The New York Times
Dunkel, a Brew Ideal for Long Debates
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: January 3, 2011
DUNKEL-STYLE beers are perhaps not the easiest to market to the American public. Even as American beer drinkers have learned to navigate a range of stylistic terms — stout, pilsner, hefeweizen, India pale ale and the rest — dunkel mystifies. What’s a dunkel? We might as well be talking about doughnuts.
The panel tasted 20 dunkel-style beers. Our favorite was:
Austria *** ½
Toasty, malty aromas; delicate texture with gentle yet energetic flavors that linger.
Importer: Raven Import, Brooklyn
Simply, dunkel is a German term for dark. It refers specifically to dark lagers from Bavaria in southern Germany, especially around Munich. That’s easy enough, right?
Not so fast. Germany, and Austria, too, have more than a few dark lagers. Some are better known than dunkel, like bock, for example, which is more assertive, higher in alcohol, fuller bodied and more broadly malty than dunkel.
Dunkels might just as easily be confused with Vienna-style lagers, or with Märzen, a German beer often consumed at Oktoberfests. These, too, are dark lagers but generally more reddish than dunkels, with the aroma of hops a little more apparent. Let’s not forget schwarzbiers, German lagers that are slightly darker than dunkels, but offer a similar easy drinkability. Then we have dunkelweizens, dark wheat beers, a completely different category.
Poring over German beer designations can be great fun for the beer aficionado. But it can be perplexing or even maddening for ordinary consumers.
Count the beer panel among both groups. Our recent efforts to gather 20 lagers made in the dunkel style collided repeatedly with strict taxonomic authorities who insisted that one beer or another was more schwarzbier than dunkel, or perhaps too Viennese.
In the end, Bernard Kirsch, our ace hunter and gatherer, politely took in the well-meaning advice, weighed the options and decided. Regardless of whether our beers foamed over the confines of a strict definition, we found some delicious examples. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, which does not make a dunkel-style beer and thus had no mug in the pageant, and Hayley Jensen, the beer sommelier at DBGB.
Like most lager beers, dunkels are not intended to impress with their complexity. They are straightforward and direct, made to refresh. The best are lively and energetic, with malty flavors of coffee, toffee and chocolate that entice you back to the glass. They’re just right when, as the old Schaefer commercial put it, you’re having more than one.
“Dunkel is a style designed for drinking,” Garrett said. “You go out, and you drink it all night.”
“Sessionable,” Hayley said, using the beer-geek term for brews that can sustain a long session of imbibing. “I don’t sell a lot of this style,” she added, “but when I can get someone to try it, they tend to like it.”
Florence pointed out that many Americans imagine that dark beers will be rich, thick and heavy, even though good stouts, porters and dunkels belie that assumption. In a sense, the dunkel style is in an uncomfortable position. The ignorant avoid it because they believe it’s too heavy, while the cognoscenti ignore it because they find it too simple.
Personally, I love complex, contemplative ales. But having explored many genres of beer in the last 30 years, I’ve found myself gravitating toward simpler, easier styles (sessionable, indeed) like dunkels, as well as pilsners, porters and pale and brown ales. These are by no means bland. Simplicity should never be mistaken for lack of character or distinction, especially when the beers are as vibrant and alive as our favorite dunkels.
Garrett, who took on the role of our strict stylistic constructionist, suggested that we had in our tasting some good examples of the Vienna lager style, which were a little lighter in color than what he regarded as ideal. Paradoxically, our favorite, the Gösser Dark, was brewed in Austria, but was the best example of the dunkel style. It had an aroma of dark coffee, a soft, almost delicate texture, and a subtle energy and depth to it that lingered long after the sip was gone.
Our No. 2 beer, the Lakefront Eastside Dark from Milwaukee, also fit the style: dark without being too dark, with malty coffee and hazelnut aromas and a fresh, lively flavor. By contrast, the Saranac Black Forest from Utica, N.Y., at No. 3, might have been a bit too dark. It had a slightly floral aroma along with the requisite maltiness, a combination that was nonetheless refreshing.
Among our 20 bottles, 11 were from Germany, 7 from the United States, and 1 each from Austria and Mexico. Mexico? That would be Negra Modelo, a beer I ordinarily like, but which did not make our cut.
Six German beers made our top 10, beginning with the Ettaler Kloster dunkel, at No. 4, which nicely balanced sweet malt flavors with an undercurrent of hop bitterness. The Ayinger Altbairisch dunkel, at No. 5, was the right color with the right aromas and flavors. We might have rated it higher, but it lacked a bit of energy, possibly because it seemed not to be fresh.
That’s perennially a problem with imported beers, especially with the more esoteric genres like dunkels. If they are transported or stored improperly, and then don’t sell quickly, they can lose their freshness, which is crucial.
This suggests that domestic beers would do well against their imported siblings. Indeed, two of our top three dunkels were American. But the truth is, we did not find many domestic brews in the dunkel genre. American craft brewers have spent more time exploring ale styles than lagers. Perhaps this is because the ales are more alluring, considering how long Americans were deprived of them. Or possibly because, as Garrett pointed out, lagers are harder to brew, demanding more precision and leaving less room for error.
Either way, few really met the dunkel definition. We perhaps stretched it a bit to include the Sly Fox dunkel lager, which was really more Vienna lager. But it was so delicious we decided not to be fussy.
A version of this review appeared in print on January 5, 2011, on page D4 of the New York edition.