The Import of Export
The word “export,” in regard to beer, brings to mind a panoply of exotic brews from faraway lands. These ales, lagers and hybrids come in shades, styles and strengths to suit any palate. But more specifically, export refers to the indigenous pale lagerbiers of Dortmund, Germany, known simply as Dortmunder export. Understated and firm, export may embody the German style of brewing better than any other beer.
The City, The Beer
The brewing history of Dortmund can be traced back to 1266. Once Germany’s most prodigious brewing location, the city is rooted in the coal and steel industries and its breweries have slaked many a thirst over the centuries. Dortmund’s products were once so popular outside of the city, and exported so profusely, that this signature beer became known simply as export.
Ironically, the Dortmunder breweries now promote other products, particularly pilsner, more than export, perhaps because of export’s link with the past and a connotation of staidness.
Dortmund’s beer industry has mimicked the city’s rather unsettled history since World War II. Mergers and closings have rendered the city’s brews less distinctive than ever. Nevertheless, Dortmunder exports still occasionally grace specialty stores and taverns around the world and many breweries outside of Dortmund offer an export in their portfolio.
Dortmund is located in northwest Germany on the Ruhr River in an area known as North Rhine-Westfalia. It shares this area with the great brewing cities of DŸsseldorf and Kšln. Together the three form the second largest brewing area of Germany outside of Bavaria. The locals of DŸsseldorf, with its altbier, and Kšln, with its kšlsch, are just as loyal as those of Dortmund to their own beer styles.
Though Dortmund’s brewing history is centuries old, export as a style has been around only since the mid-1800s. Export is an offspring of the lager revolution of the early part of the 19th century when several technological advances in brewing science occurred within a short period of time to change the complexion of beer dramatically.
Until this time, beers were generally dark and murky, often contained wheat, and were top fermented. The development of indirect-heat, hot-air kilns (and hence pale malt production), the understanding and harnessing of yeast’s best-kept secrets, the use of cold fermentation and lagering, and even the invention of the hydrometer allowed brewers to produce beers that were heretofore unimaginable. This harmonic convergence resulted in controlled brewing and fermentation like never before. Pale bottom-fermented beers became all the rage.
Plzen, now in the Czech Republic, is generally considered the birthplace of lager brewing, but Vienna, Dortmund, and Munich all were quick to jump on the beer wagon and each began developing lagers of their own.
Art in the Balance
Many of Germany’s brews, like pilsner, bock, and weizen, enjoy some renown in the beer world. Alas, the same cannot be said of export. Exports are devoid of the traits that characterize other German beers, like the quenching bitter dryness of the pils, the malty alcoholic warmth of a bock, or the tart fruity spiciness of the weizens.
Instead, export is a steady, smoothly flowing stream of German flavors and aromas. It is a testament to balance in brewing art, as not a single attribute bullies the others for control of the palate. Instead, they happily mingle and cavort in a demonstration of restraint and cooperation. This subtle complexity can be appreciated in what might otherwise be a rather unremarkable brew.
There is something comforting and familiar about an export. The flavor profile is somewhere between a Munich helles and a pilsner⎯drier, stronger and hoppier than the helles, more full-bodied and less hoppy than a pilsner.
When tasting a helles, a pilsner and an export side by side, there is no doubting their distinctive characters. How can these closely related beers be so different?
The two main players in this divergence are malt and water. While developing their own pale malts, the maltsters of yore no doubt used slightly different malting techniques. This, coupled with local soil and climatic conditions, resulted in a unique malt character for each city⎯Dortmund, Munich, Plzen and other areas of Germany. Beers were brewed with single malts. Even today, pale lager malts bear adjective names of their birthplace.
Today’s exports often display a burnished or “old” gold color because of a slightly darker version of pale lager malt. Some brewers may even use a small measure of Munich-style malt to achieve this full gold color. A hotter-kilned malt will be slightly less fermentable, resulting in a fuller-bodied palate.
The hard water of Dortmund also makes a major contribution to the export character. High in calcium sulfate and calcium chloride, the water brings out the hop and malt flavors and in general gives export its signature firmness.
Hops of a noble variety in a discriminating dosage polish the brew to project the classic German character. This wonderful triumvirate is coaxed to life with a clean, neutral lager yeast and then put to rest in the cellar until it matures gracefully. It emerges with a content balance of hops and malt. Its flavor is an endearing symbol of Dortmund itself⎯sturdy, somewhat plain, and well-toned.
Unfortunately, not many authentic German versions make it across the Atlantic. At this writing, the only one available in the United States is from the Dortmunder Actien Brauerei ( DAB ). It represents the style nicely. Ayinger Jahrhundert has been called a helles by some and a pilsner by others. Considering its strength and malty, dry character, it probably comes closer to a Dortmunder export than the other two styles and is brewed by one of most prestigious breweries in the world.
A visit to Dortmund would uncover a few local brands. The former Kronen Brewery houses a brewing museum that is well worth exploring.
Not many breweries in the United States specialize in lagers but some that do make excellent export style lagers. Great Lakes Brewing Co. of Cleveland makes a superb interpretation of the style and its brewers have been regular visitors to the winner’s podium at beer competitions over the years. Stoudt Brewing in Adamstown, PA, makes an Export Gold lager that is an export. Gordon Biersch brewpubs, of which there are now several, has had an export in its portfolio since its inception.
Japanese brewers often take their cues from the Germans, so it is not surprising that pale lagers are found in their portfolios. Often these beers include altbiers, schwarzbiers, and the odd kšlschbier, along with pale lagers. The Sapporo Brewery makes a brew calledYebisu that is unmistakably an export lager and is highly regarded.
DAB ExportABV: 5.4
Tasting Notes: Brewed by one of Dortmund’s giant conglomerates, it is perhaps the only German version exported widely. Fairly light in body for the style but classically German in character. A light malt background and clean taste make this an enjoyable beer.
Sapporo YebisuABV: n/a
Tasting Notes: This beer screams “Germany!” Both soft malt and noble hops are evident in the aroma and flavor. Medium bodied with good mouthfeel. Hallertau Mittelfruh and Hersbruck hops help emphasize the authentic quality of this brew. Its large bottles are a blessing, as its taste only beckons for more.
Great Lakes Dortmunder GoldABV: 5.8
Tasting Notes: A five-time world champion. Once again, balance is the key. Wonderful malt aroma and flavor, medium body with a good mouthfeel. The perfect hop dosage rounds it off in great fashion. In the world of American lagers, this is one that stands out.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.