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There is a attitude in craft brewing (sometimes from brewers and certainly from consumers) that I cannot quite understand: lagers are garbage and should be avoided like the plague. I get it, we have all been abused by crummy American Macro Lagers for the better part of a century, but do not throw that baby out with the bath water! Haters gonna hate, but I find I will choose a high-quality, well-crafted lager over any number of ales 80% of the time. I consider the opportunity I had to sample unfiltered Pilsner Urquell straight from the barrel to be one of the highlights of my beer-life.
— The Church Cafe Bar (@thechurch_ie) June 28, 2014
Malty, hoppy, light, dark, or smokey, it did not matter: the lagers I had in Europe were excellent in way you write home about. I often find myself longing for the crisp, refreshing lagers I consume by the gallon while I am over there. San Diego being the craft-dominant town that it is I find that if I want to drink a classic-style lager I have to make it myself. Enter the schwarzbier: crisp, clean, and dark as night; a Pilsner with an identity crisis. If you think about it, the schwarzbier is the the original hoppy black beer.
My goal for Schwarz was to be a black German Pilsner: crisp, clean, refreshing, and prominently featuring noble German hops… that just happens to be black as night. I figured I would mimic the approach many black IPAs take and design the malt bill as though it was a non-dark example then use roasted malts as late as possible solely for color contribution. To do this I chose to cold steep some Carafa then add the inky-black liquid to the last five minutes of the boil; just enough time to sterilize. I had originally planned to use Carafa II Special (which is just dehusked Carafa II), but the LHBS I was picking my grains up only had regular–wha-waa.
Otherwise, it is Hallertauer hops all the way in my “Hoppy Lager” hopping scheme: 1 oz at 20 min, 10 min, and a short hop stand. I usually use a clean high-alpha hop for bittering, but the hops came in 2 oz packs and I did not want to have any leftovers. WLP940 is my go-to lager yeast and has never let me down yet.
A note on my lagering schedule: it is similar to Brulosopher’s (I developed it in parallel as he was developing his) but with a couple of differences. I pitch at 48ºF and set the regulator to 50ºF. The first morning after a full day (usually about 36 hours after pitching) I raise the temp 1ºF. Every morning thereafter I raise the temp 1ºF until I start seeing the krausen start to deflate, and begin raising the temp 2ºF. By the time krausen has completely fallen (about a week) I am usually at 65ºF and I will leave it there for three or four days. I will then start lowering the temp 5ºF every 12 hours until I reach 35ºF; total time should be about two weeks. Transfer to keg and lager as long as you can handle.
A bready, coffee-y, and slightly nutty aroma dominates. There is no acridity like you might get from a similarly colored stout, nor is there the squaw-breadiness you get from a dark munich-y lager. Behind the malt some floral Hallertauer character comes through but the malt is the star of the show. No esters, sulphur, or alcohol.
Dark as night with a slightly off-white, fluffy head. Fluffy doesn’t really do it justice, really: it is like a highland cow flew into a pillow fight on the top of a cloudy mountain. I am not kidding when I say I saw the last drip from my tap bounce off the top of the head. It goes without saying there was plenty of fluffy lacing left on the glass.
Otherwise, it’s hard to tell on account of how dark it is, but the beer is crystal clear from extended lagering and there is the faintest of ruby highlights if you hold it up to the light on the thinnest part of the glass.
Not quite bready like a pilsner nor is it rich squaw-bread like a dunkel, it more a super-smooth, slightly nutty stout. I was actually a bit surprised at the flavor, not disappointed per se, but surprised that it was not the pilsner-like character I was shooting for. The flavor is slightly roasty with some rich mocha/coffee notes. Nicely balanced between the malt character and the floral, slightly fruity hop character. The roastiness makes it seem a little more bitter than the 33 IBU would indicate.
A clean ferment with no sulphur or off-flavors; pretty much everything you would hope for from a lager.
Medium-bodied with a moderate amount of carbonation. Lightly creamy and surprisingly smooth for such a dark beer. No astringency or alcohol warming. I would call it smoooooooooth.
Do you ever have one of those moments where you think you remember something being exactly a certain way, but then you get a chance to see how it really is and it is only a shred of the way you remember it? This is a bit how I feel about this incarnation of Schwarz. I remember European schwarzbier being basically a black pils, but then I decided to compare against a bottle of Köstritzer Schwarzbier and realized I was remembering totally wrong! Maybe it is because I had been drinking a bunch of Munich dunkel at the time, so relatively speaking it seemed pretty crisp, but classic schwarzbiers are kinda halfway between a pilsner and a dunkel. I feel very strangely about it: this might be one of the best beers I have ever made–smooth, well balanced, and completely free from any off flavors–but it is still not quite the beer I was trying to make.
Still! This is a really nice beer and I have managed to impress both lager and dark beer enthusiasts, so I am going to call it a win. Anyone interested in a dark, smoothly roasty beer (ale or lager) would be very pleased with this recipe; I am halfway tempted to enter this beer in competitions as a stout. However, for my own preferences I think next time I will cut the Carafa II to 12 oz (and try to use Special) and replace some of the pils malt with 10-20% Munich malt.
Check out the rest of my recipes in the index.