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Friday, May 30, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Köstritzer Schwarzbier

This is a slightly sneaky post.  While I do come to praise Köstritzer, I also want to celebrate the opening of the Stammtisch Bar on NE 28th and assure folks that it's as good as billed.  They have a spectacular line-up of 18 (!) German biers on draft.  For this post, I was forced to choose from among some of my faves--a Schlenkerla (Helles), Ayinger Maibock, Andechs Hell, Schneider Edelweiss, to name just a few.   You can find these beers in the bottle, but it's a rare treat to have a nice pour--into a liter mug if you want it--just like you would in a pub in Munich.  There's a heavy emphasis on Franconian and Bavarian breweries, which suits this helles-lover just fine.  The selection seems to rotate pretty quickly, a practice that will reward regulars.

But I choose to highlight Köstritzer, one of the rare beers that fits a person's mood no matter if it's 20 degrees outside or 90 (Fahrenheit).  It is frothy and light yet assertive and roasty--the best of all worlds.  It's an enduring standard in the Alworth household.

Like so many of the old German beers, Köstritzer's originally makers were monks.  They founded a monastery at Bad Köstritz in 1543 (which highlights another distinctive feature of German beers--they are very often named after the town of their origin).  Lagers were a Bavarian thing, so the dark beer they brewed in the town, not far from Leipzig, was an ale.  Lagers came late to Köstritz--typical for ale country--and the brewery didn’t shift from ales until 1878, nearly 100 years after the monastery had been secularized.  In an interesting twist on the usual story, though, the second world war, usually the destroyer of beers, may actually have helped preserve the style; Bad Köstritz, located in East Germany, continued to make the obscure roasty beer until reunification.  In 1991, not long after the wall came down, Bitberger snapped up the brand and has been making it since.  (Bitburg has its own fascinating history, but that's a different post.)

Köstritzer manages to be at once assertively roasty while maintaining a delicate caramel sweetness.  The color of cola, it has a top layer of coffee-like roasting quite similar to an Irish stout; the palate is complex, however, and licorice, chocolate, and port all add distinctive notes.  Perhaps most impressively, the beer finishes dryly, leaving no lingering flavors; the finish is so complete you almost immediately raise the glass for another taste.

If you live in Portland, go have a pint of it at Stammtisch, but never fear--Bitburger has made sure it is readily available in the bottle for those of you who live farther afield.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.


  1. Great history lesson. There is a history in all or most beers. I must stop at Stammtisch for a pint of that stuff. Beer Bible still languishing, huh? Damn. That book needs to be on shelves.

  2. Absolutely one of my favorites. I can't begin to describe how many times I've gone my local bottle shop and agonized over making a selection between Köstritzer, Aecht Schlenkerla Helles, Einbecker Schwarzbier and Weihenstephaner Original.

  3. *scratches head quizzically*

    Sadly, Bitburger have dumbed this one down over the years. It used to be assertively roasty, but is now quite bland. Or maybe there's a special export version.

  4. Nick--I think you're right (although I haven't verified it and I am incredibly leery about what my memory tells me). But we live with the beers that are made now. It could be that Kostritzer was once fantasticker, but it is at this moment at Stammtisch still pretty fantastic.

  5. Certainly some enterprising local brewer ought to be able to do a credible or even excellent Schwarzbier!

    Really though, if they can look into it, Mönchshof Schwarzbier from Kulmbacher ought to be available in the US. Either way, it sounds like a great place to have added to Portland; I certainly would've spent a lot of time (and liver cells) there.

  6. Which German beers finish heavy and sweet? I haven't had too many of those.