In his newest feature, DC Beer Senior Staff Writer and award-winning journalist Michael Stein compares and contrasts two–or more–beers of the same style. Or, two beers from the same brewery will be upheld to Stein’s analysis. And lastly, for the sake of the sheer joy beer can bring, two beers will be opened and sampled at the same time.
Moved by Jeff Alworth’s recent post, The Making of a Classic: Köstritzer Schwarzbier I wanted to have my next Stein Compares and Contrasts include Köstritzer but also a newer, American take on the style. Enter Schilling Beer Company’s Rennsteig Schwarzbier, a German-Style Black Lager. I purchased both from the Craft Beer Cellar at 301 H Street NE.
Köstritzer has a mild nose that gives off aromas of melted tootsie rolls that sat in a 1984 brown Volvo 240 too long in the sun, rye bread, and the faintest hint of lemon verbena that has been left on the sidewalk, run over by bicycle training wheels as well as lightweight double strollers. It smells sweeter than it does roasty.
Rennsteig smells of roasted malt, the twang of rye bread meets a mellow acidity reminiscent of San-J Tamari brewed soy sauce that has sat in your relative’s fridge for 5 years. There’s a faint herbal hop character that reminds me of a calm, mellow aroma much more akin to the smell of carnations than peonies. It smells roastier than it does sweet.
Rennsteig appears a touch darker than the Köstritzer. Both have a nice, billowing off-white head. The dark cream foam on top of the Rennsteig is slightly darker than the khaki cap on top of the Köstritzer.
The Köstritzer is mildly sweet up front, tempered in the middle with a round mid palate that finishes thin. There’s a mingling of malt, hops, and water chemistry at play here that make this beer trick the palate into thinking it’s oxidized with a mildly metallic note. The perception on the palate is likely carbonation taking away from sweetness. The rye bread twang that is evident in the nose becomes more prominent as I make my way through the glass. The beer is highly digestible and has a delicate dance of malt sweetness and bitterness battling it out, inviting my tongue to take another taste.
Rennsteig provides a nose of roast character before sipping, which alerts me that I may be tippling towards a Porter or Stout. But the beer is deceptive in that there’s a bit of sweetness up front and a well-bittered barley blend that finishes like an herbal-infused booze–think of a gin with modestly punchy botanical additions. The sweetness fades and gives way to the hoppy and roasty bitterness perceivable in the mid palate. The carbonation dances on the tongue before the back of the palate and lets you know the good gas is bringing hop compounds and volatiles that likely wouldn’t have survived the trip from Thuringia, Germany, had this beer been exported and shipped to us.
Drinking them side by side, you can certainly tell they’re two branches of the same tree. The Schilling tastes more substantive, and having never had Köstritzer at the source, perhaps this is how the black lager tastes in Thuringia, Germany? Two hours after opening the cans, the Köstritzer fades to a sweetness as the carbonation largely leaves the lager; Rennsteig still has bubbles two hours later and the bitterness (be it from dark malt, hops, or both) is still intact.
It’s wild speculation, but it’s possible that the Schilling Schwarzbier was brewed with fresher malts than the Köstritzer. Last week I met a brewer from Schilling at Other Half DC who was passionate about having local malts in their products, often blending the local malt with the Weyermann malts of Germany and the Czech Republic. Some of the malt was simply a stone’s throw, just down the road from their brewery. It’s hard not to notice an oxidative sweetness from the Köstritzer Schwarzbier that is not in the Schilling. And while it’s apples to apples in that both beers are brewed in the Schwarzbier style, the Köstritzer was canned in September 2022 and Schilling’s Rennsteig was canned in February 2023. In the packaging sense, these are apple to oranges; one canned last year, one canned this year.
Both beers are well brewed and worth your time, with their differences present from the outset: Schilling’s Rennsteig is 5.4% alcohol by volume and Köstritzer Schwarzbier at 4.8% ABV. As for perceived bitterness, roastiness, and sweetness? If you like more roast character, try to get your hands on Schilling’s Schwarzbier. If you like more sweeter, lighter-bodied beers, Köstritzer Schwarzbier is the beer for you.
Köstritzer will cost you $9 a four pack at the Craft Beer Cellar. Schilling Rennsteig is $4.25 a can or $15.80 a four pack online.