In 2016, Sapporo debuted Sapporo Black, the first dark beer sold by the company in more than 140 years of existence. It was “an astounding success,” a spokesperson told me at the time.
It’s true: It’s a good beer. German for “black beer,” schwarzbier is traditionally a light-bodied, low-alcohol, roasty dark lager brewed with Munich and roasted malts. Like a dry stout that’s even easier to drink, a good schwarzbier balances a chocolate malt backbone with moderately bitter coffee-like notes, along with earthy hops, and a crisp, dry finish.
The style made a comeback in Germany in the 1990s, led by brands like Köstritzer Schwarzbier. Naturally, American craft brewers followed. Although schwarzbier is not quite as popular as other dark beer styles like porters and stouts, brewers across the country are releasing delicious renditions of the style.
A great place to look for schwarzbier is at breweries that specialize in German or other traditional European beer styles; White Street Brewing in Wake Forest, N.C., and Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas have both had great schwarzbiers. In fact, in doing this tasting, we found that many black lagers are kept close to the brewhouse, either exclusively available in taprooms or in limited distribution nearby. But for pilsner lovers looking to dip a toe into dark beer, it’s worth seeking out.
Between our tasting panel and several off-site brewery visits, VinePair tasted more than a dozen schwarzbiers from around the country. Here are six of our favorites.
Fort Collins, Colo.
Although Belgian-inspired (not German), 1554 is a standout among black lagers. At first it leans into its malty-sweet notes, with bittersweet chocolate and a hint of dark fruit; then, it finishes dry as the walls of a Belgian brown cafe. “I’m in black lager heaven,” one taster swooned.
At first, the aroma on this schwarzbier-style lager is perplexingly funky with a strong, resinous note reminiscent of hash or burnt cannabis. It eventually won the panel over with its ultra-light body packed with rich roasty flavor. “A little acidic, like black coffee— but still a lager,” one taster said. As another one summed it up, “I love this because of how odd it is.”
This award-winning, year-round offering from Jack’s Abby takes the traditional schwarzbier and emblazens it with smoked malt. Some tasters found this off-putting, but others appreciated its deviation from the norm. “It’s smoky for sure, but it won’t blow you out with bacon flavor,” one taster said. Others noted flavors of dark bread, semi-sweet chocolate, and coffee. Smoky but sessionable, this full-flavored black lager brings an Old World edge.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Baba was no black sheep in our tasting. This widely available black lager boasts rich chocolate and roasty notes, leaning closer to a porter than a lager for some tasters. Aromas of milk chocolate, marshmallow, and s’mores had some panelists swooning and others wishing for crisper notes. Light-bodied and lightly sweet overall, Baba’s burnt-toast finish is at once decadent and sessionable.
Brewed in collaboration with Saint Vitus Bar for the Six Most Metal Breweries show (in production), KCBC’s black pilsner offers a combination of sweet, stout-like chocolate flavors alongside roasty coffee notes. “It teases like it’s going to be sweet, then finishes bitter,” one taster said. All agreed it’s devilishly delicious.
Although you’re unlikely to find this beer outside New York State, our panel could not help but sing its praises. Soft and smooth, as is the Suarez way, Bones Shirt pours a deep, dark brunette topped with a head one taster called “luxurious.” Aromas of dark bread, light roast, and chocolate translate to the palate, perfect for pairing with a pretzel or crunchy snack. Bones Shirt is appealing to the subtlety-seeking connoisseur and the schwarzbier novice alike.