Hemispheres Dispatch: “Dress Cents” at the Dortmund Opernhaus

I made my debut in the mile high (writers) club this month, with a “Dispatch” in the airline mag Hemispheres.   “Dispatches” is a travel section, a collection of brief wacky vignettes from around the world.  I first made contact with the editor, Chris Wright, pitching a completely different project, a longer “Three Perfect Days” piece on St. Annaberg, Poland.  During our scattered but always interesting correspondence over the month of August, which took place on Polish hilltops, in autobahn fast food parking lots, in Dortmunder wintergardens, and in Krakow liquor-and-coffee shops where I could get wifi, Chris Wright and I discussed saints and relics, KFC, Ireland, and theatre companies while circling the idea of a different piece.  The breakthrough came during my monthlong stay with the wonderful Spruch family in Dortmund, when I caught word of the Dortmund Opernhaus’ annual costume auction.

The result: “Dress Cents,” my first “Dispatch” for Hemispheres.  If you’re flying United Airlines this holiday season, look for the December issue in your seatback.  If not, you can read the article here or check out the e-magazine, where you can get an even better look at the accompanying illustration  from Luci Gutiérrez.

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Beer Encyclopedia: The Grand Tour of Dortmund Pilsners

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.

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Fate, Freedom, and Anarchy: On Open Jams in Dortmund

A few weeks ago, Matthias and I stood in a yellow candlelit passageway papered with Soviet-style posters and invitations to seances.  To our left, the front of the shuttered Albertus Magnus Church was draped with large colored-paper banners decrying police brutality and calling for some kind of new order – starting here, at the Soziales Zentrum Avanti, Dortmund’s very own communo-anarchist enclave.

Word was getting around that the Avantis would be evacuated, kicked out, or otherwise made to scram in only a few days.  Matthias and I had rolled up with Pete and Roman (of Blue Elephant) with instruments in hand because we heard that there would be a jam, an epic swirling carnivalesque and kind of funky communo-anarchist kind of jam.  The sunset jam of a doomed quasi-neo-hippy compound?  This was not one to miss.

Strange types clustered around the doorway, and on the sidewalk in front.  They looked disparate, not held together by any interest or activity – unless, I wondered as I got closer, they met every month or so to cut each other’s hair using plastic zig-zag scissors.  Dressed in dusky button-ups and leather jackets and carrying our hardbody cases, we stood out; they watched us as we passed.

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Today’s Brewery: Bergmann, at the Bergmann Kiosk

Kiosks in Dortmund are as common as roadside shrines in India.  Some kiosks are walk-in, but most are windows where late-night wanderers buy emergency 5€ cigarettes and beers at prices one-fourth what you’d find in a pub.  A bottle of Brinkhoff’s might be 90 cents; Hövels, 1.10€.  My favorite kiosk has to be the smaller of the two kiosks on the Borsigplatz (colorful part of town where recent immigrants in rubber sandals will offer you any substance a mainstream drug user could want), where, last week, a group of us bought a crate of Hansa pilsner, with an additional four bottles stacked on top, for 11€ – almost a supermarket price.  But, even among gems like these, the Bergmann Kiosk stands above all others.

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As you might imagine, the Bergmann Kiosk sells only Bermann beer, and nothing else – not newspapers, cigarettes, prophylactics, or lollipops.  This ought to be a downside, but it isn’t.  Because Bergmann doesn’t have its own brewery yet, and currently piggybacks off other breweries outside Dortmund, it isn’t technically a “Dortmunder” beer.  It is a Dortmunder favorite, however, and if the brewery manages to open up shop in the city, it can reclaim its prime spot in the city’s brewing constellation.  Without a brewery to visit, Bergmann-lovers head west to the Kiosk, which, unlike your standard kiosk, sports a wide awning, a cocktail table, two picnic benches, and a pair of lounge chairs looking out at the busy street.  This, my friends, is a Drinkers’ Destination.

As Klaus Grimberg of the Atlantic Times wrote in 2009, Bergmann beer disappeared in 1972, and might have remained a memory had not Thomas Raphael discover the lapsed rights to the brand in the summer of 2005.  Since then the craft brewery has been putting out pilsners alongside traditional Dortmund “export” beers as well as a schwartzbier, a “special” and the top-shelf “Adam” and “1972.”  A first for this blog, I tried them all in one evening.  (As the Germans say: Sauf!)

Now, if you want to repeat my feat, you could find all the Bergmann beers at a supermarket, but I’d advise against it.  Because there isn’t a brauerei open to tours, the epicenter of Bergmann-drinking culture is the Bergmann Kiosk: head there.

After three weeks in Dortmund, I had to start with the pils, and this was a pleasant surprise.  The Bergmann pilsner stands out in Dortmund’s crowded playing field, a sweeter and maltier offering than the Actien brands.  It’s a pleasant break, but perhaps not as satisfying for some as, say, the classic Brinkhoff’s.

