Wednesday, November 17, 2021

All Consuming Darkness

Back in 2010 I wrote a post on the old RateBeer forums advocating for Czech tmavé to be recognised as a distinct beer "style" rather than simply lumped together with schwarzbier or dunkel. While I no longer bother with RateBeer or BeerAdvocate, and have never bothered with Untappd, it was interesting this morning to look at those sites and see how tmavé is being categorised in each instance. Ratebeer, seemingly in keeping with the consensus on the thread from 2010, has a broad "Dark lager" category, with dunkle and tmavé bracketed together. Over at BeerAdvocate, most versions of tmavé are seemingly put in one of the "Schwarzbier", "Munich dunkel", or "Lager - European Dark" categories. Untappd would seem to be the most simplistic option, going for just "Lager - Dark".

I don't want to rehash the arguments about whether Czech dark lagers are a unique beast when compared to their German counterparts, though I will continue to maintain that they are. The history of dark beer in Bohemia is fascinating, with it seeming that unlike their Bavarian neighbours, the Bohemians were top fermenting their dark beers until the very cusp of the 20th century. If you have ever had U Fleků's wonderful 13° lager you will know just how similar it is to a modern day stout. In the early years of the First Republic, the oldest brewery in České Budějovice (hint, it isn't Budvar) was advertising a dark beer with the name "Původní Českobudějovický Porter", or "Original Budweiser Porter". If I remember rightly, said beer was brewed to about 13° as well.

Sitting by our new firepit on Sunday afternoon, watching the twins charge around like maniacs, it occurred to me that I had examples of all three dark lager styles in my fridge. Do a tasting I thought, do a tasting I did! My three dark lagers were:

Starting at the beginning, to one of my favourite things...

Ah Von Trapp, goodness me how I love their on point lagers. Dunkel is, as if the name itself is not a hint, dark brown, with glints of garnet when held up to the light. The foam is firm, light tan, and doesn't disappear entirely as you drink. In one of my half litre krugs, it is a mighty damned fine sight. Ok, aroma, crusty toast, not burnt but definitely well toasted, with a light hop spiciness floating around in there too, think a märzen style Oktoberfest lager with more Munich malt oomph and you're not far off. The complexity of the malt really becomes evident when you finally stop looking and sniffing. Rich with toffee, toast, and subtle cocoa hints, there is a nice clean hop bitterness that cuts through it all, leaving the finish dry and moreish. Of the many dunkels I have enjoyed over the years this is one of the best, and one day I will get to Vermont to drink it at the Von Trapp Bierhall.

If Utepils beers were ever distributed to Virginia I would likely be a very happy man. As it is, I am grateful to my colleague Jerry for shipping this nectar to me, which likewise makes me a very happy man. Loonar Eclipse is their Czech style tmavé, which at 5.1% abv is likely to be a 13° Plato beer, and thus right in line with the U Fleků urtyp. It felt appropriate to pour this into my Purkmistr půllitr mug, and pour a very, very dark brown it did. The highlights were deeper than in the dunkel, gleaming like polished mahogany, topped with a healthy inch or so of dark ivory foam. Making their way gamely through the head were aromas of light coffee, a little unsweetened cocoa, and herbal hops, the nose was on the nose. One mouthful and I was transported to days drinking tmavé in Prague, in particular the autumn special from Klášterní Pivovar Strahov. Those coffee and cocoa notes were present in the flavour department too, joined by a bit of cola, and rich crusty, and slightly nutty, bread, almost like mazanec. Just plain lovely is what it is, beautifully rich and smooth, with a clean finish from the hops and fermentation character. My best friend is coming to visit this weekend, so we'll share the remaining pair of cans by the firepit.

Changing up the glassware for the third time, I poured the Port City Schwarzbier into my Chodovar Salzburg High mug, and living up to its name, this was black, black, black, with dark brown edges. The foam was again nice and healthy, but a touch darker than the previous beers, still it clung around for a while. The dominant aroma here was a combination of dark toast and espresso, backed up by a hint of cola. Again, the flavours paired up nicely with the aromas to be deeply rich layers of coffee, dark toast, a general roastiness, and a slightly herbal hop bite to keep everything in balance. Damn if this ain't a fine execution of the style. When I get back from South Carolina for Thanksgiving, I will be doing a comparative tasting of schwarzbiers, and with this teaser I am very much looking forward to it.

So, coming back to the original theme, this little experiment has me satisfied that dunkel, tmavé, and schwarzbier are distinct "styles", for want of a better word. Yes they are clearly similar, but I think that the differences in ingredients as well as flavour and aroma profiles show that the differences are sufficient to celebrate each in their own right. Of course, the challenge here with tmavé is that under Czech brewing law it can be 8° as much as it can 18° - though not above that, then it becomes a "Porter", such are the joys of trying to shoehorn Czech brewing traditions into an Anglo-American taxonomy, which applies just as much to světlé and polotmavé as to tmavé.

To thoroughly bastardise the maxim of Karl Barth..."let pivo be pivo"


  1. Do you have any tips you can share about brewing tmavé and Czech ambers (is the correct term polotmavé?)?

    I've brewed a couple of batches of tmavé using Horst Dornbusch's recipe; it produced a perfectly drinkable beer, though not one that tasted much like my recollection of the U Fleku beer on which it is apparently based.

    And, when it comes to Czech amber, all I've really gleaned from surfing around the internet is that it is generally brewed with the same kinds of grains as tmavé, but obviously with much less of the speciality grains. Again, when I've tried this, I've brewed perfectly decent beer--just nothing that tastes like the stuff I sampled when actually in the Czech Republic!

  2. I think decoction mashing makes a world of difference, as does open fermentation in a wider, more shallow vessel if you are able.

    If you are not able to do a decoction mash then I would recommend doing your brew as an extract with specialty grains affair. Use something like Briess's Munich extract, which is a blend of Pilsner and Munich malts, and steep a CaraMunich and de-husked Carafa II. I have a theory that the process of boiling the wort required to make liquid extract then rehydrating and boiling again kind of introduces Maillard reactions into the beer, akin to decoction. I recently used a Pilsner extract by itself for a desitka and it was pretty damned close to something you could get in Czechia.


Taking Up the Alworth #MyDreamBrewery Baton

We've all done it I am sure, dreamt about what our ideal brewery or pub would look like. I have done it many times, whether sat in a tap...