The ninth in our series of “Source of Styles” – as voted on by the Patrons – is schwarzbier, which translates to black beer, a style of beer that is synonymous with the early days of craft beer in Japan. Schwarzbiers are dark lagers that first originated in Germany in the middle ages and were one of the first styles of craft beers in Japan, mainly due to the influx of German brewers back in the mid-90s.
Germany has four different “colours” that are used for their beers – weiss, meaning white as in weissbier (white beer) helles, meaning light as in hellesbier (light beer) which tend to be golden yellow or straw-like in colour, dunkel, meaning dark as in dunkerbier (dark beer) which tend to be dark yellow or brown in colour, and schwarz, meaning black as in schwarbier (black beer), which we will talk more about later.
Schwarzbiers are supposedly one of the oldest styles of beer in the world, with some evidence pointing to it being over 3000 years old, with an ancient archaeological dig in the Bavaria region back in 1935 pointing to some historical clues to its roots. The dig unearthed an Iron age tomb that had residue of brewing and the charred crumbs of partially baked wheat bread, known to be the raw material for Celtic and Germanic brews of the time. The beer showed signs of being a black wheat ale that had been flavoured with leaves – is this the precursor to the modern schwarzbier?
The oldest reference to schwarzbier came in about 1390 from the city of Braunschweig, located about 250 kms west of Berlin called as Braunschweiger mumme. Braunsweig was a member of the trade consortium called the Hanseatic League, one of the major players both in terms of reach and power, mumme may have had something of a following outside its immediate region. Three other areas in Germany Kulmbach in Franconia, Northern Bavaria, and Thuringia, a state in the former East Germany also had schwarbizers specialty was what we know today as the Kulmbacher-style.
However, schwarzbiers experienced a decline in popularity for much of the 20th century as weizens, pilsners, and dunkels become the beer to drink – both for locals and tourists. The style made a comeback in Germany in the 1990s, led by brands like Köstritzer Schwarzbier, and American brewers picked up on this trend. American breweries have been successful in imparting an American influence on the beer, using American hops, but let’s stick to the original style of beer, with a more restrained hop character.
There is evidence that schwarzbiers came to Japan in 1892, with Sapporo being one of the first to brew a schwarzbier. During the late 19th century, Japanese researchers visited Germany and took back some recipes to make beer. It wasn’t a popular beer for long though, with it quickly falling out of favour for lighter beers. In fact, it took Sapporo over 100 years for them to make another schwarzbier, waiting until 2016 to make Sapporo Black.
This trend of using German beers for base styles exploded once the Japanese government loosened restrictions back in 1994 for new breweries. Looking once again to Germany, many of Japan’s original craft brewers made German-style beers – think lager, alt, kolsch, and schwarzbier – as they hired more and more German brewmasters to start up their breweries. While the style has declined in popularity, with more and more American influences, schwarzbiers can still be found from many of those original breweries.
Schwarzbier – Appearance, Aroma, and Taste
Unlike porters or stouts, schwarzbiers are bottom fermented, making them more like lagers than ales, thus given schwarzbiers more carbonation in the body – with the occasional nod to schwarzbiers been more “black pilsners” than expected.
Schwarzbiers are traditionally a light-bodied, low-alcohol, roasty dark lagers brewed with Munich and roasted malts. The BJCP guidelines for schwarzbiers are the following:
- Appearance – While the name indicates the colour and idea of being black, it’s not as black as a porter or stout, nor is it as strong flavoured as those two beers.
- Aroma – Low to moderate malt, with low aromatic sweetness and/or hints of roast malt often apparent. The malt can be clean and neutral or rich and Munich-like, and may have a hint of caramel. The roast can be coffee-like but should never be burnt.
- Taste – 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 last into the finish. Light to moderate noble hop flavor. Clean lager character with no fruity esters or diacetyl. Aftertaste tends to dry out slowly and linger, featuring hop bitterness with a complementary but subtle roastiness in the background. Some residual sweetness is acceptable but not required
- Characteristic Ingredients: German Munich malt and/or Pilsner malts for the base, supplemented by a judicious use of roasted malts (such as Carafa types) for the dark color and subtle roast flavors. Huskless dark roasted malts can add roast flavors without burnt flavors. German hop varieties and clean German lager yeasts are traditional.
Recommended Japanese Schwarzbiers
1) Baeren Schwarz
- The Bottom Line: Baeren Schwarz is a decent schwarz that is worth trying if you can find it.
- The Full Review: Baeren Schwarz by Baeren Beer
2) Coedo Shikkoku
- The Bottom Line: Coedo Shikkoku was a great surprise and would wholeheartedly drink it again. And again. And then one more just because I’m an adult and I can.
- The Full Review: Coedo Shikkoku by Coedo Brewery
3) Doppo Schwarz
- The Bottom Line: It’s easy to see why Doppo Schwarz won awards back in the early days of craft beer in Japan.
- The Full Review: Doppo Schwarz by Miyashita Shuzo
4) Fujizakura Dark Lager
- The Bottom Line: Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager is an easy drinking beer that is worth finding but then Fuji Kanko Kaihaitsu can’t seem to do much wrong with their beers
- The Full Review: Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager By Fuji Kanko Kaihaitsu
5) Harvestmoon Schwarz
- The Bottom Line: I wasn’t expecting much from Harvestmoon Schwarz but I stand corrected and can wholeheartedly recommend drinking them. It. More than one. Argh. Plenty.
- The Full Review: Harvestmoon Schwarz by Harvestmoon Brewery
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the overseas beers. Here’s some schwarzbiers we also recommend. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.
- Insulated Dark Lager – Brooklyn Brewery (USA)
- Köstritzer Schwarzbier – (Germany)
- Krombacher Dark – (Germany)
- Mönchshof Schwarzbier (Germany)
Which schwarzbiers do you like? Let us know in the comments below.