Next up was the export.  This brew began as part of Dortmund’s response to the Czech pils, under brewmaster Fritz Brinkhoff.  The export had a higher alcohol content and a more robust flavor; it proved more popuar than its fraternal twin, the Dortmund lagerbier.  Bergmann’s export is a close sibling to the pils, but pours a more honeyed hue – and the added booze, though modest, does help round out the beer and make it a more satisfying quaff.

Feeling dangerous, we ordered the spezial.  This one tastes just a bit darker than the pils  – it has what most would call a classic Bergmann taste, recognizable in the mellow mingling of Gerstenmalz and hops.

Last was the schwarzbier – surprisingly sweet, with a hint of peppermint and something rooty.  As I’ve said elsewhere, European schwarzbiers and IPAs usually surprise me when they fail to land the bitter hop hit of American brews.  I didn’t mind this in the DBB schwarz – the absence of dominant hops allowed the malt flavors to flower, making this one a perfect dessert beer.

After four rounds at the kiosk, Steve, Matthias, and I decided to drop 20€ and buy two specialty bottles, the Adam and the 1972, to drink later that night (after we visited the Hövels Brauerei – Sauf!)  The man in the kiosk window advised us to serve these cool but not chilled, at about the temperature you’d serve most white wines.

The 1972 disappointed all of us, I think, perhaps because of the advertising.  A supposedly “hoppy” Bock, the brewers intended this to recall the autumnal days of the Dortmund coal and steel industry, when a beer like this was “the honest wage after hard work.”

The beer was certainly not bitter, at least not by my standards.  A lighter beer with almost no aroma, it opened with citrus notes that lingered and blossomed into apple and yeast.  This made for a complex taste, but still, nothing stunned us.

Steve thought it tasted more like 2003 than 1972, and I had to agree.

With the Adam, brewmasters hoped to reach back even further, to recall the brewers of Middle Ages, who wrestled with wild malts and brewed darker, more bitter beers with higher ABVs.  This one weighed in at 7.5%, about your average IPA’s ABV today.  Sweet, dark, and lightly bitter, all flavors bowed to the malts in this one.  Sebastian was the first to notice the Adam’s biggest surprise: very obvious notes of soy sauce.

This tastes like 1972 to me,” Steve said.  “Dirty, hoppy, very malty – I wouldn’t drink and drive.”  (Luckily everyone drives stick in Germany – if Steve tried to drive, he only would have rolled downhill into some bushes.)  He went on to list coffee and cigarette butts as subtle influences on the brew.

Matthias, who’d sought out the beer after an avalanche of friends’ recommendations, loved the beer at once.  Ten beers deep at this point (we’d also paused to crack a bottle of Gose that we’d brought back from Leipzig, and have a few vodka shots to wash our tastebuds) I found my usually discrimination palate slightly compromised.

Drinking Bergmann beer is a riposte to the American craft beer drinkers who complain about the stagnation of European brewing.  I’ve spoken to many friends and beer lovers who actually complain about traveling to Europe and being “stuck” with European beer.  I still see their point – while we all love Czech and Dortmund pils, and can raise a Guinness, and down litres of Bavarian weissbier the whole day long, the European brewers, for the most part, are very good at doing one or two things, and doing those things brilliantly.  Innovative?  Daring?  Not so much.  Good luck finding a decent IPA in Central Europe, a nut brown ale outside of England, a Belgian gold anywhere outside of Belgium.

But, as I found in Sligo, at Europe far-western frontier, Irish craft brewers are feeling a new trade wind from America.  Among a field of decent attempts, I found the W.B. (Yeats) IPA at the Swagmann, brewed by Brü, a beer that could compete with America’s best.  And now, in Germany, in what was once the greatest brewing city in all of Europe, I’ve found exciting offerings from a newcomer craft brewer, poised, it seems, to change the face of Dortmund brewing.  Sure, they look to the past for inspiration, but when it comes to beer the past is the best place to start.

To wrap things up, I quite like the DBB pils, as a sweeter and maltier break from the standard offerings – though I probably wouldn’t make it my standby.  I liked the Adam very much – enough to drop another 10€ at the start of an evening, to see what I really think of it.  My favorite overall is the export – sweet, boozy, golden, paired well with meals, and very, very refreshing.  Of course, I wouldn’t mind a schwarzbier for dessert.

I’ll be revisiting these beers soon.  When that day comes, you’ll find me back at the Bergmann Kiosk.

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[Above, Steve rides the Sauf Train – in this case, one of the flying rhinos scattered throughout Dortmund.]

Post-Fascist Aesthetics at Dortmund’s Museum Ostwall

Visiting two wonderful widows in an apartment in Scharnhorst, a northeast district of Dortmund, Steve and I mentioned to the hostess – Oma, eighty-five and able to make a man reach unwilling for a fourth helping with the smallest flick of her index finger – that we’d been to the Museum Ostwall in the U-Building at the west end of downtown Dortmund.  Oma scoffed.

There was once a work in a contemporary gallery, Oma told us (she didn’t say where, or whose work) that consisted of a blank canvas with a subtle grease-spot just slightly off-center.  One night a cleaning lady, unable to identify the stained canvas as art, washed out the stain and replaced it on the wall.  The woman was fired – although I had to wonder how long the museum staff took to notice that anything had changed.

