When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
Dortmunder Union first produced its Export Lager in 1873 in response to the rise of golden pilsners throughout the German-speaking world. Like pilsner, it was a light-colored lager that balanced pale malt with noble hops. Distinguishing it, however, were a higher ABV and a distinct sharpness resulting from calcium carbonate in the city’s water. Both Bernstein and The Beer Bible’s Jeff Alworth liken the beer’s character to that of the city’s miners and steelworkers: strong and a bit rough around the edges. They also lament the style’s twentieth century decline. While Dortmund-based DAB still produces a Dortmunder Export, it’s a mild beer that lacks its ancestors’ character. These days, a handful of American breweries are helping to keep the style strong through their own interpretations.
“A pale, well-balanced, smooth German lager that is slightly stronger than the average beer with a moderate body and a mild, aromatic hop and malt character.”
According to The Complete Beer Course, Dortmund was previously known for producing an Adambier. That strong, hoppy ale was aged to the point of souring, similar to traditional porters.
Third Coast Review’s Take
I enjoyed both of the Dortmunder Exports I tried, but wonder if I’ll seek out the style again. The flavors just don’t come together with the same refreshing balance or clean finish as a pilsner. I can see why this strong lager was once a happy-hour drink of choice for miners and steelworkers, but it didn’t quite hit the spot after a long day hunched over a keyboard.
Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold Lager is an Americanized version of the Dortmunder, right down to its home in a former industrial city (Cleveland). It’s balanced yet big, and I wonder if Great Lakes was trying to make a point about the flavorful potential of golden lagers when they first brewed it in 1988. It starts sweet but finishes bitter, courtesy of New World Cascade hops.
Metropolitan Brewing’s Humbucker Dortmunder shoots for authenticity, even employing “water treatment meant to mimic the famous water of Dortmund.” While Metropolitan hops this beer more heavily than most of their lagers, I still found it to be a softer, more balanced beer than Great Lakes’ interpretation. In a lovely bit of irony, a beer brewed in collaboration with a heavy metal festival is on the lighter side.