It was only after I discovered the delights of beer from small breweries in the Czech Republic that I started to develop a taste for dark lager, called either Tmavé or Černé depending on the whim of the brewery. Kozel's Černé is more of a dark amber while Kout na Šumavě's Tmavé absorbs light like a black hole, yet one is "black" and the other "dark respectively.
When I finally decided to make my own lagers, during a particularly cold snap in January, the style I chose first was tmavé, simply because I knew it would be more forgiving of any mess ups along the way than would be a pilsner. I wrote about the recipe and inspiration for the beer back at the beginning of the year. Having enjoyed most of my stash of Černý Lev, I learnt that Schell's Brewing Company up in Minnesota had done a limited batch of tmavé, calling it Stag 5 and so I wanted to do a side by side tasting of the two beers.
First up was Schell's, which is 5.7% and has 30 IBU of Saaz, if the info on Ratebeer is to be believed. Although this picture makes the beer look almost pitch black, it is in fact a dark brown which becomes a rich crimson when held up to the light. The head is light tan and lingers for the duration. It most certainly looked the part.
In terms of aroma there was caramel, like toffee really, a hint of roasted coffee, though it wasn't harsh and in your face about it, and the gentle, soothing spiciness of Saaz hops in the background. I wasn't expecting the smooth flavours of bitter sweet chocolate to be at the fore in the taste department, but it was and it worked well, that roasty edge was there, like toast that is between done and burnt, and the bitterness of the hops kicks in at the end. I found myself sucking this beer down, well assembled, easy to drink and medium bodied, yes I liked it. Where I would put it in the spectrum of tmavé that I have drunk in the Czech Republic? Well ahead of the likes of Kozel and Staropramen, that's for sure, so on a par with Bernard I would say (for the unitiated, that means pretty damned good).
Now for my Černý Lev, which is "Black Lion" in English, which ended up with 5.6% abv and 24 IBU, so in a similar ballpark to the Schell's. This time the picture doesn't hide anything, the beer is a very dark brown, bordering on black and edged with crimson in the light. The head is light tan and voluminous, when eventually it died down a bit, it stuck at about a centimetre for the time it took me to drink the beer. With the head duly receded, it again looked the part.
The aromas bouncing around in the glass for this were treacle, roasted coffee, with hints of spice and I thought a trace of lemony hay. In the taste department the coffee really came to the fore, coupled with sweet malty juiciness and a firm bitter bite which may have slightly unbalanced the beer. The body on my beer was fuller than the Schell's and there was a trace of something solventy about the beer, which I think may have come from underpitching the yeast and having it at slightly higher temperatures than recommended. I like my beer, always a good thing, but it isn't as well integrated and put together as Schell's. Mrs V expressed a clear preference for the Schell's, saying that my beer had too much roastiness in it for her tastes.
I think I might do this kind of comparative tasting a bit more often, as a way to gauge where my homebrew is going right and going wrong. Certainly a worthwhile experiment, I think the next one will be my German Pilsner next to Scrimshaw.
I just wanted to quickly thank Josh up in Minnesota for procuring and sending the beer down to fellow CAMRA homebrewer and occasional blogger, Jamey - have a read of his blog, Barlow Brewing.