Dunkel beers are dark lagers. They are generally associated with Bavaria, their region of origin, but other regions of Germany nowadays make Dunkels, too. Like all Bavarian-style beers, Dunkel tends to be very malty with only a gentle hop accent for very little hop bitterness. It has almost no nose. The alcohol level by volume of a typical Dunkel is in the range of 4.8 to 5.6%. The term Dunkel is also often used as a prefix to describe the dark version of a beer style that may come in different colors, as in a Dunkelweizen (a dark wheat ale, known in its pale interpretation as a Weissbier).
Related beer styles:
The World's First True Beer Style
German Dunkel ("dark") beer is a deep-brown, mahogany, or sepia colored all-barley lager. It is soft and elegant, with a rich, mildly vanilla, nutty-sweet palate and a dry, rounded finish that is never harsh, toasty or acrid. The beer is full-bodied, with a chewy texture and a firm, creamy, long-lasting head. Though it looks much like a British dark ale or Porter, unlike these brews, a Dunkel has a typicallly clean lager taste without any fruitiness at all, and next to no nose.
Dunkel brewing has a long tradition in Germany, especially in Bavaria. At one time, all beers were somewhat dark, because primitive kilning techniques used for drying malted grain always left the malt slightly scorched. Just like severely roasted coffee makes a very dark brew, so does dark malt make a dark beer. Dunkel was the first beer to be regulated by the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516. It thus became Germany's first standardized lager beer style, the forerunner of virtually all major beer styles made in Germany today except for the two barley-based ales from the Rheinland, Albier and Kölsch, and the wheat-based Bavarian ale, the Weissbier (Hefeweizen). Other beer styles may be paler, stronger, or more hop-accented than the Dunkel, but they all evolved from it.
Today Dunkel is still made primarily in Bavaria, but several breweries outside Bavaria make Dunkel beers, too. Among the most prominent Dunkel beers imported to the United States are Alt-Bayerisch Dunkel from the Ayinger Brewery, König Ludwig Dunkel from the Kaltenberg Brewery, and the Warsteiner Dunkel from Westfalia.
a Royal Brew
Appropriately, the most popular Dunkel in Germany today is König Ludwig Dunkel ("King Ludwig's Dark"), the very brand that can trace its origins back, in an unbroken line, directly to the very first modern Dunkel ever made in the 16th century. König Ludwig Dunkel is made by the Kaltenberg Brewery, which happens to be owned by His Royal Highness Price Luitpold of Bavaria, a descendant of the author of the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot. Prince Luitpold is the current head of the House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria for more than seven centuries, from 1180 until 1918. Its family members have been dukes, electors, kings, emperors, princes...and brewers! For centuries, the Wittelsbach bloodline has contributed to virtually every royal house of Europe. Whenever an important decision was to be made about the fate of Europe, chances are that a Wittelsbacher had his or her hand in it. The Wittelsbach family's legacy in politics is enormous, but its contributionto the history of beer is unique and sheer endless. In addition to having authored the original Beer Purity Law of 1516a version of which is still on the books in Germany today, making it the oldest food-safety law in the worldthe Wittelsbachs built the Munich Hofbräuhaus, perhaps the world's most famous pub, which opened its doors in Munich in 1591. It was the public celebration, with 40,000 happy Bavarians in attendance, of a Wittelsbach wedding, on October 12, 1810, between Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen that was the first Munich Oktoberfest. Since then, the annual fall extravaganza in Munich has since become the biggest party in the world, attracting about seven million visitors from around the globe.
The current head of the House of Wittelsbach, HRH Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, has continued his family brewing tradition, though not its ruling tradition. Now that Germany is a constitutional democracy, the Wittelsbach's erstwhile powerful throne has become entirely ceremonial; the Wittelsbach's erstwhile powerful brewing empire, however, is still alive and kicking. The modern Prince of Bavaria has no intention of abandoning his family's centuries-old passion for beer-making. Personally, Prince Luitpold is a university-trained brewmaster and a businessman. He owns a packaging brewery in the town of Fürstenfeldbrück and a beer garden and brewery at his ancestral Castle Kaltenberg, both near Munich. He also makes beer at his American-style brewpub, Kaltenberg Castle Brewery, at the bottom of a ski slope in Vail, Colorado, in the USA. His beer styles are no surprise: He faithfully brews his family's traditional dark lager, called König Ludwig Dunkel, which his forbears helped to create half a millennium ago. He makes blonde lagers under the labels Kaltenberg Pils and Kaltenberg Hell. He also makes four varieties of Prinzregent Luitpold Weissbier, a beer style, over which his family once exercised a monopoly in Bavaria.