NOTE: In the 2021 BJCP Style Guidelines, schwarzbier can be found under Category 8 – Dark European Lager – which contains German volleyer lagers darker than an amber-brown color. Although the Category also includes the Munich Dunkel, Schwarbiers have their own subcategory 8B.
All the information I have included here was correct at the time of writing, but if you are studying for your BCJP judging exams use this only as a brief guide and check the current guidelines on the relevant web page of the BJCP site.
“May the Schwartz be with you!”. No, we’re not talking the Mel Brook’s famous Star Wars parody, Spaceballs, but rather the dark lager from Germany.
Schwarzbier literally translates as a “black beer”, but don’t mistake this beer for a stout, it definitely falls into the lager category.
Schwarzbier is a style that is reminiscent of those German-style Dunkels you may have drunk before, but drier, darker, and far more roasty, yet still remaining a lighter beer.
The schwarzbier has a rich history in Germany, actually dating back several millennia to the times of the Roman Empire, but has only recently started to pop up in the portfolio of American craft brewers.
A Brief History of Schwarzbier
Schwarzbier may actually be the oldest surviving and constantly brewed beer style in the world today.
In 1935, archeologists who were excavating a Celtic tomb near Kulmbach in northern Bavaria found the remains of a black beer among the goods buried alongside a high-ranking Celt.
Also in the find were some bits of partially fermented bread which were known to be the fermenting starters used at that time in brewing.
Although the tomb was nearly 3000 years old (800 BC), as this was a black beer that they still brew in the vicinity of Kulmbach to this day, we can assume this was possibly an ancient ancestor to the modern schwarzbier style.
Fast forward to 1390 and we can find the first documentation of the schwarzbier as a style in Brunswick, Bavaria (or Braunschweig to give the town its traditional German name!).
Nearby areas of Saxony and Thuringia in Bavaria were also found to be brewing a similar beer. Farmers in the area would be cultivating grains which included barley, wheat, oats, and rye, which were perfect for brewing beer.
While wine would be the choice of drink for the Romans in Saxony and Thuringia.
As they were located pretty far North and East away from Roman influence, they could pretty much brew whatever they liked. Beer was often viewed as a lower beverage, the beer for the common people.
As the brewers of Saxony and Thuringia weren’t technically in the Bavaria region of Germany, they were not bound by the rules of the Rheinheitsgebot beer purity edit introduced in 1516, which stated beers in Bavaria could only contain the four ingredients of water, hops, malt, and yeast.
However, Saxony and Thuringia did introduce their own provincial beer laws known as Vorläufiges Biergesetz, which stated that the schwarzbier style of beer should use 100 percent malted barleys with no adjunct grains added.
These medieval beers used kilned malts which were known as schwarz (black), braun (brown), or rot (red), which gave the beer not only its darker color but also the roasty flavors and dry body not commonly found in the lagers of the time.
Köstritzer is perhaps the most famous brewery in Germany to produce a schwarzbier since 1543, making use of the mineral-rich water of the nearby town of Bad Köstritz.
Considered a spa town, the folk of Northern Bavaria would flock to Bad Köstritz in large numbers to enjoy the spa and drink shwarzbier in order to make them strong and healthy.
Kulmbach shouldn’t be forgotten in the history of schwarzbier, as it was in this town where monks would first brew the world-famous elegant and time-honored beer Kulmbacher Kloster Mönchshof Schwarzbier (literally translated as “black beer from the monks’ courtyard cloister) which is still brewed to this day.
Schwarzbier in the 20th Century
Following the split of Germany into two separate nations in 1949; West Germany (the federal republic of Germany) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic), schwarzbier almost died out as a style when brewers started putting additional adjuncts in the beer in defiance of the old purity laws.
In 1989, one year before the reunification of Germany, the largest and original schwarzbier producer only produced 10 barrels of schwarzbier a year. It came as close to extinction as some of the rarer species in the world like the black wild rhinos.
Fortunately, with the reunification of Germany came an increased demand for traditional German beers and there was a resurgence of the German-style schwarzbier beer style in Europe which eventually made its way over the Atlantic to the shores of the US, just in time for the local craft beer boom.
The craft beer versions of German-style schwarzbier beers grew in popularity in the commercial beer market of the US and recently three of the Medal Winners in this category at the World Beer Cup came from American breweries
What Makes the Schwarzbier so Black?
As already mentioned, schwarzbier is German for “black beer” or black lager. Roasted dark malts create the darker color you find in a schwarzbier. The majority of base grains in modern schwarzbiers will be Pilsner malt and Munich malt.
Pilsner adds up to 70% of the fermentable sugars to a brew, while the Munich malts can lend a slight complexity to the beer.