Apocryphal or not, the story hit home.  Steve and I had experienced our own “grease stain moment” the day prior, in the museum Ostwall, on the 6th floor of the Dortmund U-Building.  We stood in front of a room full of forks.  Forks and spoons.  These were strewn liberally between three barbed wire fences about six-and-a-half feet tall.  To our right were two suitcases, which (yes, I picked them up) felt empty.

“So …” said Steve, “Do we … What?”

“I think we’re supposed to walk across,” I said.  “Like it’s one of those interactive things.”

“Oh, fun,” said Steve.

But neither of us moved.

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We had doubts.  We’d not seen anyone else walk across.  And we didn’t see any point in walking across, because there wasn’t anything at the other end – just an unsavoury gray couch.   In the adjacent hallway hung a picture of an asexual Soviet-type figure carrying one of the suitcases and walking across the spoons.  It could have been an example to follow – but something in that black-and-white androgynous grimace didn’t feel like an invitation.

Still undecided we circled around to the opposite end of the fork-and-spoon affair, in the room with the couch.  There Steve spotted a tiny message on the wall.  With a grasp of the German language limited to “essen” (food) and “gut” (good), among other unpublishables, we had no idea what the message said – but it was in italics, and ended in an exclamation mark, so our rough translation looked something like “don’t put your imperialist soles on my silverware!”

So we let the utensils lie.  Feeling some faint obligation toward anarchy in my American blood, I nudged one with my toe before we left.

Unfortunately, this experience – disappointment, a bit of resentment, a dash of disgust – could sum up the hour or two we spent at the Museum Ostwall.

The fare was pedestrian at best – canvases with crude scrawls of “Alles ist kunst” (everything is art) or a piece of paper declaring with Nietzschean certainty that “Form is void.  Void is Form.”

All very good and well in some blowhard pamphlet published by an artist-cum-critic – but this sort of thing underwhelms on a canvas. My problem wasn’t that I disagreed, but that I was bored.  And so we walked past potato sacks left on the floor, globes of LED lights that I swore I’d already seen in late-January Christmas Tree Shop end-of-season sale, a square red canvas next to a square blue canvas (that I swore I’d seen … everywhere), a video of a Freya Hattenberger performing lackluster fellatio on a plastic-wrapped microphone, and we understood it all.  Understanding the “statements” wasn’t our difficulty; but we gave appreciation (forget awe) the old college try, and came up short.

By coincidence, a day or two before our museum visit one of the most liberal people I know sent me an article titled “Liberals Are Killing Art.”  The article doesn’t criticize artists so much as their gatekeepers – the gallerists and the critics – and even the defenders of art.  Those who defend art as a means to some social or political end, the author, Jed Perl, writes, cheapen art and rob it of its transcendent power.  He quotes Paul Goodman:

“…’the plastic arts, drawing and painting and sculpture, cannot become minor arts for they demonstrate perception, how people can see and are to see; and so a people’s music is its kind of feelings.'”

Places like the Museum Ostwall enshrine a mode of perception that I’d liken to a hall of mirrors facing the artist, a tenor of feeling that can only be called shallow and tepid.  This is the gallery of an atrophied culture, and atrophied kunst.

At our most downhearted, Steve and I walked into a room full of Picassos, Beckmanns, Mackes.  And we were awed.

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I think the salient difference between people like Picasso and people like, say, Freya Hattenberger, is that the former presents a vision of reality, some mode of perception, feeling sublimated or transformed or expunged.  The latter falls into a broad school that expresses mere ideas.  “Anyone can have an idea,” the Museum Ostwall’s website says, as the tagline of its permanent collection.  This is true enough.  But art has never been made up of mere “ideas.”

As you’ve probably noticed, I took several pictures in the Museum Ostwall (you can see many in my Dortmund Flickr gallery).  Twice, though, the museum guides skittered out of their holes and crevices to chastise me.  In my defense, I had no idea that I was being told not to take pictures the first time.  The second time, in the museum’s sole room devoted to aesthetic expression, the guide caught me again, snapping a picture of a painting by August Macke.  I was offended, too offended to argue that no argument could sway a reasonable being from taking (non-flash) photos in a gallery – but not too offended to chuckle quietly at the fact that, in a museum so democratized into baseness, some fascist impulses persisted.

So we left.  Before we took the elevator down, however, we stopped at a viewing room that we had spotted while inside the gallery.  It faced east, out into downtown Dortmund, under the best and clearest midday sky we’d seen since  arriving here.  There were beanbag chairs near the window; the room was painted entirely red.  We sat there in silence for several minutes, ignoring, as best we could, the high pitched hushing and wailing playing from speakers high on the wall behind.  Here we were, fronting life, high and beautiful and shining and serene – and some schwanz was trying to strongarm this vision, this life, into half-mast “art”: a grease-stain on the world.

So be it.  We ignored the art and we looked out the window.  I still have my snapshot of the Picasso canvasses, and all the fascists and the democrats in the world can’t take that away.

If I could change one thing, I would have walked across those spoons.

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