One of the most prevalent and persistent misconceptions about beer is that it comes in just two basic types—light and dark, and that all of beer’s other qualities are firmly determined by its color. It doesn’t help that when ordering beer at virtually any pub in the Czech Republic—the birthplace of Bohemian Pilsener, the most ubiquitous beer style on earth—one’s only three options are light, dark or "cut" beer, the latter being a fifty-fifty percent blend of light and dark lager.
So, the story endures. For those who want a higher alcohol level (and thus more calories), more flavor (especially bitterness) and heavier body (or perceived "thickness"), dark beers are the way to go. Conversely, light beers are light both by color and body, have less alcohol and fewer calories, and therefore are more refreshing, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.
The color of a beer alone does not indicate how bitter or alcoholic that beer is, period.
The fact of the matter is that the color of a beer is almost exclusively determined by how deeply roasted the malt grains used in the making of that beer were. For example, if a beer uses very lightly roasted grains, the beer comes out light in color. Meanwhile, if a beer’s malt bill includes very deeply roasted and caramelized grains, a darker colored brew will result. The color of a beer alone does not indicate how bitter or alcoholic that beer is, period. It seems that no matter how many times beer experts and enthusiasts alike have tried to debunk this myth, it keeps coming back in full force.
One of the best beer styles to illustrate the point that a dark beer can be light-bodied, crisp and clean is a lesser-known style called Schwarzbier. Literally meaning "black beer" in German and sometimes called a "Black Pils," this type of beer has been around since ancient times, making it one of the oldest dark beer styles in the world that is still popularly brewed today. In fact, there’s evidence that a rustic Schwarzbier was brewed as far back as about 800 BC by Iron Age Celts in the Kulmbach region of what is now Germany.
Typically, Schwarzbier is dark brown in color with deep ruby highlights. It has a light roasted flavor with very clean and nuanced hints of caramel and light wafts of coffee on the nose. Expect moderately high carbonation and a smooth mouthfeel with no harshness despite the dark roasted malts. The hop bitterness is quite gentle and subdued in this beer, and its finish is clean and dry. Schwarzbier alcohol content is pretty low, usually between 4.5 to 5.5 percent ABV.
Schwarzbiers to Try
Köstritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei (Bitburger), Bad Köstritz, Thuringia, Germany
Founded in 1543, Köstritzer Schwarzbier brewery is just east of Kulmbach, the birthplace of Schwarzbier, in the neighboring state of Thuringia. Probably the best-known of today’s commercial Schwarzbiers available in the United States, this dark example is slightly toasty and chocolatey, with soft roasty aromatics. Look for a silky mouthfeel and a balanced dry finish, plus 4.8 percent ABV.
KCCO Black Lager
Resignation Brewery, TX, in collaboration with Red Hook Brewery, WA
This toasty 5.1 percent ABV Schwarz has a nice light roastiness on the nose, with a touch of cocoa and biscuit on the palate. It shows flavors of toast, dark caramel and coffee, and just a hint of smoke. Medium-bodied and deep brown, this beer finishes amazingly light, crispy and sessionable.
Bohemian Black Lager
Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, TX (Gambrinus Company)
First brewed to commemorate their 97th anniversary, this very traditional 4.9 percent ABV Czech-style Schwarzbier, made by the brewery that makes the famous Shiner Bock, is true to its old-world Kulmbach predecessors by using imported noble Czech Saaz and Styrian hops and dark roasted malts. It channels a crisp, clean finish, with notes of rye toast and fruity berries plus a touch of smoke, ashes and licorice.
Sprecher Brewing Company, Glendale, WI
Originally brewed in 1985, this traditional 5.9 percent ABV Kulmbacher style black lager is rich and dark in color and has aromatics of coffee, caramel, chocolate, molasses and roasted barley. Flavor is earthy and dry with a touch of brown sugar. This beer has a lightly creamy mouthfeel and has a lingering finish of bittersweet chocolate.
Baba Black Lager
Uinta Brewing Company, Salt Lake City, UT
Robust and smooth, this full-flavored 4 percent ABV ebony lager is exceptionally drinkable, with aromatics of vanilla and bittersweet chocolate. Hop bitterness is mild but present with mild char and hints of coffee flavors throughout. A touch of caramel malty sweetness lingers in the finish.