If you know anything about beer history in Washington, DC, it is this: it has all been done before, and it’s all subject to change. What we know about dark lager is that it has been brewed before, but it has gone through some changes.
Lager is enjoying a bit of a moment as a reclaimed craft beverage. Many beer makers in the District are paying attention to its details and are certainly giving it no short shrift. But how have the dark lagers of today changed from the product of the same name a century ago?
Shawbecker Shwarzbier was just recently at Right Proper, but the lineage of brown and black lagers in the Chocolate City is rich. Shawbecker is an original recipe by Bobby Bump, Lead Brewer at the Shaw Brewpub. The historical context of his black beer pays homage to the dark lagers of yore.
By the way, this isn’t an ad. We received no money (or beer) to say, “Go try this lager.” But, if you’re a brewery and have a new beer, you should submit it to us using this form. Maybe we’ll tell its story in a similar fashion.
That out of the way let’s talk about the 4.6% ABV Shawbecker. Its reasonable strength is very much within style guidelines. According to the most recent style guides, commercial examples include, but are not limited to: Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier, Einbecker Schwarzbier, Eisenbahn Dunkel, Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Mönchshof Schwarzbier, Nuezeller Original Badebier. That’s pretty steep competition.
Bump says, “The goal of Shawbecker was to brew a black lager that drinks very easily. A lot of times dark beers are associated with being heavy and malty, and with this style, it’s pretty much the opposite.”
As the debut of Right Proper’s lager program, Shawbecker (now in its second batch) is a real throwback to the days when DC residents drank dark lager from wooden kegs. Ad copy that suggests the “dark lagers” of 100 years ago were also easy drinkers, presumably easy to throw back, though often advertised as a temperance drink or tonic.
Will Bruder, brand ambassador and former assistant brewer, came up with the name Shawbecker. It’s a riff on Einbecker, the title of the Einbecker Brauhaus in Einbeck, Germany. The name is appropriate given that all malts and hops in the beer are German imports. Today, just as 100 years ago in the District, pale, amber, and black lager flows with the spicy, earthy snap of imported hops.
A century ago, District residents sat outside picnic tables at 4th and F Streets Northeast, drinking the Washington Brewery Company’s lagers, pale and dark. It wasn’t long after prohibition (1917) that the Washington Brewery Company closed, and by 1927 it was converted to a junior high school.
The ads which the brewery placed are a treasure of late 19th and early 20th century marketing. For example, in 1903, the Washington Brewery Co.’s Culmbacher was “A Home Beverage” that “makes one feel 50 percent better after drinking it.” It also stood without rival, a claim which was made by many other breweries in many other cities.
An earlier ad says their “Champagne”…is light and sparkling.” And that their “‘Ruby Lager’ is dark and heavy in body.” Of course the natural follow-ups that I would ask are “How dark?” and “How heavy?” Which I could have asked in February 1898 when the ad ran. But that’s lost to time.
Is it? Or is it alive, at least in spirit, in local black lager beers like Shawbecker today?
Today, the block which held the brewery is home to Stuart-Hobson Middle School, in the spot where the brewery once stood. Shawbecker Schwarzbier, the beautiful black lager, should be in your glass because good, local lagers are rare beasts in the wild, and it’s about time a black beer returned to high fashion in the District.
Should you wish to brew a Prohibition-era dark lager rather than a pre-Prohibition dark lager, here is a photo of a dark lager called Kulmbacher. Could this be the same type of beer as Washington Brewery Co.’s Culmbacher? We’ll likely never know. But I do know that this recipe makes for a tasty black lager wether you use American, Czech, or German hops.
Image from Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, 1935-1967, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Previous images c/o Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.), Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.