Black beers never seem to be out of fashion. In fact, many would argue the dark beer styles of Europe have been a major player in the revival of the craft beer scene in America, and worldwide too.
In 2016 the Japanese brewer Saporro debuted their Saporro Black lager, the first time in the 140-year history of the company they had produced a dark beer.
Every winter as the temperatures drop, beer lovers tend to reach for those darker ales such as Porters and Stouts to get them through the long cold winter nights with their alcoholic warmth.
But what about black or dark lagers? Are they just a winter drink, or is this something you can drink all year round?
Although many of us are aware of the Munich Dunkel as a dark lager, how many of you have ever tried a Schwarzbier, the black lager?
Literally translated from German as “black beer”, the Schwarzbier is probably the oldest continuously-brewed beer style in the world with evidence of a “Schwarzbier” being brewed as far back as 800 BC in Northern Bavaria.
For a more detailed history of the Schwarzbier as a style, check out my other article on the style and history of a Schwarzbier.
The brewing of Schwarzbier virtually stopped in the mid-20th century following the splitting of Germany into two separate nations and the ensuing chaos of century-old Purity laws being thrown aside.
However, a revival in the 1990s following the reunification of Germany led by brewers such as Köstritzer meant the popularity of the beer grew and American craft brewers were quick to follow.
Schwarzbier may not be as popular as some of the other dark beer styles, such as Porters or Stouts, but many craft brewers across America are now releasing delicious interpretations of the style.
The Schwarzbiers being brewed in the US are now so good that last year two of the three World Cup Beer winners in this category came from American breweries.
What’s the Difference Between a Schwarzbier and a Munich Dunkel?
As we have already seen, the term Schwarzbier is German for a “black beer” while the word Dunkel translates from German to “dark”. A Dunkel is more likely to be dark brown in color rather than jet black.
Although some Schwarzbiers may range from copper to deep brown in color, most traditional Schwarzbiers will have a black color similar to many of the Irish stouts.
Perhaps the lager closest in color to a Schwarzbier is the Czech Dark Lager style, although obviously, these will use Czech ingredients for a different flavor profile.
As well as being darker in color, a Schwarzbier will normally be much drier and have a lighter body. A Dunkel may be maltier, but a Schwarzbier will have a noticeable (but not too intense) roastiness to the flavor.
Think of a Schwarzbier as a black Pils lager rather than the malty lager of a Dunkel.
Other darker lagers are now reclassified as Strong European beers such as a DoubleBock or Eisbock, although the DoubleBock can also be pale in color rather than dark and an Eisbock’s dark color comes from the fact the excess water is removed from the malty brew by freeze distillation.
A Schwarzbier will have more of a hop presence than a Dunkel but will still be balanced with the malt backbone of the beer. By comparison, a Czech dark lager will have much more hop bitterness than a German Schwarzbier.
Strength-wise, a Schwarzbier and Dunkel are pretty similar hovering around the 4.5% – 5.5 % ABV and shouldn’t reach the dizzying heights of some DoubleBocks or the freeze-distilled Eisbocks.
What Makes a Schwarzbier Black?
A Schwarzbier gets its dark or black color from the use of particularly dark malts or roast malt extract in the brewing process. Dehusked malts are often used to avoid that over roasty or harsh bitter taste you often get from the use of roast malts.
The majority of the base grains will either be Pilsner or Munich malt. Pilsner will tend to be the workhorse of the total grist, adding most of the fermentable sugars, while Munich malts can add complexity to the malt profile of the finished beer.
Specialty malts like chocolate malt, Black patent malt (you can even get dehusked Black patent now), or roasted black barley are added in smaller proportions by some brewers for an even darker black.
Where to Find a Schwarzbier?
Without a doubt, the best place to look for a Schwarzbier is at breweries or craft beer bars that specialize in German or other traditional European beer styles.
White Street Brewing in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Live Oak Brewing in Austin both regularly have great Schwarzbiers on their rotating taps.
In our search for these more elusive beers, we found many of the Schwarbiers are kept pretty close to the brewhouse and tend to be either exclusively available in the tap rooms or limited venues nearby.
