It is a wonderful time to be a fan of beer.
When I am traveling around Europe connecting with the local beer cultures, one of the great joys is experiencing the beers that represent the region I am visiting. Heineken can be drank everywhere, but having one in Amsterdam makes drinking an ordinary beer very special. One particular example of this type of experience was drinking Stauder beer in Essen. When you hear the stories of how these beers got their beginning, you realize that some of these beers are the survivors from a time when towns and cities were filled with breweries. During times when water quality was poor, seemingly every pub and monastery brewed their own beer. The ratio of breweries to population could be as favorable as one brewery per 150 people. The experiences that a modern beer lover could achieve if able to transport back in time to the 1500’s, for example, are mind-boggling. When I ponder this, I get a great sense of loss when I consider all the different breweries that now only exist as lines of script in dusty ledgers piled in some cobwebbed basement corner in city records.
Of course with the Industrial Revolution and enhancements in technology, brewing could be done on a larger scale and most of these small breweries were absorbed by the bigger breweries or simply vanished. Some of these beers disappeared but were revived to restore part of the city’s identity and link to its past. Some remain in existence but merged with other small breweries to form a larger coalition. So for the last 100 years, the beers that we know and love almost all came from commercial breweries. However, if you walk into a beer distributor in Europe or America today, the 150:1 ratio doesn’t seem to be as inconceivable a concept as it would have felt if I had known such a statistic 5 years ago. The reason is the craft beer explosion that is sweeping many parts of the world. To the joy of beer lovers and especially beer counters, craft beer is everywhere. Although as one guy who I met recently in the USA admitted, “It used to be so much easier choosing a beer in the beer aisle.”
This rise in the craft beer culture has also brought inspiration to respect, revive, and dare I say market the authentic beer cultures that were already existing but whose potential was not maximized. It should never be the intent of craft beer to replace or bring down the established commercial beers but rather to supplement them and to re-envigorate the entire beer world by making beer culture a more important part of the touristic agenda. Everywhere I go, I see new beer museums, more elaborate tourist-focused brewery visitor centers, and beer-centric city tours becoming more and more one of the major highlights in any city which has had a beer culture. Nowadays one doesn’t go to Prague to see Castle Hill, one goes to experience the Prague beer culture.
One perfect example where this beer culture phenomenon has brought past, present, and future together is the Festival der Dortmunder Bierkultur or Festival of Dortmund Beer Culture in Dortmund, Germany.
This festival was first held in 2016 to celebrate 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot, the famous German Beer Purity Law generally credited as deriving from Bavaria in 1516 which strictly defined the allowed ingredients for making beer. In a way it is counter-intuitive to celebrate a law that technically limited the creativity of German beer makers for half a millennium. But in another way, by having this tradition, German beer made under the Reinheitsgebot has some intangible mythos that perpetuates from this law making it seem special and unique. It is similar to how sparkling wine only called Champagne because it is made in a particular region of France is somehow better than Cava or Prosecco. No matter how much you try to convince yourself they are the same thing, Champagne will always just feel more special than any other sparkling wine. Is there really any difference between beers made under the Reinheitsgebot rules and any other beer made with just barley, hops, water, and yeast? Absolutely not. But it does give German beer a certain undeniable charm and perceived authenticity which I am more than happy to celebrate in Dortmund.
The festival is appropriately located in the square in front of the Dortmunder U building or U-Tower with its distinctive U-shaped emblem mounted on the building roof like a Mercedes hood ornament. This was the site of the original Dortmunder Union brewery. Dortmund was at the center of Germany’s coal and steel industry and once had as many as 30 breweries in the city to serve its many blue-collar workers. Dortmunder Union was the first brewery credited with brewing Dortmund’s contribution to the family of (un)official beer styles, the Dortmunder Export or Export for short. Much is written on the internet to eloquently describe the subtle differences between the Export and it’s brother and sister, Helles and Pilsner. I won’t bother to find other superlatives to describe it. But for sure the Export puts Dortmunder squarely on the beer pilgrimage map.
While the festival may have begun to celebrate the Reinheitsgebot, it has continued to be held each year since. Rightly so, as there is much about Dortmund’s beer culture on its own to celebrate. The beauty of the festival is that it combines two parts of beer culture. Dortmund’s brewing history, it’s currently produced beers, and the arrival of the craft beer craze to Germany’s strictly regulated beer world.
The festival is a heaven for a beer connoisseur as well as the casual beer drinker. There are essentially two sections. One section contains the booths with craft beer from around the world and the other only Dortmunder beers. I have never seen a beer festival quite like this one which marries both concepts of new and old together into a fantastic celebration of beer. I hope this festival continues to be an annual tradition. Dortmund deserves to be considered among the great beer cities in the world.
Aside from the beer festival, there are for sure many places around the city to enjoy the Dortmunder bierkultur. One place that I recommend is the Hövels Brauerei. On the way to the beer festival from the train station we stopped here for a beer and a bite to eat. We were invited to take a tour of the brewery. Instead of just the usual blah blah, we were taken to the tank room and allowed to sample various beers directly from the tank, cold, unfiltered, fresh, and delicious. This is highly recommended folks.
It is a wonderful time to be a fan of beer.