We here at BeerEast think the schwarzbier is one of the most overlooked beer styles by modern craft brewers, and we’ve also managed to overlook it here by not reviewing any schwarzbiers. Until today, that is! It’s actually a great style, and there are plenty of decent ones in Japan, so let’s jump into it with a look at the Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager, the Baeren Schwarz, and from Germany the Köstritzer Schwarzbier.
Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager (富士桜高原・ダークラガー)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Foamy, creamy, black, foam sticks around
Aroma – Very strong roast smell, soft hops
Flavor – Very creamy and full texture, fizzy, very soft overall, soft malts, roast finish with a touch of caramel sweetness
We’ve reviewed a few Fujizakura Heights beers here on BeerEast, and for the most part we like them very much. As I mentioned in the introduction even though we’ve ignored schwarzbiers up until now I’m actually quite fond of the style, and so last year when Fujizakura Heights released their Dark Lager I was quite excited. In fact, last year was the first time in 10 years that they had brewed this beer, and as it was pretty popular they released it again this winter.
Before we get into this particular beer let’s go to our beloved German Beer Institute for a more detailed description of the schwarzbier. They describe it in helpful SAT fashion thus: “Schwarzbier is to lager what stout or porter is to ale.” So there you have it – essentially it’s a roasted lager. “Schwarz” just means black, so the word itself translates as black beer, which it certainly is. The German Beer Institute throws around words like “elegant” and “rich” and “surprisingly balanced” to describe the style, but of course they always use language like that. Anyway, let’s move on to the beers!
There aren’t many specific brewing notes of interest, so let’s just do a quick roundup of Facebook tidbits on this beer. First, apparently one of the things that people are very curious about is who the samurai on the label is! Not the most beery aspect, but I guess people really want to know. What else… oh yes, they’ve also worked in a Star Wars reference in one of their Facebook previews for the beer (it says “Beware the Dark Side”). Finally, here are some pictures of the brewing process and a video of the bottling of the Dark Lager.
The Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager is a drinkable and pleasant beer, but quite frankly not super exciting and a little bit disappointing given that it is Fujizakura Heights. By no means is it a terrible beer, and the overall soft and mellow feeling to the beer is nice. I especially like the roasted malts on the finish, and the slight sweetness on the finish is a good complement. Again, though, we tend to expect a lot of Fujizakura Heights, and it’s not clear that they’ve really delivered with this one. Solid and subtle, but nothing to write home about.
We’ve probably mentioned this before, but Fujizakura seasonals are getting harder to find these days – this one was purchased at Tokyo Liquor Land, and that seems to be the only place in Tokyo that regularly stocks Fujizakura seasonals. A shame, as they’re really quite good, even if this one was a bit of a bust. I’m looking forward to seeing if they release a bottled version of the Premium Pilsner -they skipped it last year in bottled form, but you see it on tap periodically and it’s a good one. Unfortunately the Dark Lager isn’t quite up to those standards, but let’s see if we do any better with the Baeren Schwarz.
Baeren Schwarz (ベアレン・シュバルツ)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Similar in appearance, foamy, creamy, black, but foam dissipates quickly
Aroma – Roasted malts are strong, chocolate
Flavor – Very full, lots of malts in there, strong roast finish slightly bitter and dry on the finish as well
The Baeren Schwarz is one of the three Baeren regular beers, along with the Classic and Alt. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there on this one, and about the only interesting piece of information I can find is that it used to be brewed at 6% ABV (like the Classic), but is now toned down a bit at 5.5% ABV.
This beer is actually quite similar to flavor to the Fujizakura Heights Dark Lager, but the big difference is that the malts are much more present all throughout. It also has the nice roast finish, but really it’s the full maltiness that does it for me. It gives it a solid flavor base to contrast with the dry and chocolate roastiness, whereas with the Fujizakura offering there wasn’t much meat to it before leading into the roast finish. A very satisfying drinking experience, which isn’t necessarily a surprise as Baeren are more than capable of producing very good beers.
As with other Baeren beers the Schwarz is quite affordable, costing me only 360 yen at Nomono. Nomono is probably the place where I see Baeren regulars most often, although last time I went they seemed to be running a bit lower than usual on Baeren stock, making me worry if they were about to stop carrying them. Other than Nomono you can find Baeren regulars at Tokyo Liquor Land sometimes, but I don’t recall seeing them in other shops. A shame, as both the Schwarz and Classic are excellent beers and very very cheap.
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Not much carbonation, cola black
Aroma – Earthy, dirty hops, some malts as well
Flavor – Initially some malts, bitterness and hops on the finish, earthy, very bitter actually on finish, slight roast as it warms up
Köstritzer, which is located in the eastern part of Germany, is again one of those European breweries with centuries of history. They trace their history (as well as the history of their black lager) back to 1543, and claim to have been brewing black beer continuously since then. Their history page also notes some of the more famous known drinkers of their beer, which apparently include Goethe and Bismarck. It even has a little blurb from Bismarck, which I have to admit is a pretty awesome feather in their cap. As much as I love The Bruery I don’t think they have the endorsement of any world leaders, although they might be able to get a quote from the mayor of Placentia, I suppose.
Today Köstritzer is no longer independent, having been bought by Bitburger in 1991. The Schwarzbier still does quite well though, and on their homepage they boast that they sell over 400,000 hectoliters a year of the stuff, and that they’ve been the leading black lager beer brand in Germany for the last 20 years. They do brew a couple of other beers (like a pale ale), but everything is basically just a blip compared to their Schwarzbier.
Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of the Köstritzer Schwarzbier is its emphasis on bitter over roast. The earthy hops are very present on the aroma, and also there on the flavor, contributing to a quite bitter finish. The malts are still there, but really this schwarzbier is about the bitterness. There isn’t much roast to it, although it appears a bit as it warms up, and it could perhaps use a bit more. How you feel about this beer may depend on how much you like the hop presence in this beer. Personally, while I liked the fact that there were noticeable hops here, given that it is a schwarzbier it would have been far more interesting with more roast.
So there we have it! Interestingly, the German Beer Institute predicted we would find them all to be well-balanced and relatively mild. That was probably most true of the Fujizakura Heights offering, so perhaps you could argue that that one is the most true to style. However, the Baeren was also balanced nicely but more flavorful, whereas the Köstritzer was actually a bit out of balance. Overall I preferred the Baeren, but I also think that they’re all somewhat close together. There are actually a few other schwarzbiers I’ve liked in Japan (the Tazawako Dark Lager comes to mind), so we’ll definitely continue on with these in the future as well.