68 of the Best Dark Lagers, Blind-Tasted and RankedPhotos by Andrew Barkau, Annie Black Drink Lists craft beer
This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.
We could hardly blame you if you hadn’t yet noticed, given the continued fervor for styles such as hazy IPA, fruited sours and pastry stout, but if you look closely, you may have observed that dark lagers are having a bit of a moment in the U.S. craft beer scene.
Yeah, we said “dark lagers,” although defining what exactly that means isn’t the simplest proposition. This is a bit of a catch-all term, which can imply everything from the bready-malty-toasty profile of a classic Munich dunkel, to the drier and roastier schwarzbier, to the surprisingly hop-forward Czech dark lager. Oh, and then there’s also German-style bock lagers, and all the unclassifiable beers that are simply labeled “dark lager” or “black lager” as well. They’re all riffs on the same sort of broad idea in their own way, and if you take a gander around the taprooms of well-liked breweries, you may start to notice that they’ve become more common than you realized.
Why is that? Well, our personal theory is that a surge in dark lagers could likely stem from the increasing popularity of lager itself as a sort of counter-culture trend pulling in the opposite direction of the prevailing craft beer hype cycle, which is so dominated by beers that are focused around extremes of flavor. The “crispy boi” subculture that continues to emerge has formed a sort of hype of its own, albeit much less visible, for extremely drinkable craft lagers—it only makes sense that those patrons would enjoy a few darker variants as well.
On a deeper level, though, it feels like these dark lagers are filling a niche in the marketplace that has become increasingly underserved, which is non-adjunct, standard-strength dark beer. In a time when customers are increasingly expecting any given standard-strength (non-imperial) porter or stout released by their local craft breweries to contain at least one or two adjuncts or flavorings, these styles give breweries a way to put a non-adjunct dark beer on the taproom menu for those who would prefer to keep things more simple. Or in other words: Your customers might expect a standard-strength stout to contain coffee and vanilla, but they probably don’t have the same mental association with dunkel or schwarzbier. These dark lager styles, then, represent a way for drinkers to experience some of those same flavors, which have increasingly been tossed aside at a time when dark beer styles are veering ever sweeter and more adjuncted.
And if that’s the case, then we’re relieved indeed to have these lagers. Alternatingly crisp, roasty, malty-sweet, hoppy or slightly rich, they demonstrate the balance and delicacy that makes styles such as dunkel or schwarzbier so appealing. Perhaps unfortunately, many of the entries we received are taproom exclusives, but if they continue to prove popular, perhaps more of these beers will end up in wider distribution in the future. We certainly hope so, because dark lager is what the U.S. beer scene needs right now.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these lagers were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
Rules and Procedure
– This is a tasting of American craft “dark lagers,” largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. There are no ale styles of any kind—it it had ale yeast, it was disqualified. Acceptable styles included dunkel, schwarzbier, Czech dark lager, bock and others, as long as they were under the ABV limit. As always, when in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
– There was an ABV limit of 7%.
– There was a limit of only one entry per brewery, to keep the sample size manageable. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field. We also chose to focus on American craft breweries rather than the classic entries from Europe.
– Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps.
– Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
The Field: Dark Lagers #68-31
In this competition, the three most common styles ended up being schwarzbier, dunkel and Czech dark lager, in roughly that order, with a small smattering of bocks and a few styles that are usually stronger (doppelbock, baltic porter) that squeaked in under the 7% ABV cut-off. Many of them were lovely, and most were perfectly serviceable, although there were some misfires in the margins. Bock and dunkel, in particular, seemed more difficult for some of these breweries to pull off, or perhaps they simply had a more difficult time standing out in comparison with schwarzbier and Czech dark lager.
Regardless, we ultimately settled on ranking the top 30, which puts an additional 38 beers here in The Field.
