Dark lager for these dog days of summer

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By now, I’m guessing you’re getting a bit tired of drinking wheat beer. Just a hunch – with the dog days of August in scorching mode, those light-body, cloudy ales are the go-to thirst quencher, judging from all the lemons I’m seeing along the bar.

For those looking to shake things up before Oktoberfest sets in, I urge you to re-focus your tonsils on an often-overlooked summertime style:

Dark lager.

Now, I know many of you shy away from the dark stuff during DST, and for good reason. Many dark beers are high in alcohol and go down with a heavy thud. You wait till you pull out the wool sweater and light the fireplace before cracking open a stout.

As I write this, it is 97 degrees and my swampy BVDs are firmly rooted in uncomfortable territory. Instead of draining something pale, I’m happily sucking down a frosty glass of Harpoon Munich Dark that – in addition to being the tastiest beer I’ve had from this Boston brewery – has somehow dropped the heat index to a non-life-threatening level.

Dark, yes, but not cloying or numbing. On the contrary, dark lager is what the Brits might call a “session” beer. Here in Philly, we’d call it poundable.

I have a soft spot in my heart for dark lager. It’s the first style I drank many years ago that was different from the same-ol’ BudMillerCoors. I still remember the huge, satisfying flavor of the cold Dinkel Acker Dark someone gave me 30 years ago this summer.

This summer, the flavor was still there. Not just from Dinkel Acker, but in every bottle of dark lager I pulled from my fridge – from Germany, the Philippines, Pennsylvania and even Russia.

A well-made dark lager is as refreshing as, say, a golden pilsner. But the flavor isn’t delicate or flowery; it’s slightly sweet with a burnt bitterness, like a campfire marshmallow.

The secret is in the malt.

Other dark beers, like stout and bock, gain much of their color from a relatively large proportion of grain to water. That makes them denser, heavier, and – because there’s more sugar in the mix – higher in alcohol.

Dark lager gets its color not from the amount of grain, but from its color – in this case roasted malt. The body and alcohol are about the same as any standard lager, but the added flavor is the difference between white bread and toast.

“To me, a dark lager is a little more drinkable than a brown ale,” said Brien O’Reilly, the brewer at Sly Fox in Phoenixville an Royersford who makes a pretty mean dark lager. Yes, it’s the roasted malts, but it’s also the yeast, he said. “A lager yeast doesn’t produce any fruity esters, so you get a real mellow nose.”

O’Reilly’s version was called Kulmbacher Dark Lager, a tribute to the Bavarian city where the style originated in the early 1800s. The style later migrated to Munich, where it was lightened and became known as Munich dunkel. (A slightly darker German version is known as Schwarzbier, or black beer.)

Don’t go looking for the Sly Fox dark lager, yet – it’s gone for the summer. The plan is to bring it back as  Sly Fox Dunkel Lager in a can, but not till the fall.

Why wait till it cools off?

O’Reilly concedes that most beer-drinkers associate dark beer with cooler weather. And he notes that in these hop-crazed days of modern craft brewing, lightly hopped dark lager is not a wildly popular style. “You wonder where trends are going,” he said. “When I first got into brewing, beers couldn’t be hoppy enough. I’m hoping people are coming around, looking for maltier beers… We’ll see how it goes. I’m a little nervous.”

I still say, why wait? Give dark lagers a try while it’s still hot.

  • American craft: Victory Dark Lager, Penn Dark, Harpoon Munich Dark, Dixie Blackened Voodoo, Saranac Black Forest, Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark.
  • Mainstreamers: St. Pauli Girl Special Dark, Michelob Dark, Heineken Dark, Beck’s Dark.
  • German dunkels: Einbecker Schwarzbier, Dinkel Acker Dark, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Flensburger Dunkel, Warsteiner Premium Dunkel.
  • Elsewhere: Negra Modelo (Mexico), Xinghu (Brazil), Alhambra Negra (Spain), San Miguel Dark (Philippines), Sapporo Black (Japan),  Baltika 4 (Russia).

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