You may have read my posts on brews and breweries, but this is something grander: a full chapter in the yet-unwritten Beer Enclyclopedia. Few have the time or resources to attempt the research necessary to write something as bold and as boozy as this, but given a month in Dortmund, I knew that – setting aside friends, family, and career aspirations – I had one responsibility above all others: trying every single Dortmund pilsner in one sitting, and bringing my new knowledge back to the beer-loving world.
This is something that few if any Dortmunders have even attempted, but I knew that I’d need local help. Aside from Bubi, current proprietor of the Prost-Station in Scharnhorst, I knew that the two best Teutons for the job would be Matthias Spruch and Sebastian Lindecke.
So, on my second-last night in town, Matthias and I assembled an overflowing crate in the Scharnhorst Rewe and headed downtown. Earlier that day we’d visited the Dortmund brewing museum (worth the free student entrance, I assure you), and were so inspired by the rich history, the colorful vintage beer mats, and the various miracles of German engineering, that we purchased gold-leaf Stößchen glasses, the only appropriate glassware of the pils connoisseur.
We’d picked up two bottles of Hövels along with the pilsners and exports, but, as these were altbiers, and really represented an older, pre-war Dortmund, we decided to do away with them before we got to our real project. They served as warm-up beers on the train.
This pillar of pils is perfectly rounded – with a smooth mouthfeel and a sweetness verging on export (which D.A.B. used to brew), it ends in a bittersweet aftertaste. Someone likened it to “golden cocaine.”
Union Siegel Pils Endorsed by Sebastian Lindecke
Another classic beer, this proved far more bitter from the beginning – the Union tastes like steel. The color was a paler shade of gold, and greater carbonation gave it a harsher mouthfeel. American craft beer drinkers might be drawn to this one because of sharp, upfront hops. Sebastian declared this one his favorite.
This is known as a hobo beer, what some call the Dortmunder’s PBR. As I’ve said elsewhere, you can buy a 40-cent bottle on the Borsigplatz. But once, Hansa was a premier brand. The same tastes you’d find in a D.A.B. or Union are present, they’re just not as clearly defined. The Hansa is simply unremarkable – except for the price.
The Ritter surprises with a sweet taste, an astringent mouthfeel, and a very skunky smell. Past the front palate, though, it goes down smooth.
“Like a cheap Brinkhoffs,” Sebastian said. All the locals agreed. The Wicküler is smokily vegetal, light, and watery. Too watery.
We fudged a bit in judging exports along with the pilsners, but the styles are so similar that they invited back-to-back comparisons. The differences are subtle – the Kronen export has a more noticeable aroma than the pils, and more bitterness. It’s sweet, and coats the whole palate.
This, by contrast, only hits the back of your soft palate – a phenomenon I can’t even attempt to explain. The Kronen is one of the smoothest-drinking pils, while still being a satisfying quaff.
When we pulled this out of the crate, no one could remember why we bought it. I hadn’t even known that the Germans brewed “light” beer – I thought it was something we Americans created, in a moment of weakness. Sebastian liked it – he called it “sporty,” something he’d drink after a brisk game of tennis. But I found nothing to love in the beer – with every sip, I could only think of America, of high school nights in basements and the feeling I’d get when a newcomer descended the stairs, holding … a thirty of Keystone Light.
One of the oldest Dortmunder beers (and today, one of the cheapest), the bottle proclaims “Quality in the name of the friars.” The color is greengoldenly – the taste is sweet, creamy, and warm. There are notes of pear.
Matthias had a different take, and waxed poetic as he sipped his Stößchen. “It tastes like iron,” he said (in contrast to the steel Siegel). “It represents the Ruhrgebiet area like no other. It’s probably the pils most linked with the coal workers.”
And as he spoke, I tasted it all – the iron and the coal and the river water – even some smokestack soot.
Still high on Stifts, we switched to a more prosaic beer. This one is sweeter and darker than the Hansa pils, as expected. What would lead one to choose one over the other, though, eluded us.
Also one of the old “big” breweries, which reached its peak after the Second World War, when one out of every five beers exported from Germany came from Dortmund, the Thier was vegetal with an oddly dark aroma. The mouthfeel was disappointingly flat but the taste intrigued with notes of roots and tobacco. (At this point we were still drinking from the case, which had warmed considerably. We agreed to put the second Thier in the case and revisit it later.)
Brinkhoffs Endorsed by Matthias Spruch, Leif Ströher
It felt appropriate to end the night with this titan of beers. After all it was Fritz Brinkhoff who in 1874 helped establish pilsners in the city. The Brinkhoffs tastes like a classic. It’s easy on all fronts, and the most exotic taste is of applewood.
“Brinkhoffs is the pils I get if I go to a kiosk and I have some money in my pocket,” Matthias said. (On average, a kiosk Brinkhoffs costs €1.10.)
“This is the least aggressive pils,” said Sebastian, “the Coldplay of pils.” This particular statement drew ire, especially at so late a juncture (it was nearing three in the morning.) But Basti stood fast: “I can totally agree with it in the background,” he said.
I ceded him the point, though I’ll state here that I could drink Brinkhoffs all night long; I couldn’t say the equivalent of Coldplay.
But, as Dr. Peter Galie, expert in wine, Fado, and the New York State Constitution would say: “It does not offend.”
The Top Three
Stifts may taste like the “Old Dortmund,” a link to the region’s industrial past for drinkers of our generation, but Dortmunders see Brinkhoffs, D.A.B., and Siegel as the embodying their city today, the potable Dortmund of 2014. These are the biggest names in Dortmund – and, as it turns out, for good reason. This illustrates what many Germans see as an essential difference between American and German beers. The biggest names in Germany – like Brinkhoffs, Franziskaner, and Paulaner – are some of the best beers. In North America, the biggest names – like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller – are utterly mediocre; the good stuff is the craft beer, a movement that’s fairly new here on the Continent.
Hesitation – Revision – Prost
Our clarity was short-lived. We’d forgotten the other beers we’d placed in the freezer, for a second more exacting analysis under ideal laboratory conditions.
We started with another Kronen pils. “Timeless,” said Sebastian and Matthias, together, at once. The taste was noticeably sharper. Over this second glass, we debated at length the Bergmann beers, which we left out of this survey – we all agreed that in quality, they’re the best and most innovative, while still carrying the metaphorical miner’s lantern of the Old Dortmund, the old tastes, pre-pils. We toasted the Bergmann beer using Kronen, and by this route returned to the matter at hand. “I can always have a Kronen,” Sebastian said.
Next , and last, was the Thiers. This was ever sharper, and what had earlier tasted of roots and tobacco was now transformed utterly – the bitter hops came forward, making way for fainter citrus and herbs.
Of course, we were baffled. We couldn’t possibly narrow it down the way we had only a few minutes before. The closest thing to a consensus we reached was a decision to try the entire experiment over again in two years’ time, with our traveling companion Steve Coffed, and with only ice-cold beers.
We left around four in the morning, sated, saucy, and extolling the virtues of Dortmund pilsners. I don’t know if this guide will help anyone, ultimately. But if it conveys nothing other than the wealth of riches a single brew from a single city has to offer, then I’ve done my job as a writer and a drinker. Prost, my friends. Prost.