Thursday 13 September 2007


Sic transit and all that. Forty years ago Dortmund was Germany's top brewing city. It brewed more beer than anywhere else, had the largest single brewery and was home to the most popular beer style. How did it all go so wrong?

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Ill-advised takeovers, panic mergers, jumping on the pils bandwagon and long-term decline in the region's heavy industry all played their part in dethroning Dortmund.

Dortmunder Union, Germany's largest brewery in 1965, was one of the forces behind Brau and Brunnen, a kack-handed - and ultimately disastrous - attempt to create a national brewery. Their beers have disappeared and the brewery has been renamed Brinkhoff's.

The Dortmund beer style - Export - has done a good imitation of mild, going from dominance to obscurity in a generation. It's now easier to find a Dortmunder in Holland

The Dortmund Brewing Industry
When Michael Jackson wrote his "World Guide to Beer" in 1977 Dortmund's breweries were still an impressive sight. "It is barely possible to leave the railway station without encountering a cluster of Dortmund breweries: Dortmunder Actien and Dortmunder Union in Rheinische Street, the Thier, Hansa, Ritter and Wenker Kronen breweries." he wrote. His walk would be very different today.

At the beginning of the 19th century Dortmund was an insignificant town of around 5,000 inhabitants. The breweries it possessed were pub-based brewhouses producing small quantities of top-fermenting beer. But all that was soon to change. As Germany began to industrialise Dortmund became a major centre for the coal and steel industries. The population boomed and with it breweries to slake the workers' thirst.

In 1842 Kronen was the first Dortmund brewery to swap to bottom fermentation. The lager they brewed was, as was usual at that time in Germany, a dark beer in the Münchner style. Throughout the the following 50 years a series of new, industrial lager breweries were established in the city. Organised on a similar basis to the city's other industries, they operated on a far larger scale than had ever been seen in North Germany. The small, alt-producing brewhouses were swept away.

Dortmund's industrial brewers continued to expand in the 20th century (though with some interruption from two world wars), peaking in the 1960's. In 1965 the city's DUB and DAB breweries were the largest in Germany.

As the popularity of Pils soared at the expense of Export, growth slowed, stagnated or even went into reverse. When, in the 1990's, the German economy plummetted into recession, the heavy industry of the Rhine/Ruhr was particularly badly hit. As output fell, Dortmund's breweries looked to mergers for salvation.

Seven breweries became two. But that wasn't the end of matters, oh no. The new millenium was no kinder to German brewing than the previous decade. As beer consumption falls and over-capacity is rife, even more drastic consolidation is taking place. The purchase of Brau & Brunnen (DUB) and Radeberger-Gruppe (DAB) by Oetker has left both Dortmund's remaining brewers with the same owner. Which one do you think they'll leave open? The answer is DAB - it has a greater capacity and a larger site.

The History of Dortmunder Beer
The classic Dortmund beer style Dortmunder Export has its origins in the 1880's. Before 1842, when Kronen brewed their first dark lager, the local style had been a variety of Alt.

Dortmunder Adambier was a strong, sourish top-fermenting beer. Wahl & Henius ("American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades", 1902) has an analysis of the beer performed in 1889. It was around 18º Balling, 7.38% alc. by weight (9.4% ABV) and a lactic acid content about half that of a contemporary lambiek. In contrast to sour beers such as Gose and Berliner Weisse, Adambier, also called Dortmunder Altbier, was heavily hopped. It acquired its sourness much like Porter - through a long secondary fermentation. Bacteria in the lagering vessels slowly changed the beer's character. It needed to be stored for at least a year for this process to take place. At the end of the primary fermentation the beer it was not sour at all. Another beer of this type was Münsterländer Altbier - stilll brewed by Pinkus Müller in Münster today. (Source: "Jahrbuch der Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin, 1911", p.522)

The new bottom-fermenting beer quickly gained popularity and was the main product of the industrial breweries founded in the second half of the 19th century.

The first pale lager was brewed by Dortmunder Union (DUB) in 1887. Initially, the beer was brewed at two strengths Lagerbier and Export. The greater popularity of the latter led to the dropping of the weaker beer and Dortmunder Export was born.

It's great to see the classic "brewing mistake" story used to explain the origin of DUB's first pale lager in 1887. According to their website, the brewer "accidentally" used pils malt. Total load of bollocks, if you ask me. What was the malt doing in the brewery if they weren't going to use it to brew a pale beer? In the 19th century dark lagers were made from 100% dark malt. As pils malt was quite a bit more expensive, they must have deliberately bought it to brew a pale lager. Anyway, only a total idiot wouldn't be able to spot the difference between pils and münchner malt at a glance.

After WW II, Export dominated the German beer market, accounting for as much as two thirds of sales. But this dominance was not to last. The meteoric rise of Pils in the 1970's quickly eroded Export's market share:

1968 Export 57%, Pils 19%
1970 Export 50%, Pils 25%
1976 Export 32%, Pils 41%
1992 Export 10%, Pils 64%
2000 Export 9%, Pils 67%
2006 Export 12.5%, Pils 60%

Since 2000 Export has made a little bit of a comeback and his clawed its way back over 10%. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. There's usually no return for dominant beer styles once they lose favour.

Dortmunder Export is a malty, full-bodied beer, hopped a little less than a Pils and with some residual sweetness. A bit like a strong West Country bitter (say Arkell's BBB), but fizzier. In the 1950's, a gravity of 13º Plato would have been the minimum, with an an alcohol content of 5.5% upwards. Gravities have fallen, especially in the last 30 years as the style's popularity has plummeted, and most Exports now barely reach 12º and 5% ABV.


Alan said...

In 1983 or so, my Halifax NS undergrad bar got a supply of Dortmunder Union export in very thin small stubby bottles and we loved it. They the supply dried up. We were sunk thereafter.

Ron Pattinson said...

For some reason the brewery seems almost ashamed of their Exports. It's hard to find any mention of them on the website. I suppose, like Mild, Dortmunder Export has an image problem.

Elektrolurch said...

Yes it has, so they name their new Exports like ,,DAB Original" or ,,Moritz Fiege Gründer Hell".. that is very silly if you ask me but well...

Ron Pattinson said...

I'd wondered about these beers. I wasn't sure ifthey were Exports or not.

Elektrolurch said...

I tasted the DAB Original, had a bit Export characteristics but it was close too a standard pale lager or helles- which made it good in my oppinion was the hoppy aftertaste. They describe it as an advanced version of an Export...

I haven't had the Gründer Hell myself yet, but it is said to taste like an Export, and they describe it as an Export on their website.