Amber and dark lagers combine the clean, bright purity of a pale lager like Pilsner with the dense, rich maltiness found in many German beers. Traditional methods would include a decoction mash and a cool fermentation followed by a period of cold storage in caves or cellars. These often under-appreciated beers can be challenging to brew because despite their dark color, they have a delicate balance and flavor.
The Vienna lager is a ghost style; though it has all but disappeared in Vienna itself, it has been carried on in Mexico by breweries founded by Austrian immigrants. The Vienna lager is hopped somewhere in between a Pilsner and a Munich-style Marzen or Oktoberfest, amber in color, and has a lower gravity and intensity than an Oktoberfest. Nicely crisp and refreshing, but still exhibiting a fairly full body.
Marzen, or “March” in German, originally was a stronger version of Vienna lager. Marzen was brewed around March to be stored cold during the summer months, when high temperatures made it impractical to brew. Over time the Marzen style became tied closely to Munich, and a special Marzen called Oktoberfest was brewed in this city for the famous fall celebration. Oktoberfest/Marzen is richly malty with an amber color and usually contains a good proportion of Munich or Vienna malts combined with a Pilsner malt base.
An intensely rich dark lager, Dunkel focuses on Munich malt, sometimes using 100% Munich in the grain bill. This imparts a wonderfully malty flavor with notes of dense bread, while the use of lager yeast keeps fruitiness to a minimum.
It is easy to be surprised by your first taste of this nearly black beer. After so many porters and stouts we tend to associate dark-colored beer with roasted flavors from malts like chocolate, black malt, or roasted barley. The Schwarzbier style has only hints of roastiness, with no acrid or bitter flavors from roasted malt. Instead the beer is very smooth, with a clean maltiness and none of the fruity flavors associated with English and Irish yeasts. The trick lies in using dehusked Carafa malt, which makes the beer quite dark without the usual rough astringency of roasted grains.