May the schwartz be with you! For those unfamiliar with the iconic Star Wars parody from Mel Brooks called Spaceballs, let me fill you in. It’s a hilarious flick featuring Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet (aka Darth Vader) in a helmet ten sizes too big for him; John Candy as Barf, a half-man, half-dog sidekick; and a character called Yogurt, the wisest sage in the galaxy. It’s Yogurt that wisely says, “May the Schwartz be with you.” Obviously, a parody of “May the Force be with you.” Star Wars fans famously mark May 4th as an official holiday: May the 4th Be With You. So it makes complete sense that craft beer fans have morphed that day into our own parody: May the Schwartz Be With You. Instead of celebrating Star Wars (you still can if you want), the craft beer version celebrates schwarzbier.
Schwarzbier! Literally a German word that translates to black lager, schwarzbier is reminiscent of a German-style dunkel, but drier, darker, roastier, and lighter.
It’s a style that has a rich history in Germany but only recently started to pop up in the United States.
But if American craft brewers have anything to say about it, schwarzbiers are a style that one should drink not just on May 4th, but any time during the year.
“I love schwarzbiers; they’re amazing,” says Lauren Hughes, head brewer at Necromancer Brewing in Pittsburgh, PA, where recently a plethora of breweries have served up the style. “I can knock them back anytime. It’s crisp enough to drink in the summer, and when winter comes it’s a rock.”
Hughes first experienced a schwarzbier in college. While drinking one at Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington, IN, she remembers thinking: “What the fuck is this? This is great, this is all I want to drink for the rest of my life.”
If Hughes had her way, she’d brew schwarzbier as many times as she could. And it seems many agree.
The Origin of the Schwarbier
Schwarzbier originated in the regions of Saxony and Thuringia in Germany during the Roman Empire. At the time, farmers often cultivated grains such as barley, wheat, oats, and rye perfect for beer. And while wine was the drink of choice for Romans, because Saxony and Thuringia were located pretty far north and east from Roman influence, people were allowed to brew pretty much whatever they wanted.
“Beer was seen as a lower beverage, the drink of the people,” says Adam Lukey, head brewer at Eventide Brewing in Atlanta, GA, who brews a schwarzbier called Midnight Hour. “Kings drank wine, but the people drank beer because it was liquid bread, whereas Ambrosia was the drink of the gods.” Because Thuringia and Saxony were outside the influence of Romans, brewers were free to do whatever they wanted to do. “That gave birth to the schwarzbier,” says Lukey.
But that’s not to say that brewing schwarzbier didn’t follow strict purity rules. In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot stated that beer in the Bavaria region of Germany could only contain four ingredients: water, hops, malt, and yeast. Technically, Saxony and Thuringia weren’t in Bavaria, so they developed their own provincial purity laws called Vorläufiges Biergesetz.
“That said, schwarzbier had to be 100 percent malted barley with no adjunct grains,” says Lukey.
These medieval beers used kilned malts often categorized as schwarz (black), braun (brown), or rot (red).
Hence why schwarzbiers are literally considered black lagers; the dark grain gave this beer style not only its color, but also its roasty, dry qualities.
In Germany, Köstritzer is the most famous brewery to brew schwarzbier. Located in Bad Köstrizt, the brewery started making schwarzbier in 1543, leveraging the town’s mineral-rich water. Considered a spa town, people would flock to Bad Köstritz to “come to the spa and drink schwarzbier to make you strong and healthy,” says Lukey.
Fast forward a few centuries to 1949, Germany split into two independent nations: West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). During this period, schwarzbier almost died out when brewers started adding adjuncts outside the Reinheitsgebot and the provincial beer laws to recipes.
For example, in 1989, one year before reunification, Köstritzer (the original brewers of the style) brewed only 10 bbls of schwarzbier. “That’s like saying there are only eight black wild rhinos left,” says Lukey. “It was that close to extinction.”
Luckily, with German reunification came a resurgence of schwarzbier in Europe. And eventually the black lager made its way over to the States, where it’s now experiencing a renaissance amongst modern American craft brewers.
What Makes a Schwarzbier so Black?
As we mentioned, schwarzbier literally translates to black beer.
It’s the roasted malts that create that dark color in a schwarzbier.
Lukey points out that the majority of the base grains are Pilsner and Munich malt.
“Pilsner malt is the workhorse of the grist, adding upwards of seventy percent of those fermentable sugars,” says Lukey. “The Munich…lends a slight complexity to the mash.”
In Eventide’s schwarzbier called Midnight Hour, Lukey uses dark Munich malt, roasted black barley, and a touch of chocolate wheat, which “gives the beer a softer and slightly sweet taste on the palette,” says Lukey.
Likewise, Hughes uses a blend of malts in Necromancer’s schwarzbier called Night Light, including Pils, Munich, and black malt. But what’s most important to her is that the malts all come directly from Germany. Hughes uses Weyermann malts because they’re a great malster with the highest quality product.
