Lager, Part 7: The Dark Side

A long time ago, in a brewing region far, far away… a shadowy, cobweb filled, ancient brewhouse. Thick oak beams, knicked and pocked by the barrel hoops, rivets and clevises of time.  A guttering, rasping sound disturbs the peace, as two beers struggle for supremacy in an imaginary fight to the death; one magnificently dark, white crowned, resplendently attired in an oak-staved, bulging and lidded wooden stein: Dunkel Vader. He towers imperiously over a smaller, golden lagered beer, shimmering as a diaphanous, dust-speckled shaft of light struggles to peak through an upper window: Blondwalker.  Spiders, undisturbed for many a year, scuttle away, dancing fearfully in quickstep on pin-point feet along the wooden beams into the rafters. Wild, airborne yeasts disturbed, use the gentle thermals to waftily escape through slatted brewery vents. Dunkel Vader speaks. ‘It is useless to resist. Don’t let yourself be destroyed as pale ale did!’    His tones are deliberate now, malevolent. ‘You do not realise your potential…join me and we will end this destructive conflict and bring order to the beeriverse’.

Stooping low, quivering on the edge of falling, Blondwalker musters all his defiance: ‘I’ll never join you!’
But the dark beer looms larger now, pushing his foe closer to the brink: ‘If only you knew the power of the dark side.  Your brew master did not tell you everything about your father.’  Blondwalker spat in retort, ‘He told me enough! He told me you killed him!’

‘No!’ rasped the dark beer furiously, ‘No!  I am your father, I am the original lagered beer…!’

Prague, Bohemia. 1992.  The return leg of a spoon shaped journey through Germany, across the black-forested borderlands to Prague; then down to Bavaria – Passau, Munich, Regensburg – and back round and up, to half-timbered, medieval Bamberg, before heading back home along the spoon handle to Calais and Blighty beyond.  For my brother and I it was a journey inspired by the Michael Jackson’s television series, to discover our own beers, and guided by the Beer Hunter’s pocket sized ‘International Beer Guide’.  We knew of course that many had trodden this path before, but that didn’t lessen the journey; didn’t erode our sense of adventure; didn’t end the hope of finding virgin territory. 

Great beer was the goal of that trip: and proper, lagered beer was the supreme discovery* – not what we were accustomed to at home  – but a family of beers as broad and at times as shocking in flavour, as varied in texture, as distinct in appearance and strength as were the ales of the British Isles.

U Fleku


Back then, discovering that the first lagered beers were dark was a revelation.  That they preceded, sired, what we now know as pale lager seemed unimaginable. But dark they were, these dunkel beers.  In Prague, we drank in U Fleků, where then, as now, only one beer was sold: Tmavý Ležák. A lagered beer, but one as dark as liquorice with a tea-stain white head poured directly from a bulging copper vat above the bar, itself fed straight from the brewery above it. We supped it down with a thick, oniony goulash and ever-expanding dumplings in a dark-wood lined room, as dark indeed as the beer we drank. We became impervious to the cold outside.


Augustinerbrau Dunkel
Augustinerbrau Dunkel

Munich, West Germany, 1992. Days later, in the Bavarian capital, we drank early morning in the stone vaulted Augustiner Hof a crisp, beautifully structured helles and a beguiling dark lager – a dunkel bier.  Not black like stout; rather, if held up to the light it was brown like rye bread, softening to the edges and topped with a contrasting white head, deep, thick, pillowy.  We drank it with Weisswurst, delicate, steamed veal sausages, but the dunkel bier did not overpower or spoil; rather it contrasted, chaperoned, augmented.

Bamberg, Franconia, 1992. Further north, in the legendary land of the Franks, we stayed in Bamberg in a beautiful gasthof near to the river. We walked up to the square-setted market place and dived unwittingly pell-mell into the maze of snickets tracing the ancient town plan.  In the end, Klosterbräu found us: a lovely wood-lined snug and a fug of conversations from hundreds of years lining the ceiling.

klosterbrau schwarzla
klosterbrau schwarzla

We drank beers; the Schwärzla another dark, lagered beer, blacker now as you’d expect from its name, but no astringency or bite that you might presume from a dark beer; no fight; just a soft yet rewarding crispness and enveloping, savouring, mouthfeel.  Later that day we allowed our taste buds to be assaulted at the Heller brewery – brewers of rauchbier. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is sensory overload with smoked sausage, wood fires and a nip of burnt beer flavour, but a dark lager all the same, just containing a proportion of smoked malt in the grist bill.

