I’m excited to be heading to Oktoberfest this autumn. I understand that there are a lot of dunkel-style beers served at the festival. I love dark, malty beers but don’t particularly like wheat beers. My question: Are all dunkels wheat beers?
That’s an astute question about an admittedly opaque beer category. The short answer is no. Not all dunkels are wheat beers. In fact, a proper dunkel, in the classic sense, is by definition not a wheat beer at all.
The word dunkel is simply German for “dark.” But the original beer style called dunkel is a dark lager. For centuries it was the most common style consumed in Bavaria, the state that includes the Oktoberfest capital of Munich. It is, as you correctly note, dark (usually reddish mahogany to deep brown) and malty-smooth. It also tends to have flavours that taste like bread, caramel and chocolate. While most malty beers can seem sweet, a good dunkel tends to come across as reasonably dry thanks in part to a moderate level of hoppy bitterness as well as the crisp lager profile.
The reason that bona fide dunkels can’t be called wheat beers is because they are, as I say, lagers. A lager employs bottom-fermenting yeasts and is fermented at cool temperatures. Wheat beers, at least in Bavaria, by contrast, are always ales, which means they’re made with top-fermenting yeasts that get their job done at warmer temperatures. Weissbiers, which rely mainly on wheat and only secondarily on barley, also are made with specialized yeasts that produce aromas akin to clove, banana and bubblegum. I suspect this may be the reason you’re not partial to the style.
As you imply, confusion arises because many German producers make wheat beers that are also designated “dunkel,” such as the popular Erdinger Dunkel Weissbier. (Weissbier is the Bavarian term for “white beer,” so I suppose it’s doubly confusing to call something a “dark white beer.”) These are not “true” dunkels of the sort you’re looking for. They’re simply wheat ales that have been made using dark malts.
The upshot: When you see a dunkel that’s also a “weissbier” (or “dunkelweizen,” the alternative name), you’re looking at a wheat beer. If it simply calls itself a dunkel, you’re probably in luck; no cloves or bananas lurking in the keg or bottle.
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