As always, the beers here in the field are simply listed in alphabetical order, and as such they are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Arches Brewing Winter’s Night
Baere Brewing Co. Collective Intentionality
Bauhaus Brew Labs Stargrazer
Brink Brewing Co. Patrick Schwarzy
Burnt Hickory Mudhoney Touch Me I’m Bock
Cerebral Brewing Cryptic Message
Cherry St. Brewing Cooperative Dunkel Bock
Creature Comforts Brewing Co. The Silent World
Eighty-Three Brewery Heritage & History
Eventide Brewing Midnight Hour
Fonta Flora Brewery Oak Stand
Halfway Crooks Beer Shell
Hi-Wire Brewing Bohemian Dark Lager
Hourglass Brewing Troy’s Hammer
Idle Hands Craft Ales Brunhilda
Independence Brewing Co. Midnight Paradise
Ithaca Beer Co. Fuggly Sweater
KC Bier Co. Dunkel
Kelsen Brewing Co. Chernabog
Kros Strain Brewing Dunkel Breakin’ My Heart
MadTree Brewing Co. Dunkel
Mother Road Brewing Co. The V-8tor Doppelbock
Noble Stein Brewing Co. La Brea
Port City Brewing Schwarzbier
Reformation Brewery Munich Dunkel
Revolution Brewing Baphomet Bock
Roadhouse Brewing Co. Paint it Black
Schilling Beer Co. Modernism
Seventh Son Brewing Co. Schwarzbier
Stevens Point Bock Beer
Transient Artisan Ales Dark Lagger
12 Bones Smokehouse Booty Schwarz
Uinta Brewing Baba Black Lager
Upslope Brewing Co. Czech Dark Lager
Von Ebert Brewing Black Pils
Wallenpaupack Brewing Co. Nocturnal Black Lager
Wild Heaven Beer Schwarz Helmet
Yazoo Brewing Co. 16th Anniversary Dark Czech Lager
The Finals: Dark Lagers #30-1
30. Threes Brewing Volition
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Some breweries approach these lagers with the attitude that historical verisimilitude is paramount, and will carefully note what makes their entry a schwarzbier, or a dunkel, or what have you. And then there’s well-liked, modern American breweries like Threes, which seem to take more of a stance that all you need to know is that “it’s dark, and it’s a lager.” Labeled as simply “dark lager” on Untappd and “European dark lager” on BeerAdvocate, this is a beer that seems to fall between styles, or is perhaps forging one of its own, to which we say “whatever, it tastes good.” Nutty and lower on the assertiveness threshold than many of the other entries, Volition displays some pleasant notes of cocoa and milk chocolate, but in more of a “cocoa nibs” way than a more intense or bitter dark chocolate vibe. As one taster’s score sheet observes, this was “the nuttiest one of the day.” If English “nut brown ales” were once your thing, then this beer might be your new best friend.
29. Jack’s Abby German Porter Kellerbier
City: Framingham, MA
The verdict: We’d never heard of any lager style described as “German porter” before this, unless you’re talking about baltic porter, but if any U.S. brewery was going to discover a new German lager style it makes perfect sense for it to be Jack’s Abby. Although the fascination with lager in the American beer scene can feel like a new phenomenon, much of that enthusiasm is thanks to the handful of lager-only breweries that opened at the beginning of last decade, include Jack’s Abby in 2011, and they have been tireless proponents of lesser-known styles ever since. This “porter” entry in their kellerbier series is unsurprisingly difficult to classify, but it catches your attention with a combination of roasted nuts, dark bread and unexpectedly spicy notes of clove and peppercorns. Tasted blind, it’s tough to know exactly what you’re drinking, but it compels a second look.
28. Union Craft Brewing Blackwing Lager
City: Baltimore, MD
The verdict: Schwarzbiers were probably the single most common beer style of this tasting, but that doesn’t mean that U.S. craft breweries are all producing them in roughly the same way. Many of the schwarzbiers we sampled were drier and heavy on the roast, but this one from Union actually leans in more of a dunkel direction—quite bready and yeasty (one taster’s sheet actually says “pumpernickel”), with a lot of roasted nut character, segueing into more of a roasty/smoky finish. Of note: This was one of the tasting’s rare dark lagers that came in a printed can, rather than a wrapped one or a crowler, implying that Blackwing is a reliable presence for Union. Printed cans were definitely a rarity in this tasting, which speaks to how many of these releases were limited or taproom-only.
27. Narrow Gauge Brewing Co. Downside
City: Florissant, MO
The city: Perhaps the strangest aspect of this tasting is that it saw us sampling beer for the very first time from several nationally hyped breweries … but not in styles anywhere close to the beer that drove that hype in the first place. Case in point, Florissant’s (just outside St. Louis) Narrow Gauge, a well-known maker of sought-after hazy IPAs, but what does that really mean when we’re talking about schwarzbier instead? Should being good at one thing automatically raise your expectations for another? Regardless, they produced some solid schwarz. This one feels like a substantial beer, with big coffee on the nose, and a creamy, fuller mouthfeel that set it apart from a lot of the other beers on the table. Big roast on the palate, with an ashy but bittersweet ending, made it appealing to several tasters, who also noted a candied pecan-type nuttiness. I got the sense that this entry fell on what was ultimately the strongest overall day of the tasting, and could theoretically have performed even better in other circumstances, but it’s a good debut for Narrow Gauge nevertheless.