Lord John Russell, Marchmont Street, London, 6th July 2006. A sighting so rare, twitchers began to descend on the place. A Czech dark lager, on tap: Budweiser Budvar Dark or Tmavý Ležák. I remember it as rich, complex, yet by now unsurprisingly moreish. IMG_0876Years later I buy a bottle to rekindle that day: a coffee cake head with tight bubbles protecting a molasses brown beer with a soft, rounded mouthfeel and a clear espresso character, both in aroma and taste.  A spirited but tight carbonation revealing the truth – that this, despite the darkness is a lagered beer. Moments later we celebrated with strangers as London won its Olympic bid. The day after, we mourned.

Today.   Despite the lineage, where today are the original lagers? Occasional dark lagers grace our shelves, only to be revealed as caramel emboldened imposters.  Few, true dark lagered beers make it to our shores; few true, dark lagered beers are being brewed in our craft beer revival.  Is it an expectation of a challenging taste? Is it an expectation of chewy texture and lack of refreshment?  Are dark lagers simply too counter-intuitive for today’s sensibilities?  Whatever the reason, the truth is that out of the dark came the light.  And it’s time to embrace our dark sides again.

* Being pedantic is important on this topic: see

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Lager, Part 2. Czeching out the Reinheitsgeboat on the Danube.

The traditional place to start with an understanding of lager is to say the following:

The word ‘Lager’ comes from the German verb, lagern, which means to store.

I however, am going to break with that convention.  The place I started my appreciation of lager, was on the A38, just outside Burton–upon-Trent.  Up to that point, (April 1992 from memory), I had been an ale drinker, an ale proponent, an ale espouser, possible an ale zealot…although, I’m not sure ale was consumed in great quantities in second Century Judea (I could be wrong there, go with me). It is no coincidence that this journey started in Burton -upon –Trent, ‘home of British beer’. After leaving University in Exeter, I applied to a number of brewers for a job through the Milk Round scheme, but my preference was for Bass. There were two reasons. Firstly, my drink of choice of the time was Draught Bass (I shall return to the topic of this beer another day). Secondly,  amongst a room of snappily-suited Personnel and Sales executives from the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Esso and so on,  Bass sent a couple of distribution managers from Huyton in Liverpool. The spit of Cannon and Ball, they looked utterly fed up.  Me being a student from the North West in a predominantly southern catchment university I engaged them in conversation and we laughed for an hour.  My biased view of the greatness of English ale was strengthened further – if this company can brew such a great beer, and be staffed with such funny, honest and down to earth people, then it’s for me.  The interview process was a test in itself, narrowly less stressful than the return journey from Sunderland to Exeter in my brother’s Polo during, which the windscreen wiper came off the side and almost removed the wing mirror during a monsoon, Yorkshire-style, on the A1.

Forgive me, I digress. The point is, my relatively sheltered life up to this point had been defined by knowingly and playfully holding on to opinions utterly unsupported by fact, reason or logic. Great pub talk and conversation starters. North better than South, ale better than lager – and the Milk Round just cemented these views firmly in place.

My brother and I had a plan. To drive to Prague and experience ‘proper’ lager, given that all the stuff on sale in Britain was clearly the bye-product of a Middlesbrough chemical plant,  and then return via a beer holiday of Bavaria and Franconia where we would hunt out all sorts of weird concoctions that only men who gladly wander around in leather chaps could conceive.  It would be great, made better by the fact that I wasn’t insured, so I would be chief map reader and daytime beer taster.

It was also the first holiday where I was frequently genuinely scared.  We got to Prague uneventfully enough.  It was particularly pleasing to be greeted by the Czech border guards as long lost friends as they waved us past a queue of German cars at the Border which snaked through the forest for over a mile.  ‘See that Fritzy?? That’s what invading your Neighbours does for you!’  we barked as we waved our blue-backed passports in that classically superior British way at the Border Guards and gunned the Bentley through the check point*.

