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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

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.


  1. What a great read! Thank you. I feel educated and informed- and, I feel like trying this beer! When will Ninkasi export over to France? I miss me some Goddess of Beer!


  2. Most Munich lagers in the mid 19th century were straw colored, in the style of the popular Vienna beers at the time (which, btw, were and are not amber-orange).

    What we think of as "munich" malt was created AFTER the Vienna style was already popular there, probably as an attempt to re-Bavarianize Munich brewing. The official beginning of the Oktoberfest dates to this time, but the festival itself is medieval. The stories about the history of the Oktoberfest in Bavaria are probably more related to 19th c imperialism and nationalism than any historical fact.

    That said, spaten rolled out the helles in the early 20th c and Munich beer has been dominantly straw colored since then, including the Oktoberfest beers.

    Paulaner released their Wiesnbier a couple years ago in little tin cans; that was the actual beer they pour at the festival. It's 6%, basically a strong helles. The "Oktoberfest marzen" is a beer they make for American consumer, because beer advocates have convinced everyone here that Oktoberfests are brown.

    The 1985 festbiers probably resemble that from Ayinger or Weihenstephaner. They haven't been brown, or made from mostly Munich malt, in a long, long time.

    Few breweries in the US do it correctly either, btw. Something like Sam Adams Octoberfest is pale 2-row dolled up with crystal malt and a dash of Munich for color. Very rare that you see a marzen or dunkel that's all or mostly Munich, here or in Germany.

  3. Oh btw, that "rich honey-caramel flavor" is not what you get from mostly Munich. Depending on the color of the Munich malt, it ranges from slightly to strongly reminiscent of raisin-bread. Don't take my word for it, get some of the darkest munich weyermann offers and use it as 100% of the grist. It will be amber colored and not at all sweet.

  4. Daniel, I'd be interested to know your sourcing on this material. It really contradicts the stuff I've seen. Straw-colored midcentury Munich lagers? I've seen not a single reference to that. (When Spaten released the first helles--the first straw-colored beer in Munich according to the sources I've seen--it was so radical that the brewers went crazy.) Lacambre describes only "brown beers of Munich" along with bock and weizen. In nothing from Pattinson's sources do I see anything about early pale beers. "Pale," remember, was relative, so when Sedlmayr came up with Munich malt, it was only pale in comparison to the brown beers.

    Oktoberfest started in 1810, long before Sedlmayr and Dreher introduced their "pale" marzens in 1841. If I implied the Oktoberfests of 1985 were brown, I apologize; they were amber. You should talk to Jurgen Knoller if you think they weren't made from Munich--he differs on that score. (Even dunkel is not made from as much Munich as it was even 30 years ago.) I didn't visit Munich until last year, so I can't say from first hand what the beers looked like then, but it is in living memory, and I tried to speak to those folks who still remember.

    Finally, trying to describe flavors is always hard. I admit I stopped when I went with "honey-caramel flavor" because I wasn't sure what to call it. It tastes like Munich malt! Caramel always makes us think of crystal malt, and the flavor is definitely very different from that. (And when I taste a two-row/crystal malt lager, I now recoil.) I like raisin-bread as a description.

  5. More on describing malt flavors. If you say "biscuit" people think you mean Maris Otter. If you say "bready" they think pilsner malt. ("Grainy" seems to be a decent dodge.) Caramel gets you American crystal while toffee gets you English. The thing is, Munich has a touch of caramel in the flavor, too, but it's also a dry flavor, a bit toasty, a bit bready. Someday I'll learn how to describe them.

  6. Also, the Dortmund water profile has a relatively high amount of emsom salt (MgSO4) that is not present in Ninkasi's tasty Helles-like lager.

  7. I believe it was actually wahl and henius that described the popularity of Vienna beers in Munich mid-century. Whether they were simply popular imports (from Vienna or from other parts of Bavaria), or whether they were actually being brewed there I can't remember. IIRC they were describing the beer served in taverns in Munich, though I could very possibly be remembering wrong. Doesn't matter.

    The meat of the issue is whether "oktoberfest" is even a style. If it is, we're back to the question you had the other day on lambics: Americans cannot make it, because it is defined solely by the breweries allowed to serve beer at the Oktoberfest in Munich. As far as I know those 6 refer to those beers in Bavaria as Wiesn. They are also considered a type of Maerzen because of their gravity (but not a historical Maerzen).

    As far as I'm concerned (and I think this reflects the labeling in Germany), Maerzen is a beer of a higher SG than normal but less than a bock--around 14 Plato, give or take--and can range all the way from helles to dunkel (see also: the smoked maerzens from Schlenkerla).

    Ninkasi calling their beer an Oktoberfest muddies the landscape here, but there's no geographic protection on "Oktoberfest", so it hardly matters. It does sound like they are at least consistent with modern Munich beers, though.

  8. Oh, and I reacted to "honey" as a descriptor for munich because (thanks to beers like Sam adams octo) there is an impression that an Oktoberfest/maerzen/festbier/wiesn is slightly sweet. I don't care what color your Octobeer is, but it better not be sweet.

    Best Festbier Maerzen I ever made was 100% Vienna. The Munich II beer was great, but would have been a much better Novemberfest.

  9. Daniel, I think the Vienna lagers were quite a bit lighter than the midcentury Munich festbiers. I didn't pull out my Wahl and Henius because they weren't writing until around the turn of the century.

    I largely agree that Oktoberfest isn't a style (except in the US, perhaps). Marzens are supposed to be 13-14 P, but you're right that they only overlap festbiers in that they can be dark, whereas festbiers have been light-colored for a very long time now.

    I wonder how an all-Munich I would work?

  10. Jeff,

    I believe that, as Michael Jackson originally wrote, Vienna beer was amber in the beginning. In a mid-1800's analysis of German and Austrian beers by England-based Henry Vizsetelly, he calls the Vienna style, inaugurated by Dreher after he introduced bottom-fermenting in Vienna in the 1830's, "pale amber". He calls the colour of PIlsner Urquell very light. Clearly, Vienna beer was a bronze, mid-way between Munich dark beer and the extra-pale pilsen. I always understood the first Oktoberfest beers, i.e., styled as such with Spaten apparently being the first, borrowed the Vienna colour for their lager. Other analyses I've seen show its strength at around 5% ABV, not notably strong, but stronger than the average helles of the time. Since Vienna beer later lost in its home area the colour in question (but it survives in odd corners of the world, e.g. Dos Equis Amber), it is easy to see why it became conflated with the Dortmund style: both were malty but reasonably hopped and fairly pale. But originally Dreher's beer was amber-coloured, from this and various references I've seen:

    Personally I wouldn't consider a Dortmund lager as something you would promote for Octoberfest, but given how the Vienna style evolved in Austria, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me.


  11. I'm not sure how we got off on Vienna lagers, but I don't dispute that they were quite a bit lighter than the first Oktoberfestbier in Munich. Sedlmayr and Dreher were friends, but they weren't making the same beer. (Interestingly, however, Dreher did call his a marzen).

    Vienna lager is a third style altogether, mostly unrelated to the beers of Munich, and shouldn't factor in to what is already a confusion of Dortmunder and festbier.

    (And colors aside, I think it's just wrong to conflate a modern, low-alcohol Dortmunder with festbiers which are still close to 6%.)

  12. By my reading, the Munich fest beers were copies of Dreher's Vienna beer: they were the same thing, it's not a conflation. Vienna was 5% in Vizitelly's time, so not sure how the strong thing comes into it. This must have been a later evolution in Munich of the style.