Another trick with the malt in a schwarzbier? “You don’t want to extract bitterness,” says Lukey. “You want that roastiness balanced with the maltiness of the beer.” For that reason, Lukey says many brewers use dehusked or debittered roasted malts to reduce the amount of bitterness.
Do Hops Play a Role in schwarzbier?
Of course they do! Just not a starring role. The hops are more of a Chewbacca as opposed to a Luke Skywalker, if you get our drift. They’re there as a supporting character.
But the type of hops are important. “With schwarzbiers you want to use traditional noble hops,” says Lukey, who deploys German Tettnang in Midnight Hour. But any German noble hop variety will do here. For example, Tettnang, Hallertau Mittelfrüh, or Saaz all work well in schwarzbiers.
“The big thing is the aroma and the taste,” says Lukey. “Instead of American hops, where you’re talking about huge tropical, stone fruit notes, these are very earthy, woody, herbal, slightly spice hops.”
All help accentuate and balance the maltiness and roastiness.
“Hops are important, but not like in IPAs,” says Hughes. “You want that floral, earthy taste from the hops, but the biggest thing is to balance and help zip up the beer.”
Take Us Through a Tasting of Schwarzbier
Pouring out a schwarzbier, you should find a beer that’s somewhere between a dark brown and ruby garnet to a jet black.
Although for some brewers, black is the only way to go. “The word literally translates to black beer…so if you call something a black beer, to me it has to be black,” says Hughes. Accordingly, Night Light pours out pitch black.
On the tasting, you’ll get a full blast of malt. “Not so bready, but there is a sweetness to it,” says Lukey, specifically referring to Midnight Hour. “The roast is what comes out immediately, and you do get that chocolate coffee, but not bitter at all.”
Similarly with Night Light, Hughes notes a tiny bit of roast, dark caramel, and breadiness, but “still something really clean and easy to drink.”
And of course, the characteristic dry finish of a schwarzbier is very important, preparing you to immediately want another sip.
Some might call it addictive even.
Schwarzbiers Are Dark, But They’re NOT Stouts. Yet They’re Damn Delicious
If you remember anything from this article it should be this: Schwarzbiers are dark lagers; they are NOT stouts.
“Some people think that schwarzbiers are the stout of Germany, but I would argue it’s not,” says Hughes. “It’s still a lager, so it should still have that really crisp base malt and be something zippy, but with a tiny bit of roast to make you feel like you’re drinking a dark beer.”
And this is one of the best parts of a schwarzbier.
Whereas stouts can be heavy, schwarzbiers are light.
Whereas imperial stouts can reach upwards of 9% ABV, schwarzbiers typically fall between 5-6% ABV, making them ideal for one or two.
And whereas adjunct stouts can have lots of cloying sweet notes, schwarzbiers are simply malty, roasty, clean, and dry.
They’re dark lagers. And that’s a good thing.
To put schwarzbiers in the same category as a stout would be like saying Star Wars and Star Trek are the same.
Sure, they’re both movies about space, but totally different plots and followers.
Same with schwarzbiers and stouts: They’re two completely different styles of beer that share mainly their color in common.
Remember: Schwarzbiers are lagers.
“What I like to call black beer for the people who say they don’t like black beer,” says Lukey. “Because they expect it to be cloyingly sweet like a Russian imperial stout or really roasty and bitter, but that’s not the case with schwarzbier because it is a lager…and not an ale.”
What Lukey means is that you use a bottom-fermenting yeast with a schwarzbier. This produces a beer that (although black in color) is very crisp, dry, and highly drinkable in nature, making them perfect for really any season.
“Drinking a heavy 12% ABV stout on a ninety-degree day out in the sun is not appealing, but with a schwarzbier, you could have a few out and about just because they are so good and invite you to drink more,” says Lukey.
Hughes agrees, “On a fall or spring night when it’s still cold, you can go sit by the fire, have a couple, and not feel like you’re drinking a donut.”
Brewing a Good Schwarzbier Makes a Better Brewer
Beyond its great taste, schwarzbier can be extremely tricky to brew.
Fittingly, Lukey believes that brewing a good schwarzbier is a true testament to the brewer.
“When you throw chocolate cake in your mash, you can hide a lot of imperfections behind that mask,” says Lukey. “This beer for a brewer really shows your chops because there is nothing to hide behind.”
Just two or three grains and a hop or two, right?
“You can do crazy over-the-top things, but can you just brew a simple beer?” says Lukey.
Hughes agrees, “With lagers you can’t hide behind them, which is great because if you make one that kicks ass…sweet you did it! But if something is wrong with it, people will taste it and it will shine front and center.”
Additionally, because a schwarzbier is a lager it requires extra time in the tanks. This can be a tricky proposition in a brewhouse where turning tanks more quickly means you brew more beer, which in turn means you have more opportunity to boost your bottom line.
At Necromancer, Hughes ferments their schwarzbier for as long as possible, typically eight weeks. “Especially with a dark beer, you have to lager those suckers for a long time to get the flavor right, “ says Hughes. “I’d make them all the time and make them a house beer if I could, but they take up tank space.”