However, some of the independent brewers such as Jack’s Abby of Massachusetts, known for their fine German craft lagers, produced canned or bottled versions of black lager with a wider distribution all year round.
The other option if you are seeking out a Black Pils or Schwarzbier is to look for the original German imported versions at your local beer retailer or popular German venues like the many German Biergartens across the US.
A Schwarzbier can be an ultra-refreshing black beer reminiscent of Pilsners for a hot summer day, although the slight maltiness can also be warming on slightly cooler evenings.
The Top 6 Schwarzbiers You Can Enjoy Here in the US Today
Hopefully, I have persuaded you by now that Schwarzbier is a delicious lager style you should try. Maybe you’re already a fan and are just checking out which Schwarzbiers are out there.
Whatever your reason, here’s my guide to the best Schwarzbiers you will find in the US today.
Note: Although all the beers were available at the time of going to press, many are seasonal or limited brews and may not be too easy to find.
Fear not though – as these beers become more popular, it’s also more likely that they will be relaunched, so keep your eyes on that cooler in your local craft bar or even the shelves of some more quality beer retailers.
Mönchshof Schwarzbier by Kulmbacher Brauerei, Kulmbach, Germany
- ABV 4.9%
Let’s start with one of the oldest black beers in production and one which the acclaimed beer critic Michael Jackson awarded four stars – the world’s classic “Black beer”.
Mönschoff is actually pronounced “Monks-hoff” and is the classical Bavarian term that means ‘a monastery’ in reference to the original brewers of Kulmbach, the monks who founded the brewery in 1349.
The darkest of all the beers they brew, their Schwarzbier has a mild, velvety soft, roasted malt aroma in this unfiltered, deep, dark-colored beer with a very creamy head.
Although the beer is more of a very dark brown in color, it’s about as close to black as you can get without being black.
Supremely drinkable, it has a dry style and is beautifully hopped yet still loaded with a dark roast malt flavor. What sets it apart from many other Schwarzbiers is the irresistible floral hop bitterness (not typical, but totally acceptable in this style!).
With such dark, roasty, and slightly chocolatey flavors, it’s quite surprising that the beer is so refreshing and light to drink. The hearty taste is further enhanced along with the color of the deep-roasted barley which is used in every batch.
Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Köstritzer Brewery, Bad Köstritz, Germany
- ABV 4.8%
The Köstritzer Brewery has been producing this beer in the Thuringia region of Bavaria since 1543, making it one of the oldest surviving brands of Schwarzbier.
In 1991, Bitburger bought out 100% of the company but still produce this Schwarzbier using the traditional methods in Bad Köstritz to make what is acknowledged by many to be Germany’s most popular Black beer.
And the good news is, thanks to the Bitburger distribution network, it’s easily available in most of the US and worldwide too.
Using roasted barley for the malt, the beer acquires a unique roasted flavor with an unmistakable special character. The beer is intensely aromatic with hints of sage, roasted chestnuts, dark honey, bitter chocolate, and freshly baked bread.
A toasted, bitter flavor with bittersweet herbs balances with that aromatic freshness but finishes with a delicate bitterness and a malty sweetness on the palate.
From the flavor descriptions, it may sound more like a malty stout, but make no mistake this is a lager.
It’s brewed using a proprietary German lager yeast, layered for up to 2 months, and has that intense yet elegant black color that makes it a Schwarzbier.
Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger, Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers, Framingham, Massachusetts
- ABV 5.6%
Founded in 2011 by three brothers, Jack’s Abby has become a mainstay of the craft brewing scene in the Northeast and is known nationwide for its fine craft lagers, especially the germanic brews.
With Smoke & Dagger, they almost veer into the Rauchbier category (German for “smoke beer”), but the deep black color and balance of slightly roasty malt remind you it’s a Schwarzbier at heart.
The rich, smoked malt hits you first with an underlying toasty and rich malt with subtle earthy hoppiness. Hints of coffee and bitter chocolate add a slight sweetness to what is otherwise a refreshing crisp lager.
