The Comeback Kid

This is what bars looked like the last time I made a post to this blog.

This is what bars looked like the last time I made a post to this blog.

So the other day, I was catching up on some beer blog reading, and I saw a post on Troy’s blog where he apologized to his readers for not “posting nearly as frequent as I normally do” – i.e. he had only been posting once every two days or so, rather than at least once a day.

Which made me feel like a schmuck, since I hadn’t made a post to my blog in three months.

It’s not that I haven’t wanted to. It’s just that work and Taste T.O. and various other things (some of which are beer-related, and some of which aren’t) have been taking up more and more of my time lately. But still – three months? That’s just pathetic, innit?

So I figured it was about time to do something about it. Problem is, I’m not one of those bloggers who can quickly crank out a few lines and be happy with it. I guess I’m more of a blessay type. Which might make my blog more interesting (or so I hope, at least), but also makes it harder to keep it rolling with new and fresh material.

Still, I’ve got a bunch of topics and ideas in my virtual BB&B file that I’d like to get to sooner rather than later, so I’m going to make more of an effort to make updates here on at least a semi-regular basis. And to help pad things about a bit, I can always fall back on reprinting things that I originally wrote for publication elsewhere.

Like, for instance, the following article on dark German lagers that I wrote for the Spring, 2008 issue of TAPS Magazine as the second instalment in my “Beer Styles 101” column. Because as the TV networks like to say about reruns: If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!

[photo "borrowed" from A Good Beer Blog]


When I first became a beer drinker some two decades ago, I held several truths to be self-evident. One of these was the firm belief that all lagers were light in colour, body, and taste. Conversely, it followed that ales tended to be darker, heavier, and more flavourful than lagers.

I can’t be completely sure how I came to this conclusion, although looking back on the selection of beers available at the time, it was quite a logical assumption to make. There were a few darker ales available, such as Guinness, Charrington Toby, and a smattering of selections from Ontario’s nascent craft brewers. But when it came to lagers, everyone from the big boys down to the little guys were brewing their brands in the same pale, pseudo-pilsner style that had essentially become the standard in North America.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I got even a hint that there is an entire world of lagers beyond the lightly flavoured fizzy yellow stuff that I was used to drinking. The revelation came to me one evening as I was drinking a bottle of Waterloo Dark from Waterloo’s Brick Brewery and noticed the word “lager” in small print just below the logo on the label. If Google had been around back then, I probably would’ve done some hunting to find out more about this mysterious brewing style, but instead, my younger and less knowledgeable self simply learned that there were two types of lagers: light and dark. And that I seemed to like the dark ones.

Nowadays, I like to think that I know a fair bit more about beer styles than I did back then. At the very least, I know that while “light” and “dark” work fine as loose classifications (or marketing terms), there are dozens of styles and substyles in the beer family tree. When it comes to dark lagers, two of the major branches on that tree are Dunkel and Schwarzbier.

The style of beer that is now known as Dunkel was actually being brewed for years before the name was commonly used. In fact, in the early days of lager brewing, all lagers would have technically been Dunkels since dunkel is the German word for “dark”, and all beers were dark in colour before the creation of Pilsner and other golden lagers in the 1840s. Once those lighter lagers appeared on the scene, the name Dunkel came to be applied to traditional Bavarian dark lagers, especially those brewed in and around Munich.

When poured, Dunkels generally reveal themselves to be dark copper or ruby-brown with a light tan head. Both aroma and flavour should be malt-forward, with bread crust or toast often being noted, as well as nuts, coffee, caramel/toffee and chocolate in various combinations. Hops should be mildly present in the finish, but not enough to detract from the fact that this is a beer that’s really all about the malt.

warsteiner1The most common German-brewed Dunkel on Canadian shelves is the simply named Premium Dunkel from Warsteiner, a brewery near Warstein, Germany owned by the same family since 1753. A bit lighter in body than other Dunkels, it’s still a pleasant brew, with a nice caramel malt character and a clean finish. In Manitoba, the MLCC also carries Lobkowicz Baron, a more robust Dunkel from the Czech Republic with a dark chestnut colour, dark sugar and roasted nuts in the aroma and flavour, and unique herbal notes in the finish.

