What is a Dunkel? German Dark Beer Explained

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If you’re an avid beer drinker, or have spent a good amount of time in Germany, you may have heard the words “Dunkel,” shouted from a friendly patron requesting a beer. You may have wondered exactly what Dunkel meant or how the bartender knew exactly which beer to give the customer.

If you are, in fact, in Germany, it means the house dark beer, or the dark beer on tap. Anywhere else and means that bartender is psychic because Dunkles consist of a large group of dark lagers to choose from. Dunkel, or Dunkles, is the common word for several types of dark German lager.

In German, Dunkel means dark. Simple, right? Their color ranges from a amber to dark reddish brown with most resembling a delicious dark chocolate hue that’s irresistible to the eye. Dunkles are often characterized for their malty flavors and creamy mouthfeel.

There are two terms by which Dunkel is understood, the first being a very informal term for a dark German lager, while the other is specific to a Bavarian brewing style.

What Malts are Used in a Dunkel?

Similar to a Helles or a Dopplebock, which also are traditionally Bavarian, the difference is determined by the malts used. Bavarian Dunkels use a Munich malt which creates the dark color of the beer.

As well, many Bavarian Dunkles use a special brewing technique known as decoction mashing. This is when, to raise the temperature of the mash, a portion of the grains are removed and boiled then returned to the mash. This helps break down the cell walls of the grain which allows for more starch to be extracted during the boiling.

The process of decoction can happen up to three times depending on how much of the grains the brewer would like to boil. While not all Dunkles are made this way, it is a common practice for German and Central European breweries. The process was invented before the availability of thermometers, and is only used today to recreate the classic malty flavor of more traditional beers.

There are also wheat beers that use the Dunkel term known as Dunkel weizen. These are often dark wheat beers that include a yeast sediment which should be mixed in the last part of the bottle and poured into the beer’s glass. Dunkel weizens are often more fruity and sweet than a regular Dunkel with a strong sense of roasted malts.

I don’t recommend walking into a bar and screaming for a Dunkel. While bars in Germany may be more familiar with the request, here in America, you may just receive a few odd looks and an impatient bartender.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.