First point of call. Pilsen or Plžen. Here we parked up and queued outside the Pilsner Urquell brewery with bemused locals who were waiting with crockery jugs for their evening’s supply of beer.  No 4-packs of cans here.  It actually took so long, that we never made it to the end of the queue and headed for Prague.  On arrival we realised that we had rented a sub-let flat in a suburb of Prague that was absolutely everything you would expect from a Cold War thriller. Grim concrete brutalist chic buildings, and old Czech ladies peeking out from behind their doors eyeing us as if we had arrived from Pluto. A paternoster lift creaked and cranked throughout the day and night, beating out a rhythm that I fell asleep to on the sofa.  The furniture was all velour fabrics and formica TV sets. On reflection it was magic, but at the time, we genuinely thought we would get done over by a swarthy Slav in a full length leather overcoat.

Yet it was the start of my lager conversion.  I can’t pin the exact time or place down.  There were a range of highlights. U Fleku was one (U = ‘at the sign of’, Fleku = ‘the Flek family).  I have been back to this brewpub since, and noticed that beer writers have started to snobbishly refer to it as a ‘tourist attraction’ determined to tarnish its reputation because it’s successful with non Czech. This is entirely undeserved, and if you go to Prague you must go – and sit with the locals if it makes you feel better.  It will be full of many nationalities besides, and perhaps now, it is a little more expensive than other bars in Prague, but I can reassure you that in the intervening 18 years since I first went and when I returned, it had not changed one bit.  It was a well run business after the fall of the iron curtain and it’s a well run business today appealing to a broad wash of humankind as only great beer can.  But forget that. It was the beer. Dark as a hearse yet with a subtle inner glow enhanced by a cream head so thick you could pass it off as a cappuccino.  Gravity fed from a copper vat above the bar into simple handled glasses and glistening with natural condensation – it was a revelation.  We drank it with the simple food: dumplings, meat stewed on the bone and a thick, oozing gravy that set you up for the day. And this beer, this beer, darker than stout or porter, is a lagered beer.  Lager. No clear, golden hue. No blinding white head; no aggressive carbonation. Dark lager, soft, gently flavoured yet cosseting to the taste buds like the touch of velvet to hand.

And U Zlathého Tygra. The Golden Tiger.  We drank Pilsner Urquell on rough trestle tables from the most ornately decorated beer font I can remember and conversing with the Czechs in signs, grunts, and nodding at the beer with smiles and twinkling eyes. It was all you needed to know.   It was one of the few (two) places we found Pilsner Urquell – today it’s everywhere.  Otherwise we drank a beers that at the time were unheard of in the UK, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel.  We hunted out a Czech dark lager in the back streets of an industrial quarter – alas, I had forgotten what it was but it drank like liquid dream.

We returned through Bavaria and Franconia. Unencumbered by driving as I was, I could enjoy my first beer not long after breakfast whilst my increasingly frustrated brother pushed us on to the next location. At Regensburg – sitting in a beer garden by the Danube, we ate vegetables after a week without, in the Czech Republic and slowly regained our….. composure – and smoked sausages washed down with Thurn und Taxis beers.  Compared with the Czech pilsners we had been drinking, the German lagered beers were straighter, less rounded perhaps, more austere yet equally compelling.  Then Bamberg.  Beautiful Bamberg, with medieval architecture more enchanting than anything Disney could conjure up. We visited the Spezial Brewery where we drank the smoked beers on draught in wood lined rooms with elderly Franconians playing dominoes and card game whilst eating Dampfnudeln. These smoked beers blow your senses, with flavours ranging from spicy salami sausage, caramel and wood smoke yet with a surprising lightness of body and gently malty sweetness that makes them intriguing and moreish.  And in most cases, these are lagered beers – either a dunkel (dark) or Märzen (March) beer (there are also some top fermenting smoked beers).  You couldn’t get much further from the typical perception of lager if you were given free National Express tickets with every glass.  Finally  Würzburg, where we stopped to drink Franconian wine, but found delicious beers from the independent Würzburger Hofbrau Brauerei  – in Bavaria, arguably nothing out of the ordinary, but as  we drank these beers with a meal of smoked eel, onions and potatoes in a rather posh restaurant underneath the Rathaus – I realised that my eyes had been opened, and my opinions altered, forever.


*Some facts within this post may have skewed with time.  I think we were on the maroon passports by then.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March 2012