Oliver also points out that in modern times, “American craft brewers have taken note of this obscure beer style and started to produce their own Schwarzbier” and that “many more Schwarzbiers are now being brewed in the United States than in Germany.”⁶ In my research, I found many sources that specifically pointed out the popularity of Schwarzbier in Utah, because the beer style has good flavor even when brewed at a lower alcohol percentage.

Despite being dark in color, with its medium-light to medium body, moderate to moderately high carbonation, and an alcohol range of 4.4-5.4% ABV¹, the Schwarzbier is one refreshing beer. Then consider the roasted malts that drive the flavor,⁶ and know that this beer is a great, fun food pairing beer.

The Brewmaster’s Table shares that Schwarzbier is very tasty with blackened food – think steak, Cajun blackened chicken, and pork chops. It also states that the bitter chocolate flavors of the beer make it a nice partner for traditional Mexican mole sauces, which are, “austere and complex rather than sweet.” Additionally the book highlights how well it goes with Cajun cooking and other spicy food, because, “the clean roast flavors can cut through it all and help meld the disparate flavors on the palate.” The Brewers Association specifically suggests pairing Schwarzbier with mushroom strudel, Munster-style cheese, or fruit tarts.²

Our beer is an extra special take on the Schwarzbier. It was brewed as a traditional German-Style Schwarzbier, but then lagered it in an oak foeder for 3.5 months. A foeder, (pronounced FOOD-er) is a really, really large barrel, typically oak, used to age wine and beer.⁸ Here at Stormcloud we have two foeders – one at the brewery that we use to focus on clean lagers, and the other at our Lakehouse Ales Project which we’ve intentionally introduced microbes to in order to create sour and funky beer. The Schwarzbier was lagered in our “clean” foeder. Our Co-Owner and Head Brewer Brian Confer discusses the beer stating, “the subtle dark malt character combined with soft oak make this a deliciously unique beer.”


Sources:

¹ Strong, Gordon, and Kristen England, editors. “8B Schwarzbier.” Beer Judge Certification Style Guidelines. 2015 ed., BJCP, Inc., 2015, p. 15.

² Brewers Association. “German-Style Schwarzbier.” The Guide to Craft Beer. Brewers Publications®, 2019, p. 33.

³ German Beer Styles Course. 2nd ed., Chicago, Cicerone Certification Program, 2018, pp. 38-39. Road to Cicerone.

⁴ Bernstein, Joshua M. The Complete Beer Course. New York, Sterling Epicure, 2013, pp. 57-58.

⁵ Carr, Nick. “Schwarzbier: The Black Beer Hiding Behind The Scenes.” Kegerator.com, Build with Ferguson, 19 June 2015, learn.kegerator.com/schwarzbier/.

⁶ Oliver, Garrett. The Brewmaster’s Table. HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 1235-238; 279-281.

⁷ Oliver, Garrett, editor. “schwarzbier.” The Oxford Companion to Beer. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 718-719.

⁸ “Foeder (FOOD-er) For Thought!” Dechutes Brewery, 19 Mar. 2015, deschutesbrewery.com/foeder-food-er-thought/.

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