Brauerei Ayinger, Altbairisch Dunkel
Franconian Switzerland is a great place for a walk. There’s deep-green rolling hills, gurgling streams, ancient forests, historic towns and - most importantly - many, many breweries. This region in the north of Bavaria might not quite live up to its name (the peaks here are more inconvenient than immense) but for beer-lovers it is paradise.
And it’s a paradise devoted to dark lager, or Dunkel. In a world dominated by its pale cousin, that makes it a wonderful anomaly. According to Gerhard Schoolmann, one of Franconia’s foremost beer experts, this part of the world makes dark lager because of the hard local water. But I think the reason they continue to prefer it - long after the rest of the world has gone pale - is because it is absolutely delicious.
A few years back, I spent a couple of days wandering around the Fränkische Schweiz in the name of research. I fully recommend it. From Weissenohe, where the branch-line from Nuremberg drops you off, you can hike towards Gräfenberg, and then down into the valley for Hohenschwärz and Thuisbrun. There are five breweries along the way, all making Dunkel. My favourite was a toasty, honey-rich Vollbier made by Lindenbräu in the mediaeval town of Gräfenberg (the bratwurst and sauerkraut here are also very good, I'm delighted to report).
The key to these beers is malt. Bavaria produces some of the world’s greatest malt: Weyermann is world-famous but there are others which make equally good malt, such as Bamberger Malzerei. Traditionally, Dunkel is made using a decoction step or two (when a portion of the mash is extracted and boiled before being returned), a technique that accentuates the malt richness.
It’s hard to come by Franconian Dunkel in the UK because most of the breweries are so little, but Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, from the other end of Bavaria, is a great stand-in. Of those German breweries whose beers we see regularly in the UK, Ayinger is my favourite (alongside Schneider Weisse). This Dunkel is delicious: it has that classic toasty richness with a touch of liquorice, and the soft texture makes it truly drinkable.
Good dark lager is easier to find in the UK now than perhaps ever before. West Beer in Glasgow, which has long produced a delicious version, has recently been joined by the likes of Braybrooke in Northamptonshire and German Kraft in South London. It’s no coincidence that all three have strong links with Franconia, which is still much the best place to drink Dunkel. It might be time for another walk.
Will Hawkes is a beer journalist. You can follow him @Will_Hawkes.