26. Grimm Artisanal Ales Lithos
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Here’s another case where it’s a brewery we know pretty well, and have loved in the past in tastings such as the time we sampled 176 DIPAs, but I don’t think I’ve ever even tasted any lager from Grimm before this, let alone a dark lager. How does one know what to expect? In this case, they brewed up a schwarzbier, but then took it in a different direction via the use of noble hops. There’s a buzzy, spicy quality to the hop flavors here, which immediately makes me think Saaz, but who knows? It pairs surprisingly well with smoky, ashy notes of roast, although these are light in terms of intensity despite being quite “dark” in terms of flavor. The finish is both dry and bitter, achieved presumably through a combination of hop bitterness and French roast-like char. This is a combination we saw in a few other beers, and it occasionally worked out quite well.
25. Oskar Blues Dunkels Bock
City: Longmont, CO
The verdict: Tipping the scales at the highest end of the allowable ABV limit is this “dunkels bock” from Oskar Blues, essentially taking a Munich dunkel and packing a few extra pounds of oomph onto it. The result is a voluptuous, bigger-bodied beer that doesn’t really register as “boozy,” per se, but has a bit more of that dried fruit quality that begins to creep into malty beers in this range. Nutty and malty-sweet, with notes that were cited as “almonds” and “hazelnut” by different tasters, it ends with a curiously spicy note that is almost evocative of chiles—or perhaps it’s just the dried fruit that makes it feel that way. Regardless, this sort of beer was a definite minority in this lineup, but a pleasantly vocal one.
24. Burial Beer Co. Hellstar
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: This beer from Burial is at least somewhere in the neighborhood of Munich dunkel, even if it doesn’t exactly say so on the can. Compared with so many of the other, more one-dimensionally roasty schwarzbiers (not that this is a bad thing), Hellstar comes off a bit more fruit-inflected (almost vinous) and malty-sweet, although there’s a strand of delicate roastiness there as well. With a nose that seems slightly fruity-estery, it makes us wonder what kind of yeast strain might have been used here, but the results are more refreshing than you might expect. It’s an unorthodox winner, which is something you can actually say about a lot of Burial beers, so that seems fitting.
23. Spiteful Brewing Dark Lager
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Spiteful has built itself into one of Chicago’s best all-around producers of dark beer styles in particular, from its range of “Goddamn Pigeon” porters to its imperial Malevolence Chocolate Caliente stout. But don’t sleep on the lagers, either—Spiteful does pretty much every dark beer style well. This one stands out for its thick, round texture, which is quite impressive for the modest 4.9% ABV. Roast forward, but with substantial dark chocolate richness, it’s almost slightly syrupy in texture, but it makes a positive impression by being one of the most assertive and up-front in the competition. From the first sip to the last, you know what you’re getting in this one.
22. Triple Crossing Czech Dark Lager
City: Richmond, VA
The verdict: Few breweries have performed so consistently across numerous styles in Paste blind tastings as Richmond’s Triple Crossing, which has done everything from a #3 finish out of 102 lagers to placing TWO beers in the top 5 of 176 DIPAs. So yeah, you expect almost everything they make to be quality, and their Czech Dark Lager is no exception. This one remembers the “lager” profile more than some of the others, contributing a noticeable pop of floral noble hops on the nose, followed by light coffee roastiness. Lighter in texture than most of the beers that surrounded it on either side, it’s subtly balanced between mild hoppiness, restrained roastiness and a very light sweetness, finishing with a mild but lingering bitterness. In a brewery lineup that is often surrounded by hugely flavorful IPAs and even bigger stouts, it’s the sort of beer that is an ideal, year-round taproom staple, for those moments when you simply want something subtle.
