Bad Karma Schwarzbier: Delicious and Nutritious

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.


A homebrew recipe that (almost) earns your doctor’s seal of approval.

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Photo courtesy of Northern Brewer

There’s a very old-school, perhaps a little old-fogeyish, line of thought that holds low- to moderate alcohol dark beers to be nourishing, health-giving, and even feminine, drinks. This line of thought connects the milk stouts of the British Isles to the low-gravity dark lagers of the Czech Republic and runs right through the black lager of Germany—Schwarzbier.

Schwarzbier, translated “black beer,” is a very dark lager that hails from the districts of Thuringia and Franconia. Its origin can be traced back to the middle ages, and Köstritzer Schwarzbier, the most common example of the German-brewed style in the United States, has been brewed in the town of Bad Köstritz since the 1500s.

Bad Köstritz was a destination known for its mineral baths and “cure houses.” Its native Schwarzbier was a sweet, low-attenuated beer of only about 2% ABV. The low alcohol content plus all those unfermented malt sugars made for a relatively healthy, vitamin-rich, and “carbtastic” beverage for all the spa-going tourists, which probably fostered its reputation as a restorative drink for invalids, convalescents, and nursing mothers. The advent of modern brewing technology and stricter adherence to Reinheitsgebot—the German Beer Purity Law—since German reunification, have combined to make today’s Schwarzbier into a more highly attenuated, standard-strength lager.

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Going By the Numbers

Color. With a range of 17-30 SRM, Schwarzbier can run from a deep mahogany-brown to black with ruby highlights.

Schwarzbier’s OG range of 1.046-1.052 is narrower than those of both dry stout and robust porter, the two most tempting but not perfectly analogous comparisons, for a moderate alcohol content of about 4.4–5.4% ABV. With bitterness of between 22 and 32 IBU, the overall balance can fall on either side the line. Most commercial examples walk that tightrope of malt/hop balance, which is the traditional authenticity we’ll strive for here.

What Makes It Tick

The defining ingredient that makes a Schwarzbier a Schwarzbier is dehusked roasted malt. The outer husk is a tannin-rich layer of the barley kernel. Tannins have an astringent, puckering, “grippy” sensation on the palate, and when the malt is kilned to a very dark color (300–500° Lovibond) by the maltster, those husk tannins contribute heavily to the acrid, acidic quality of many porters and stouts.

But Schwarzbier, like other Bavarian lagers, is all about the smooth. By separating the husks from the green malt prior to kilning, the maltster can create a very dark, intensely-flavored roast malt without the acrid, aggressive French-roast coffee character of, say, roast barley, black patent, or chocolate malts. What this means in the glass is a luscious, rounded roast character that reads as milk chocolate or mocha instead of the more aggressive burnt-and-bitter roastiness of stout and porter. This softer profile lets the rest of the ingredients step forward—the high percentage of rich, bready Munich malt and a balanced use of noble hops.

We’re going to want a lager yeast of the Bavarian family. A Czech lager strain could work in a pinch, although many will tend to throw off a level of fermentation compounds (diacetyl and the like) that would be okay in a Bohemian Pils but unwanted in a Schwarzbier. Northern European and American lager strains on the other hand will be too austere and hop-emphasizing for our purposes. Lager strains of Bavarian origin will favor the malt a bit, perhaps exhibit a little sulfuric edge but overall remain clean and balanced.

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