The smoke simply adds a little more complexity to what is otherwise a simple beer. Some would even say it adds a hint of smoky bacon to the palate….never a bad thing in my eyes.
Fortunately, this beer is available all year round and the wider distribution network Jack’s Abby beers now enjoy means this is probably the most common US-produced Schwarzbier you will find in your local bars and beer shops.
Duck Rabbit Schwarzbier by Duck Rabbit Brewery, Farmville, North Carolina
- ABV 5.8%
Duck rabbit is a small packaging microbrewery located in Farmville, North Carolina that specializes in brewing beautiful, delicious, full-flavored dark beers.
Only available seasonally, released in late June, Duck Rabbit Schwarzbier is a refreshing summer lager often referred to as their black pils. One of the more schwarzy (as Duck Rabbit calls it) of the Schwarzbiers, it’s very dark and quite roasty.
The addition of plenty of Hallertau hops gives the brew an authentic German character.
Distribution of the beers of Duck Rabbit is rather limited at the moment, with their brews only readily available in the East and East Coast states of Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, and Maryland.
However, they do have a tap room that serves up to 6 beers on tap (including the Schwarzbier from late June onwards) and a shop with curbside pick-up, if you should ever be passing by Farmville.
Sapporo Premium Black by Sapporo USA Inc, New York
- ABV 5%
Although many craft beer aficionados argue that a lager by a conglomerate like Sapporo shouldn’t make it into the best Schwarzbier category, this lager is certainly inspired by the Schwarzbiers of Germany and shares much of the same flavor profile.
Made with careful attention to quality in only a way the Japanese do, Sapporo Black is crafted with selected roast barley and German hops.
The Sapporo Brewing company thinks of this beer as emblematic of its pioneering spirit and a product of the passion for craftsmanship that runs throughout the 140-year history of the brewery.
Brewed using roasted dark malts and with a refined hop bitterness, the resulting lager is a Schwarzbier with a round full floor complimented by a hint of sweetness and distinct coffee and chocolate flavors.
A little more robust than your standard Schwarzbier, Sapporo Premium Black is well suited to hearty or spicy dishes from all around the world, including traditional German, Cajun, Latino, and Asian dishes.
Being from Sapporo, you may find this beer in your local 7/11 as well as the many craft beer bars now popping up everywhere. And you’ll definitely find it in your local Japanese restaurant too!
Black Wing Schwarzbier by Union Craft Brewing, Baltimore, Maryland
- ABV 4.8%
Union Craft Brewing is a brewery that believes in the union of beer, its brewers, and the community it serves. They brew beers that unite old and new ideas with the science and craft of brewing and the boldness and balance of flavor.
Nowhere is that more evident than in their seasonally brewed Schwarzbier, Black Wing lager.
This crisp, clean dark lager hits you with subtle hints of roasted coffee beans and rich chocolate in a beer that surprisingly showcases a light body and mouthfeel – just what you should expect from a German Schwarzbier.
Moderately hopped with German Perle Noble hops, these complement rather than overpower the delicate Malt backbone of the lager.
Union distributes its beers all over Maryland, Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Delaware. If they don’t distribute near you, fear not, as the beer finder on their website asks you to let them know if you want the beer sourced closer to home.
They also have a large taproom at the Union Hall and Beer Garden, where you will find plenty of the local community they serve sitting at communal picnic tables in the summer months enjoying their fine range of craft beers, including the refreshing Black Wing Lager.
Schwarzbiers may be growing in popularity in the US, and if you have ever tried one you’ll know why, but, unfortunately, there’s still not too wide a selection of Schwarzbiers available nationwide all year around.
Maybe it’s the long lagering process they require – up to 2 months – which puts some brewers off tying up their fermentation tanks for too long. After all, time is money!
The next time you go for a Summer day out in one of the nation’s many German-themed beer gardens or ‘Biergartens’, check if they have this unique style of crisp, refreshing lager which is surprisingly jet black in color.
If you like your dark beers a little less malty, crisper, and more Pilsner-like, you will be glad you did!