21. Cellarmaker Brewing Co. Midnight Silk
City: San Francisco, CA
The verdict: San Francisco’s Cellarmaker is another brewery known for their deft hand with roasty beers, as in the ever-popular Coffee & Cigarettes, so it makes sense that they were able to transplant some of those same flavors to a smaller lager frame. This one is on the drier side, with a pronouncedly roasty aroma that suggests very dark coffee or oily espresso beans, and a palate that is heavy on the cocoa powder. Plenty flavorful, it hits a deft mark between “high-cacao dark chocolate bar” and “bracingly strong cup of coffee,” without implying a lot of richness, thanks to the dry finish. With more residual sweetness, this might have felt like a robust porter or stout, but it retains the drinkability you also want in a dark lager.
20. NOLA Brewing Darkest Before Dawn
City: New Orleans, LA
The verdict: Despite the fact that “NOLA” actually stands for “New Orleans Lager and Ale” in the name of this New Orleans stalwart (the first brewery to operate in the city, post-Katrina), the odd truth is that NOLA never actually brewed a single lager for its first seven years of existence. It broke that fast with this beer, a Munich dunkel that hits the bullseye in terms of representing that classic German style. From one score sheet: “Darkly malty, slightly sweet with licorice fruitiness. Dunkel all the way.” Slightly chocolatey as well, this beer reins itself in from being too sweet, finishing off-dry in the way that most good dunkels do. One wonders why NOLA waited so long, if they had a beer like this one up their sleeves.
19. Henniker Brewing Co. All That Jazz
City: Henniker, NH
The verdict: It’s a bit tough to tell exactly what dark lager category this entry from Henniker fits into best, except by noting that it definitely has no shortage of roasty intensity. This is a big, flavorful lager that checks a number of boxes—French roast coffee, dark chocolate, a little smoke, but not particularly sweet. It almost runs the risk of being not that distinctive, except for a slight x-factor in the form of a very subtly rich note that reminded one taster of toasted coconut. That was enough to raise it out of the pack and put it into the top 20.
18. Ratio Beerworks Darklands Dark Lager
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: There’s a lot going on in this particular offering from Denver’s Ratio, but not a ton of indication right off that bat that it’s considerably stronger (at 6.3% ABV) than most of these other beers. They refer to this one as a dry-hopped dark lager, although it’s not really explosively assertive on the noble hop flavors compared to some of the others that make that their calling card. The hops do contribute some substantial bitterness, though, which melds with dark chocolate to create the impression of a very high-percentage cacao bar. This one is also surprisingly dry for that ABV, which keeps it dangerously drinkable for that elevated level. It feels like a beer that could sneak up on you. As one taster simply put it, “hoppy, roasty, tasty.”
17. Von Trapp Brewing Dunkel
City: Stowe, VT
The verdict: It doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of national recognition of Von Trapp Brewing, but that’s par for the course when it comes to breweries that specialize in classic German styles and lagers. Those who live in New England know that they’re one of the most dependable lager producers around, as reflected in a previous Paste blind tasting where they finished top 10 in pilsner, so we’re not surprised to see their dunkel here as well. They bring their usual subtlety to this one, which blends delicate threads of floral noble hops with dark bread, yeasty notes and that slightly musty quality you expect to get in malty lagers that have made the trip from Germany to the U.S. This one genuinely feels like an “import,” and we mean that as a compliment—Von Trapp is good at capturing the ephemeral differences between German beer made here and German beer made abroad. Mild and inviting, it’s a malty lager that makes its point without screaming from the rooftops.
16. Swiftwater Brewing Co. May the Schwarzbier
City: Rochester, NY
The verdict: Breweries absolutely cannot resist the Star Wars/Spaceballs gags when it comes to naming their schwarzbiers, for obvious reasons—there’s at least half a dozen sprinkled through this tasting at one point or another. This one, from the edge of Lake Ontario, really seems to be seeking out a genuine balance between “dark” and “lager,” featuring some slightly noble hoppy accents that are supported by light roastiness. This beer is considerably more crisp and drinkable than some of the other, more bombastic schwarzbiers, with subtle bitterness and malty notes that swing between dry, nutty malt and a more coffee-like roast. The hops, likewise, are a nice touch, contributing hints of florals and spice. Everything on this beer is subtle, but in a way that really works in its favor.
15. Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. Lighten Up, Francis
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: As far as we’re concerned, the folks at ABGB are the best pilsner brewers in the world today, winning golds in every pilsner substyle at GABF, in addition to winning our own blind tasting of the style. So naturally, we expect their entries to be front-runners in almost any lager blind tasting, but here they have to settle merely for “very good” rather than “the absolute best.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, their take on schwarzbier (seemingly named after the movie Stripes) has more than a little pilsner inflection, being one of the most hop-forward interpretations of the style in the entire tasting. Quite floral in nature, with a bit of buzzy spice as well, it jumps out of the glass with hop aromatics, but finds its darker side on the palate via slightly ashy roastiness, complemented by moderate hop-derived bitterness. Drinking it blind, you certainly might imagine that it was some sort of black pilsner—there actually was one beer in this tasting that was labeled “Black Pils”—perhaps offering the noble-hop flip side of the coin to black IPA. That seems like it could be a hard style to get right, but we can dig it.
14. Breakside Brewery Darkness Comes
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: Most of the beers labeled as “Czech dark lager” had at least some kind of hop presence to them, which I suppose means that this Breakside effort is stylistically on point—no surprise there, as you can say that about practically anything from Breakside. To our palate, this one makes the choice to go easy on all that roastiness, offering only a gentle toastiness and hints of caramel despite the dark coloration. These malt flavors are supported by noticeable hoppiness, which provides a spicy buzz. The words “light” and “crisp” crop up on a lot of score sheets, and one refers to it as “pils-y,” as this one seems to desire more to be a lightweight refresher than an outright flavor bomb. Well composed; well executed; very much what we expect from Breakside at this point.
13. Brew Gentlemen BG Dunkel
City: Braddock, PA
The verdict: Here’s another case where it’s hard to know what to expect, given that Brew Gentlemen were the victors the last time we blind-tasted 176 DIPAs. But really, what does that mean when it comes to dunkel of all things? Do two more disparate styles even exist? To their credit, Brew Gentlemen went real traditional on this one, diving head first into rich maltiness. Tasters gathered a whole lot of different impressions: Red fruitiness, berries, black bread, cocoa and even a hint of booziness, which had several guessing that this was some kind of miniaturized doppelbock. BG Dunkel is noticeably more sweet than a lot of the drier schwarzbiers, and coats the palate with more of a full and creamy texture. It feels a bit more decadent than most of the stuff on the table, despite the average ABV, and that definitely won it some fans.
12. Resident Culture Brewing Co. There Is No Light Without the Dark
City: Charlotte, NC
The verdict: Of all the schwarzbiers in this tasting—and there were a whole lot of them—this entry from Resident Culture might actually be closest to the platonic ideal. It’s just a textbook definition of the style, and every score sheet seems to acknowledge this, with one calling it “right down the middle” and another saying it was “even keeled, refreshing and repeatable.” Nothing sticks out with real intensity; it’s just nicely integrated and balanced. Slight hoppiness is present on the nose, along with a graham cracker-like sweetness, while mild roast makes it inviting but not bitter or astringent on the palate. It’s dry, drinkable and clean, with a wisp of smoke on the back end—the kind of beer you might session for hours while watching a football game in a bar. It’s assertive enough, without being ostentatious about anything. A perfect daily drinker.
11. Woodland Farm Brewery Remsen Social Club
City: Utica, NY
The verdict: Alright, whereas the previous entry from Resident Culture is a beer we appreciated for its subtlety and composure, this one is just a big punch of flavor. It’s honestly shocking to see that this one is labeled as a Munich dunkel, given how massively chocolatey and roasty it presents, especially on the nose. This beer feels way bigger and more vivacious than the 5% ABV would ever lead you to expect, presenting big cocoa, nutty and roasty notes, and a correspondingly big mouthfeel that two different score sheets describe as “silky smooth.” In fact, if I didn’t know this was a dark lager tasting, I would absolutely have believed you if you told me that I was drinking an American non-adjunct stout. That might not be exactly “to style” for dunkel, but it’s undeniably delicious. Good stuff out of upstate New York.
10. Devils Backbone Brewing Co. Schwartz Bier Black Lager
City: Roseland, VA
The verdict: An AB InBev-owned lager in the top 10? Well, stranger things have happened in previous Paste blind tastings. It at least makes sense that this one is from Devils Backbone, Virginia’s biggest brewery in terms of production, as their flagship Vienna Lager is already “dark lager” adjacent—it only makes sense that they’re well versed in schwarzbier as well. This one is light, smooth and approachable, particularly in comparison with other beers labeled “schwarzbier” in the tasting. Lightly bready and a bit malty sweet, with cocoa accents, it’s a bit fruity on the nose but pretty dry on the finish, with a lower overall assertiveness level that makes it eminently quaffable. From one score sheet: “Not too dry overall, little hint of chocolate, yum.” Overall, this is a more restrained presentation, which is perhaps what you expect from a bigger regional brewery, but it’s a definite autumn-winter patio pounder.
