In case you haven’t noticed, this is the time of year I like to brew my pale lagers. I got into the habit before I had real refrigerant-fueled temperature control and had to rely on the cold-spot-in-the-basement-near-the-sump-pit routine. I noticed that I was able to get away with a little more in terms of warmth when I was making the amber and darker lagers and there was some caramel or roast to hide behind, so we brewed those as we approached spring. But for the pale lagers, I really needed the coldest temps I could manage to ensure they didn’t show a whiff of esters. Well, I eventually secured a chest freezer to act as a fermentation chamber, but by then I was sort of used to thinking “pale lager” when the February and March snowstorms hit and I had the time to dive into them. And when we think of “pale lager,” we should really think of the Cadillac of pale lagers: the Dortmunder export.
When I described this beer to someone once, I said that it was like a strong German Pilsner. Their response was, “Then how is it different from a Maibock?” It stuck in my memory because it was a pretty astute observation, and the answer is that although they share some attributes (a strong-ish but not strong lager, pale, a bit more hops than their darker cousins), the difference is in the balance of the attributes. Maibock is rounder and maltier than the export, despite their similarity in grist. In a Maibock, the hops are there to ensure the beer doesn’t get too sweet—in the export, they’re there as a flavor all their own as well.
The Dortmunder export is just as pale as…well, okay, maybe not quite as pale as a German Pils, but it’s close. It shouldn’t get anywhere near the “orange” range, and I’m not even especially comfortable with it in the “gold” range, either. Don’t give this beer any excuse to darken. It should be light and crisp with a bit of alcohol warmth, a great bready malt flavor, and moderate levels of noble hops spice and flowers. Of those, I’m going to suggest that you focus on ensuring there’s plenty of alcohol—without it, the beer will seem like any other pale lager. The trick is to make sure there’s a flinty quality that accentuates the bittering—without it, the sweetness from the alcohol and the richness of the malt will become too much, and now you’re back in Maibock territory. Like many beers, this one’s a bit of a balancing act, but also like most beers, there’s an approach to increase your odds of getting that right balance!
It’s “all base grain” time—don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of character, and if you don’t, it’s an easy fix. Start with about 9 pounds (4.8 kg) of German Pilsner malt, and then add 2 pounds (907 g) of Vienna and 1 pound (454 g) of Munich. That’s it. I find that this grist bill gives me all kinds of good bread/biscuit malt background flavors without being too heavy, but if you feel like it’s too Spartan, you can add in about ¼ pound (113 g) of Melanoidin or Victory malt to bulk it up (though, as I say, try it without!). In addition to those nice grainy flavors, you’ll also get about 6 percent ABV, which you’ll taste (even at that moderate level) since there’s not much to hide behind.
Hopping is pretty aggressive, too (for a pale lager, anyway). Adding 1 ounce (28 g) of Hallertau at 60, 30, and 5 minutes should yield about 30 IBUs (assuming an alpha acid percentage of about 4−4.5 percent), and impart lots of hops flavor and aroma, along with the bittering qualities.
Then we need yeast—something that will ferment clean and bright and stay out of the way of the hops. Whatever you use for your German Pilsner should work—Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager) is a good choice.
Here’s the thing about the process in this beer: I always use ¼ teaspoon of gypsum in the mash. I have just a shade under medium-hard water, and it’s okay without it, but with the gypsum this beer really sings. It’s up to you, and I don’t typically recommend water adjustment (a less promising risk/reward calculation than I’m comfortable with, generally), but here, much like in my English pale ales, I think it’s worth it. Unless you’re working with noticeably hard water, I think it adds more than it detracts, and you’ll really taste and feel the difference.
Aside from that, nothing much to see here. Mash at 152°F (67°C), boil, and chill. If you’re usually lax with your oxygenation regimen, give it more attention with this beer: lots of oxygen and a healthy yeast pitch will go a long way toward making this beer turn out well. Ferment cool—50°F (10°C) is fine, and you can/should increase to about 60°F (16°C) after a week or so to help the beer finish nice and dry and sulfur-free (though a bit of sulfur works here, too). Then package, carbonate, and…wait. In 2 weeks or so, it’ll be good. In 4 weeks, it’ll be better. In 6 weeks…well, you’ll see. It ages wonderfully, and you’ve given it lots of hops flavor and aroma to survive the lagering process. I’ve kept bottles of this for well over a year, and they take on an incredibly rich cereal-grain flavor over time, and although the bitterness fades and the floral character goes away, it never seems to end up like some kind of half-assed Maibock. The good people of Dortmund really knew how to make a unique beer.
This beer holds a special place in my heart, too, because it was one of two beers that my father and stepmother chose to have brewed for their wedding. It was a wonderful day—we poured five gallons (19 l) of this in less than an hour, and the reception was off to a rollicking start. I hope it turns out as well for you!