Domestically, two of the best examples of the style come from brewers that are well known for their reverence for traditional European brewing traditions. At King Brewery in Nobleton, Ontario, owner and brewmaster Phil DiFonzo brews his King Dark Lager as close to the original Munich style as possible, going so far as to import dark Munich malt and German noble hops, and using the traditional decoction mashing method, where a part of the mash is boiled in a separate kettle and then added back to the main mash to raise the overall temperature. This method is said to produce a more flavourful beer with a more vibrant malt character, and in the case of King Dark, it seems to work.

Another traditionalist is Michael Hancock, the brewmaster who helped revive Toronto’s interest in German style beers during his time manning the kettles at the late, lamented Denison’s Brewpub. Following the closure of the pub in 2003, Hancock went on to revive the Denison’s name as a contract brewer, borrowing tank space first at Mill Street and now at Black Oak Brewery [ed: he has since moved again to Cool Brewery] to craft his renowned Weissbier for draught accounts around Toronto. When capacity allows, he also whips up a few kegs of his wonderful Denison’s Dunkel, making it a rare but well-appreciated treat when it can be found. If you don’t happen to be lucky enough to be near one of the few pubs with a Denison’s tap handle, try picking up some bottles of Cameron’s 266 Dark Lager (Oakville, Ontario), Vancouver Island Hermann’s Dark Lager (Victoria, BC), or Heritage Traditional Dark Lager (Carleton Place, Ontario).

Dunkel’s darker cousin, Schwarzbier, was first brewed in the Thuringia and Saxony regions of Germany in the Middle Ages, with the first recorded mention of the style being reference to a quite strong and sweet version called Braunschweiger Mumme in a document from 1390. Schwarzbier simply means “black beer” in German, and the name is apt, as the colour of most versions verges on pitch black due to the heavily roasted malts, which leads to the style often being tagged as lager’s answer to Stout and Porter.

kostritzerWhile not a top-seller, Schwarzbiers are still produced by dozens of German breweries, with one of the oldest being Köstritzer, a brewery located in Bad Köstritz, Germany, that has been active since 1543. Owned by the larger Bitburger Brauerei since the early 1990s, the brewery’s Schwarzbier is their flagship brew, and perhaps the best known version of the style around the world. Available in several provinces including Ontario, Köstritzer has the expected dark appearance, with an aroma and flavour of deep roasted malt with hints of smoke and cocoa.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest markets for the Schwarzbier style outside of Germany is Japan, with all of the large breweries and many smaller ones brewing their own versions. The most commonly exported is Asahi Black, a well-made example that can be found on the menu at a number of Japanese and Korean restaurants in Ontario. Sapporo Black is less frequently seen over here, but can sometimes be found at shops in BC.

As for domestic Schwarzbiers, they’re sadly few and far between. Brick Waterloo Dark was once a passable example, but it’s become lighter in recent years, to the point where it’s closer to a Dunkel in style. In Quebec, Brasseurs RJ have a good version called Escousse, with profits donated to a wildlife protection organization. In Calgary, Brew Brothers have a sort of Schwarzbier-Pilsner hybrid called Black Pilsner, while Saskatoon’s Paddock Wood does more straight-up version called Black Cat Lager.

But if I had to pick my favourite Canadian Schwarzbier, there would be no contest: it would have to be the Black Lager from Halifax’s Garrison Brewery. Dubbed an “Imperial Schwarzbier” by brewmaster Greg Nash [ed: Nash has since left Garrison], this midnight-coloured monster checks in at 8.3% and has a full, rich aroma and flavour with notes of heavily roasted coffee, charred malt, dark sugar, smoke, and bittersweet chocolate. Sadly, this brew was a limited edition release, with just 2007 wax-sealed bottles released late last year, but hopefully it will become an annual tradition.

In the meantime, there are enough examples of both Dunkels and Schwarzbiers around to provide an idea of what the styles are all about. Dunkels in particular can serve as good gateway beers for those who don’t think that they like dark beers. Bring a few to your next party or BBQ, and see if you can convince a few of your friends to come over to the dark side.