9. Reuben’s Brews Dark Munich Lager
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Popular Seattle brewery Reuben’s Brews hits the nail on the head with this faithful rendition of Munich dunkel, which incorporates all the high notes you expect in the style. A bit dark-fruity on the nose, chased by cocoa powder and slight bready-yeastiness, it was praised by pretty much all the tasters for its smooth texture and measured approach. From one score sheet: “Well-balanced, slightly malty sweet, builds gradually but isn’t overwhelming.” Another score sheet mentions its “soft chocolate finish,” noting that it also has a wisp of roasty char. Overall, it’s a nicely complex lager that feels perhaps a touch bigger than the moderate 5.3% ABV.
8. Prison City Pub & Brewery Sad Devotion to Ancient Religion
City: Auburn, NY
The verdict: A lot of breweries dialed up their best Star Wars riffs in this schwarzbier-laden field, but Prison City easily takes home that title with a New Hope gag that doesn’t feel the need to directly work “schwarz” in, which is appreciated. I can’t recall if we’ve ever had a lager before from Prison City, a brewery that shot to the forefront of our attention when it won our second blind tasting of 247 IPAs, but their schwarzbier contribution here is among the most purely flavorful (and roasty) in the entire field. This beer feels huge, much bigger than it actually is, with a slight dark fruitiness that adds a subtly vinous character to a lager that is otherwise very intensely roasty, with massive coffee and dark chocolate notes. This schwarzbier is perhaps the most “dark chocolate bar” representative of the tasting, and it’s damn tasty for it. A very substantial entry that sticks to your ribs, as it were.
7. Great Raft Brewing Reasonably Corrupt
City: Shreveport, LA
The verdict: There are definitely a handful of similar, full-flavor dark lagers to be found up here in the upper echelons, and Great Raft’s Reasonably Corrupt undeniably has some shared DNA with the Prison City beer that preceded it. This is an undefined dark lager, although it’s mostly schwarzbier-like in presentation, with a solid roastiness and charred quality that carries through from start to finish. In comparison with the one before, it stands out for a smoother and more creamy texture, almost milk stout-like, and it’s also a bit sweeter—this is a bit more of a “desserty” dark lager, although please realize we mean this in a relative way, as none of these beers would ever make you think of the sugar levels of modern pastry stout. As one score sheet puts it: “Very creamy, and a bit sweeter. Espresso ice cream. Delicious.”
6. Cinderlands Beer Co. Oontz
City: Pittsburgh, PA
The verdict: We’re glad that these results seem to indicate a general appreciation for multiple styles of dark lager among the blind tasters, as this Munich “rye dunkel” from Pittsburgh’s Cinderlands is a far cry from the two big, roasty bombs that preceded it. There’s a touch of light roasted coffee, but the bigger players are light caramel, warm malt and a subtle charge of hops, which provide some floral notes and gentle bitterness. We don’t quite get the bready-toasty dimension that we’ve seen in some of the other dunkels, but it’s easy to appreciate this one’s drier, less malty-sweet approach. One taster’s sheet refers to it as “lager first, roast second,” and that’s an accurate way of looking at it.
5. Akronym Brewing Black Hat
City: Akron, OH
The verdict: This is pretty much why we love doing these blind tastings—the realization that a brewery I’ve never heard of, that has never submitted anything to a Paste blind tasting before, that’s not even on our press list as far as I know, is among the top 5 best dark lagers we sampled. Is there anything more exciting, as a beer fan, than discovering something new and great? Akronym’s Black Hat (a schwarzbier) is a pretty expressive version of the style, with ample roastiness and char that is offset by a pleasantly subtle milk chocolate sweetness and hints of noble hops. These are big flavors, reined in slightly by buzzy carbonation that helps to refresh the palate for that next charge of roast and cocoa, which makes it simultaneously full-flavored and easy drinking. It’s an impressive debut for a new brewery in these blind tastings, no doubt about it.
