With taprooms closed and festivals cancelled, I’ve been looking for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I’ve therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years. Working through it involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details. I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
History Lesson: As befits the most opaque beer yet discussed in this course, schwarzbier’s history is a bit murky. Here’s what we do know:
- The Beer Judge Certification Program lists the German states of Saxony, Thuringia, and Franconia as locales where the beer has regional roots
- Side note: the BJCP characterizes the beer’s history as “a bit sketchy.”
- Köstritzer, which still produces one of the world’s most popular schwarzbiers, has brewed dark beer since at least 1543.
- The Complete Beer Course recalls the story of archeologists unearthing an eighth century B.C. Celtic tomb in Bavaria. Inside, they found “a vase-shaped container” containing “charred, blackened crumbs of partially baked bread, one of the earliest known brewing ingredients.” While not beer in the modern sense (much less schwarzbier), it’s possible that residents of modern-day Germany have been roasting grain to produce alcoholic beverages for close to 10,000 years.
Beer Judge Certification Program Description: “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.”
Fun Fact: Brewers employ one of two tactics to achieve roasty flavors that lack bitterness:
- Use dehusked malt, which, Bernstein writes, “dials down the burnt, roasty character.”
- Submerge dark-roasted malts in nonboiling water, which draws out roasty flavors without bitterness. Bernstein notes that this is the same process used in cold brewed coffee.
Third Coast Review’s Take: I’m so jealous of Bernstein’s analogy of schwarzbier to cold brew, because it’s spot on. These beers all have bold, roasty flavor, but limited bitterness and a clean aftertaste.
I started with Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Germany’s self-proclaimed “most popular black beer.” It’s a classic example of the style: medium-bodied with a quick blast of roasty flavor, followed by a clean finish.
Metropolitan brewmaster and co-founder Doug Hurst told the Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel that Magnetron displays “flavors of bittersweet chocolate while still being a crushable beer.” Smoother and milder than its peers, this is one is something of a session schwarzbier. I plan on bringing it to a future cold-weather tailgate.
All in Favor? More like All in Flavor.
While still a schwarzbier, it’s a big, bold beer that drinks more like a sipper than its 5.2% abv. would suggest. Alarmist describes it as “balanced & highly drinkable, with flavors / aromas of roast, chocolate, and spice with a slightly sweet and crisp finish,” with the chocolate flavors jumping out most prominently.
Up Next: Rauchbier (aka, Smokey the Beer)