Dortmund Export - A hearty brew for a hardy lot

By Horst Dornbusch

Dortmund Export is a blond lager that evolved in the latter part of the 19th century in the Ruhr District of Germany. The District is an oblong stretch of land running east-west, some 20 miles wide and 60 miles long. It is divided along its length by a tributary to the Rhine, the Ruhr River, from which it takes its name. To understand the Dortmund Export beer one must first understand its region of origin.

A Tough Brew for a Tough Place
From the start of the Industrial Revolution to about the 1980s, the Ruhr District was the industrial heartland of Germany. Duisburg, the city with the largest inland port in Europe, was at its western edge and Dortmund, the District's largest city, at its eastern edge. Between the two cities, there were dozens of towns and cities all crowded together. Up to 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) deep in the earth, ran rich seams of hard coal, some not even four feet in diameter. These residues of ancient vegetation provided the carbon for Germany's steel and the energy for Germany's industrial machine.

The Ruhr District was the crucible in which the coal from below was fused with iron ore hauled in by freighters, barges, and trains from all corners of the globe. The District had hundreds of coal pits and steel factories. This marriage between coal and iron spawned a giant megalopolis of mines, mills, and manufacturing. It was the heart and soul of the so-called German economic miracle that pulled the country out of the rubble and poverty of the World War II aftermath.

During much of the 20th century, nights in the Ruhr District were never really dark. The sky was kept aglow by an omnipresent fiery hue as the blast furnaces, one after another, spewed their molten rivers into the factories around them. The air smelled burnt. If you left your laundry on the balcony overnight to dry, it came back in dirty the following morning.

It ought not to come as a surprise that the beer the Dortmund brewers made for their hard-working patrons was as tough and hearty as the people who drank it. When a miner got off his shift all showered but exhausted after eight hours of jack-hammering chunks of coal from the rock in a dark, dusty, hot, and dangerous shaft, what he needed was a beer he could respect. Likewise, when the steelworker left the blast inferno, where he earned his daily bread, a place hotter than the world's hottest desert, he wanted a restorative draught. The beer the Dortmund brewers came up with was the Dortmund Export, a lager as strong in maltiness as the best Bavarian brew and just a touch deeper golden in color than the best Pilsner brew, and with a good dose of satisfying, earthy bitterness.

There was nothing wimpy about the lager from this stark, no-nonsense region of coal, steel, and sweat. Where the Bavarian Helles excelled in straw-blond elegance, gentle hoppiness, and rich maltiness; where the Bohemian Pilsner excelled in lingering, aromatic Saaz-reverberations in the finish; and where the effervescent northern German Pils excelled in edgy up-front bitterness; the Dortmund Export excelled in the middle, with a substantial flavor and mouthfeel a solid beer for a solid breed of people. Up front, it ranked in bitterness above a Munich Helles, for instance, but lower than a Lower Saxon Pils, while in the finish, it ranked half way between a Munich Helles and a Bohemian Pilsner, with both hops and malt in a medium-dry balance. But in the middle, where the heart is, it outshone all its blond lager contemporaries, with a hefty mouthfeel and an alcohol by volume content of about 5.5%, compared to an alcohol level in the upper four percentile range for all other blond lagers.

It is obvious from this characterization of the Dortmund Export that this quaffing beer of the German miners and steelworkers in the Ruhr district was quite different from the Mild Ale, the quaffing beer of their British counterparts in the Midlands. While the British drank a relatively low-alcohol session beer after their daily toil, the Germans preferred a heftier brew, one with more, not less, "umph" than a regular beer.

In the old days, perhaps the best Dortmund Export was made by the Kronen Brauerei. The original Kronen lager beer dates from 1843, a year after the first batch of Pilsner had been brewed by the Bohemian Burgher Brewery of Pilsen, when Kronen brewery owner Heinrich Wenker introduced a strong Munich-style lager to his home city. By 1871, Wenker made his lager a bit stronger so that it would not spoil when shipped for "export" outside the city limits. This was the period, when Dortmund was rapidly industrializing, and soon the citizens of the Ruhr District, especially the miners and steelworkers, clamored for the Kronen Dortmund Export ... and the name stuck.

A Lost Brew of Ancient Lineage
In the early Middle Ages, brewing was the exclusive privilege of the clergy and nobility, a privilege, however, that was difficult to sustain after the emergence of a mercantile class at the beginning of the second millennium. The private burghers of the city of Dortmund were among the first "civilian" feudal subjects to receive the brew right. It was conferred upon them by the German King Adolf of Nassau on August 22, 1293, and they never relinquished it. By the end of the 19th century, Dortmund boasted about 150,000 inhabitants and almost 30 breweries all making Export; and by World War I, Dortmund had become the largest brew center in Europe. Even today, to the chagrin of Bavarians, Dortmund's annual beer production is still just a tad larger than Munich's. Both cities produce about five-and-a-half million hectoliters (approx. 4.5 million barrels) of beer a year. The venerable Dortmund Export, however, which put Dortmund on the beer map more than a century ago, accounts for only a small portion of this output. Most beers made in Dortmund today are fairly generic, middle-of-the-road, lagers.

In today's Dortmund, there are effectively only two breweries left, the Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei (DAB) with an annual output of about 3.8 million hectoliters (approx. 3.25 million barrels) and the Dortmunder Union Brauerei (DUB) with an annual output of about 1.6 million hectoliters (approx. 1.35 million barrels). During the last decades of the 20th century, these two conglomerates absorbed virtually all other breweries in their neighborhood. The Kronen Brauerei, for instance, is now part of DAB, which markets its "world famous Dortmunder" (a quote from the packaging) under the name of "DAB Original." Other venerable pre-takeover brands included Thier and Stifts (both bought and closed by DAB), and Ritter (absorbed by DUB).

Times have changed in the Ruhr District since the post-World-War-II boom. As we move into the globalized economy of the 21st century, a rapid socio-economic restructuring has taken place, which led to the closure of all the coal mines, and the few steel mills that remain are in trouble, too. As the District's economic base changed, so did its tastes. The beer of choice in this erstwhile rough-neck region is now the ubiquitous Pils, the new revenue mainstay of the Dortmund brew industry. Sadly, the traditional Dortmund Export has all but vanished, a beerological fossil that is more revered than understood. Several of the old brands, including the Kronen, are still on the market today, but only as product lines - the way Buick, Chevrolet, and Pontiac are product lines of General Motors. Perhaps the most authentic Dortmund Export is now made in German and North American brewpubs.

Portions of this article first appeared in Brew Your Own magazine.