4. Wiseacre Brewing Co. Starless
City: Memphis, TN
The verdict: Compared with some of the other dark lagers (and especially schwarzbiers) in the top 10, this entry from Memphis’ reliable Wiseacre Brewing Co. is quite a bit more restrained. It won its points with the tasters via sheer drinkability and balance, being arguably one of the easiest drinking beers of the entire tasting. As one score sheet put it: “Clean, easy, full but not heavy, lightly roasty and utterly smooth.” Light roast is the operative flavor here, with slightly bready malt beneath it, culminating in a dry, crisp finish. Certainly, it’s considerably more “lager” than some of the other entries, which read more like miniaturized stouts or porters, and a good indication that you can make a delicious dark lager in quite a few different ways. Reading Wiseacre’s description, it sounds like extreme drinkability was pretty much what they were going for, and if that’s the case, they executed their concept beautifully.
3. Fieldwork Brewing Co. Owl Theory
City: Berkeley, CA
The verdict: Now this is interesting—the rare occurrence of a brewery we know fairly well, delivering something that is totally different from what we’d expect them to make. If you’d asked us in advance what kind of dark lager would be rolling out of Fieldwork, it seems only natural we would have expected it to be a hop bomb of some variety because, well … we’ve had a ton of hoppy beer from these guys, in styles that aren’t always even known for being hop forward. But this is something quite a bit different—a Czech dark lager with some mildly floral hop notes, yes, but also a beautiful array of malt flavors. This one opens nutty, before segueing into more of a chocolate dimension, in the mold of nutty cacao nibs. The slightly elevated ABV gives is a bit more oomph and the impression of richness, although it’s still a dry, easy-drinking lager when the day is done. Excellent stuff, and not lacking in complexity. Turns out that Fieldwork does in fact dial back the hops from time to time; duly noted.
2. Call to Arms Brewing Co. Shirtless Putin Catchin’ Rays
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: Alright, we know you’re wondering about this beer’s name—we certainly are as well—but we can only direct you to inquire with Denver’s Call to Arms about what a dark lager has to do with Vladamir Putin’s need for a tan. As for the beer itself, it’s a lovely synthesis of malt and hops, leaning less into the intense roast of some of these other offerings and instead reveling in the complexity of deep malt flavors. Mild, malty sweetness and hints of caramel are met by roasted nuttiness and hints of spicy and floral hops, in a beer that also features light stone fruit notes (plum?) and a long-lasting bready/toasty finish. It displays some of the best attributes of various styles that made up this tasting—the toastiness/nuttiness of Munich dunkel, and the slight hoppiness of most of the Czech dark lagers, while remaining beautifully composed and balanced. This is exactly the kind of beer that so many of us geeks are overlooking these days, but it’s also exactly what we want to see come into vogue.
1. Good Word Brewing Scorch the Earth
City: Duluth, GA
The verdict: The greater Atlanta area has exploded with breweries in the years I’ve been working at Paste, and although many of these brewers have put in excellent showings for themselves in our various blind tastings, to date, only a single tasting has actually been won by an Atlanta brewery. That was the last time we blind-tasted 151 pale ales, when Monday Night Brewing took home the crown, but now we have a new contender: The still youthful Good Word Brewing & Public House, which opened in the spring of 2018 with a management team from iconic beer bar The Brick Store Pub. And folks, it was unanimous. Every single taster independently had this particular dark lager as their best of the day, falling on what was also likely the single strongest day of the competition. If this was a home run, it would be what you’d call a “no doubter.”
Hilariously, Scorch the Earth has but the following description on the Good Word site: “Really good.” That turns out to be a significant understatement, as what is delivered in this schwarzbier is simply impeccable balance and craftsmanship. Delicately roasty, with a slightly creamy texture and hints of high-percentage dark chocolate, smoke and a slightly savory tobacco note, it mirrors the notes of so many other schwarzbiers in the tasting but elevates itself to a different level with the perfect balance between assertiveness, drinkability and malt complexity. Score sheets range in their praise, using terms like “classic,” “bullseye” and “perfect,” with each taster independently praising its roasty but accessible flavors and subtle nuances. That Good Word would excel in this particular style makes sense to Atlanta-based Paste tasters who have sampled their wares before—since opening, they’ve largely focused on brewing accessible but complex versions of classic styles such as English mild, ESB and saison, and Scorch the Earth underscores that this approach is working. It’s our pleasure to finally find another blind tasting winner in our own backyard.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.