Similarly Lukey says, “I tell my boss you’re not my boss, the beer is the boss because it tells me when it’s ready,” says Lukey.
For some brewers, that can look like dollar signs going down the drain, but for Lukey and Hughes the extra time, attention, and tank space is worth it.
May the Schwartz Be With You
In reality, schwarzbiers really have nothing to do with Star Wars. It’s just a really dark beer that happens to have a name that matches a funny quote from the Star Wars parody Spaceballs.
We could get deep here and say that its depths take us to galaxies far, far away, but we won’t.
We’ll just say: Although nowhere near as popular as American IPAs, schwarzbiers deserve a place in the American craft beer iconography.
Lukey says that in Eventide’s taproom, Midnight Hour is often met with reluctance at first. Folks ask: What is that? “But then they try it and it’s an unexpected surprise,” says Lukey. “People want to go into crazy quad hazies with high density, high charge, Phantasm and Incognito, but there is something elegant in the simplicity of the style.”
For Necromancer, when Hughes brewed Night Light, it was the second schwarzbier released in Pittsburgh (that she knows of). “People loved it and now everyone has made a schwarzbier because everyone realized people loved them,” says Hughes.
Hughes notes she doesn’t see the popularity of hazies going anywhere, “but I do see a shift for a lot of consumers who want something different. They don’t want to go to a taproom and see a bunch of IPAs. They want to see two or three and have options for when they’re tired of drinking them.”
A schwarzbier is perfect to rotate into the taplist. “If you have a stout, it’s too heavy,” says Hughes. “A schwarzbier can be something dark, but still light that they can latch onto and not feel overwhelmed by an adjunct or big imperial bomb.”
Hughes continues. “[A schwarzbier] is a crusher that’s dark beer for people who don’t want to have stouts or are tired of drinking IPAs and want to drink something that’s a totally different experience on the palette.”
The Best Schwarzbiers to Try Right Now
Night Light – Necromancer Brewing
Featuring Pilsner, munich, caramel, and dark malts, Night Light lures you into its dark depths. But you won’t get lost inside here. After all, it’s a Night Light! The 5.4% ABV and light dry body quenches your thirst and immediately makes you want to take another sip. As the brewery writes in its Untappd description, “comforting, subtle, persistent, and just a tad mysterious. If this is your first schwarzbier, the pitch black hue of this German lager may first take you aback, but the velvety texture, roasty flavors, and sweet aromas will have you coming back for more.”
Whether this is your first schwarzbier or your tenth, Night Light will certainly make a schwarzbier fan out of you. It’s a great one to start with and a great one to keep in the rotation when it’s available.
Midnight Hour – Eventide Brewing
“Immediately you get a full maltiness, not so bready, but there is sweetness to it,” says Lukey. “The roast is what comes out immediately after, and you do get that chocolate coffee note, but not bitter at all.” Midnight Hour hits just 5.5% ABV, so it’s a clean, crisp black lager you can have one, two, or maybe even three of either on a hot summer afternoon or a cold winter night.
Nighthawk – Enegren Brewing Company
BeerAdvocate Founder Todd Alström turned us onto Enegren Brewing Co. when he named the German-style helles from this Moorpark, CA-based brewery one of his favorite beers of 2021. This is a brewery that has perfected lagers, especially European ones. So it’s no surprise that their schwarzbier exudes excellence. Earthy, roasty, and chocolatey, Nighthawk is the perfect schwarzbier to take flight with this style.
Schwarzbier – Waypost Brewing Co.
Just to show the versatility of this beer, we named Waypost’s Schwarzbier one of our “20 Best Beers to Drink in Winter 2020.” Why? Because it wasn’t oppressively heavy or sickly sweet. A common misconception in America with dark beer.
Brewed with heavily roasted malts, Schwarzbier is midnight black but restrained in flavor. In fact, the light and subtle coffee and chocolate loaf notes made this beer exceedingly drinkable and refreshing. Wwe could easily put back a few bottles of this beer on a wintry night.
Lithos – Grimm Artisanal Ales
Not sure we could say it better than what Grimm writes in Lithos’ Untappd description: “This black lager is light bodied and smooth with layered roasted malt characteristics and notes of unsweetened cacao nibs, carob, and black coffee. Extra quaffable and dry with a pleasing long bitter finish.”
Köstritzer Schwarzbier – Köstritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei
Bad Köstritz, Thüringen, Germany
The OG schwarzbier! If you’re going to get into this style, you should probably try the original German version at least once. One of the oldest producers of schwarzbier, Köstritzer began brewing in the town of Bad Köstritz in 1543. The “spa town” encouraged visitors to drink its black lager to make them stronger and healthier. Most recently, the Germany brewery actually joined the Bitburger Brewery Group in 1991, reintroducing the “original Köstritzer black beer” in 1993. But it’s still a historical version that you should absolutely try, preferably in Germany if you can.