The Curious Case of Ninkasi's Dortmunder Oktoberfest

I invite you to study the label on the latest beer in Ninkasi's Prismatic Lager series.  Emblazoned in attractive gothic script one finds the seasonally-appropriate Oktoberfest written in monochrome.  But then underneath it, this odd description: "Dortmund-style lager."  What the ...?

Let's set that riddle aside for the moment to comment on the beer.  It is delicious, and had memories of Bavarian steins dancing in my head.  A quietly lush aroma of soft malt and peppery hops that unfolds when it enters your mouth into grainy fullness.  Jamie and Co. played this one straight, with German ingredients that go right down to the Reinheitsgebot-compliant acidulated malt.  A brewer is not allowed to adjust the pH of his mash artificially (nein! verboten! unnatürliche!), but can acidify it naturally or--much easier--use acidulated malt.  I actually hated the Sterling Pils that preceded it because the American malts were rough and thick.  In this 5.1% Oktoberfest, Ninkasi has found the softness of German malt, the aromatics and lovely graininess that make helles one of the world's two or three best session beers.  This is about as close to Munich as you'll get beerwise here in far Oregon.  Drink up.

But what about this weird language on the label?  Ninkasi sent me to a secret in-house video the brewery made for employees and distributors describing the beer and why it had these names.  Brewer/founder Jamie Floyd explained that it was largely because the Brewers Association style guidelines essentially don't distinguish between the two.  In the video, he gives backgrounders on how the two styles have sort of grown together so that--at least to far Americans--they look pretty much the same.  Essentially: both have gotten weaker and Oktoberfest has gotten lighter-colored.  Same-same.

On the one hand, I guess I can see how this happened.  Both styles have changed a bit and one has gotten quite weak in the country of its origin.  But on the other hand, this is really a disaster.  We shouldn't describe beer solely by its sensory or statistical profile.  History should play at least a supporting role--and maybe in this case should take precedence, for Americans likely have no idea where these beers came from.  I don't blame Ninkasi for this as much as I blame style guideline-writers who made the two seem indistinguishable.  They're not. 

Dortmund Export
The town of Dortmund is located in Germany's industrial north, far closer to The Netherlands (60 miles) than Theresienwiese in Munich (375 miles).  Northern Germany was late to lager-brewing and Dortmund only picked it up in the mid-19th century, coincidental with the rise of the city's coal and steel industries.  It took even longer for pale lagers to come into vogue, but they eventually did in 1887 when Dortmunder Union began making the first Dortmund-style pale lager.  The brewery made two strengths, a regular and an "export," which was brewed strong.  Export was a sturdy beer that ranged from 5.5% alcohol and up.  It had some of the malt sweetness of helles, but added the hopping of pilsner and the whiff of sulfur that came from the local water--which also stiffened the hops (like Burton).  It was a robust beer for thirsty men.
Source: Dortmund Brauerei-Museum

Export would one day conquer Germany--a shocking fact for a style that is all but extinct there now.  By the middle of the 20th century it had a staggering two-thirds of the total German market, most of that coming straight outta Dortmund.  As you easily surmise, that was the high point.  Export began losing out to other pale lagers of the day--helles and pils--and the great Dortmunder breweries closed one by one.   Now there's just one, DAB, and that beer is no stronger nor more hoppy than a helles (4.8%, 22 IBUs).  It is still a firm lager, hardened by calcium-rich local water, but not a beer of enormous character. It is, by historic standards, a pretty diminished and shrunken example of the style.  An export should be made strong, with strong flavors.  Think of the burly coal men.

Lagers originally got their start way down south in rustic Bavaria--hundreds of years before Dortmunders got around to digging out cellars.  All those early lagers were dark--dunkel--because Bavarians loved them some dark beer.  It wouldn't be until 350 years later, in the middle 19th century, that the brewers there began to fiddle with lighter malts.  I could actually get very deep into the weeds here, but suffice it to say that lighter malts did come, though in Bavaria they were called Munich malts and were honey-colored at the lightest.  They could be used as base malts, and used alone produced deeply-colored beer.  (Dust off your Oxford Companion and look up Sedlmayr and Dreher if you want more).

One of the popular beers was known as märzen, brewed in March (hence the name), a lager that summered over the hot season in cool cellars until the fall.  Because they didn't have artificial cooling at the time, breweries couldn't make beer in the hot months--March was a brewer's last blast until the autumn chill returned.  The idea that märzens are an amber beer is seared into our small brainpans, but this isn't essential to the style. Märzens are just 13-14 degree Plato beers that may be any color.  (Go buy a bottle of Schlenkerla's standard beer, a märzen, and see what color it is.)  In dark-beer Bavaria of the 19th century, märzen was dark.  The first oktoberfestbier was brewed by Spaten in 1841--that was the famous "pale" märzen made with rich Munich malt--and it was probably pretty dark, too, owing the Munich's preference for dunkel.  We can further gather this from the fact that Spaten didn't release the first helles until 1894 and the event threatened to cause a split among Munich's breweries, many of whom thought pale beers were a debasement of the true Munich art. Had that 1841 beer been pale, the outrage would have come much earlier.

Over time, the beers that became associated with Oktoberfest (only six could legally use the term) became amber lovelies of slightly amped heft.  Even today, the great Munich Oktoberfests approach 6%.  Eventually, of course, hellesbier would win out over dunkel in Munich and the Oktoberfests--once chestnut--slid closer to helles in hue.  Those old Oktoberfests would have had lots and lots of Munich malt.  Now they're just a shade darker than the fave style of the city and rely a lot more on pilsner malt--with just a hint of Munich for that glimmer of gold. As Bavarian beers, they are soft and just a touch spicy with hops--beers built for easy drinking by the liter. 

So here's the thing.  By all reasonable, historic standards, both Dortmund and Oktoberfest should be beers of 5.5% to 6%.  But besides that, they're actually different beers.  Only recently have the Oktoberfests ditched the Munich malt.  When I spoke to Jürgen Knöller, the Bavarian-born and trained master brewer at Bayern, he told me how much things have changed since he got to the US. "I’m still brewing the German lager beers from 1985.  When you go to Germany you have some of the older breweries that still brew the same way, but the bigger ones certainly don’t do anymore.  What’s different between our beers here in general is that they’re all probably a little bit stronger, a little bit darker, whereas in Germany they have gotten a lot lighter."  It's strange to think of an Oktoberfest that completely eschews Munich malt.  Perhaps they exist, but I will maintain a prejudice against any Oktoberfest without Munich malt.  It strikes me as a minor form of apostasy. 

Americans are under no obligation to follow the modern German shift to the light.  We can easily accept the not-exactly-truth we always thought was true--that Oktoberfest should be amber beers with a bit of that rich, honey-caramel Munich malt flavor.  Dortmund beers are more like a Burton pale lager, with a sulfurous, mineral edge and a fair bit of hop and no Munich malt.  Both should be a bit on the burly side, certainly not less than 5.5%.

Ninkasi has brewed a glorious helles.  There's just no other way around it.  It's neither an Oktoberfest nor a Dortmund, but it is very much a German-style lager--the most important thing.  It has the flavor of authenticity and Munich.  It's just not either of the styles listed on the label.