In one of the US craft beer versions, Eventides Schwarzbier, they use dark Munich malt along with roasted black barley and just a touch of chocolate malt for a softer and slightly sweet taste to the palate of the beer.
Necromancer’s Schwarzbier, known as Night Light, uses a blend of malts which include Pils, Munich, and black malt. Most importantly all the malts used in their schwarzbier for authenticity originate from Germany and from high-quality masters like Weyermann.
To avoid extracting the bitterness which is often a roasted malt characteristic, many craft brewers will opt for dehusked or debittered roasted malts.
What About Hops and Schwarzbier?
Hops play an important role in the makeup of a schwarzbier, just not a starring role. They are there on the sidelines to support the dark, roasty malts.
Hops traditionally used in schwarzbier will be the German Noble hops such as Tettang, Hallertau Mittelfrüf, or Saaz. The main contribution they make to the beer is regarding aroma and taste rather than bitterness.
Instead of the American hops used in IPAs, which give huge citrussy and tropical stone fruit notes, the noble-type hops have earthy, woody, herbal, and slightly spicy characteristics that help to accentuate and balance the maltiness and roasty flavors.
Although hops are important to a schwarzbier, it’s in a completely different way to IPAs. You still want the floral, earthy taste of the hops but their main role is to balance the beer.
Tasting Notes for a Schwarzbier
When first pouring a schwarzbier German-style black lager, you should find a German lager whose color ranges from dark brown and ruby garnet to jet black, depending on the specialty grains which have been used.
After you get those earthy and herbal aromas, the first thing that hits you in the flavor is a blast of malt. In some schwarzbiers it may not be too bready but it will have a sweetness to it.
The roast is the predominant taste with hints of coffee and chocolate also evident in some schwarzbiers, but it shouldn’t be bitter at all.
The finish of a schwarzbier is typically dry which prepares you for yet another sip. Some craft beer lovers would even argue it’s an addictive taste.
Remember, although schwarzbiers are dark beers, they are not a stout. It’s still lager with a really crisp base malt and a zippy dry finish but with a tiny bit of roast to remind you that you are drinking a dark beer.
A black beer for those people who don’t really like black beer, many would argue.
Best of all, schwarzbiers are incredibly light when compared to other dark beers. Imperial Stouts can often reach an ABV of 9% or more, while a schwarzbier will typically have a sessionable ABV of between 4.4 – 5.4%.
Whereas many adjunct stouts will have lots of cloying sweet notes to the beer, a schwarzbier by comparison will be simply malty, roasty, clean, and dry in taste.
Although not your typical summer beer, you could enjoy a schwarzbier or two when out and about on a hot summer’s day when you may struggle with the alcoholic warming of an Imperial Stout.
For those spring or fall nights when it’s still cold, you can enjoy a schwarzbier by the fire without feeling like you have drunk a donut.
Brewing a Good Schwarzbier
Brewing a schwarzbier can be a good test of your brewing skills, especially if you want to get those flavors just right.
With a simple grain bill of Munich or Pilsner malt and just those subtle noble hops, there’s not too much to hide any imperfections. It’s not like an IPA where you can mask any off flavors with more hops.
Additionally, with it being a lager, a schwarzbier requires that extra time in storage for the layering process.
This can be even more essential for darker beers to get those flavors right and often it can take up to 8 weeks to ferment a schwarzbier, that’s why you rarely see it as a house beer in many bars, as it takes up valuable tank space for too long.
Schwarzbier Style Summary
|IBU||20 - 35|
|SRM||19 - 30|
|OG||1.046 - 1.052|
|FG||1.010 - 1.016|
|ABV||4.4% - 5.4%|
- Deep brown to black in color, often with deep ruby to garnet highlights, with a large, persistent, tan to light brown head.
- Clear or slightly hazy with a smooth appearance.
- Roasted malt aroma with notes of chocolate, coffee, and dark bread.
- Low to moderate noble hop aroma, with a subtle earthy or herbal character.
- No fruity esters or diacetyl.
- Roasted malt flavor with notes of chocolate, coffee, and dark bread.
- Low to medium bitterness with a clean, dry finish.
- Low to moderate noble hop flavor, with a subtle earthy or herbal character.
- No fruity esters or diacetyl.
- Light to medium sweetness.
- Medium-light to medium body with a smooth, creamy texture.
- Low to medium carbonation.
- No astringency or harshness.
- A smooth, dark lager with a balanced combination of roasted malt and noble hop flavors.
- Clean and crisp with a dry finish.
- Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Spaten Premium Lager, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Note: This style sheet is a general guide, and variations may exist among commercial examples.