This story was produced in cooperation with Dortmund Tourismus. As always, all opinions are my own.
“Harte Arbeit. Ehrlicher Lohn.” That’s, “Hard Work. Honest Wage.”
So read the white block letters on the wall at Bergmann Brauerei’s Stehbierhalle (standing beer hall) in a formerly industrial corner of Dortmund’s Hörde neighborhood. The Stehbierhalle harkens back to a tradition of grabbing a quick beer someplace affiliated with your favorite brewery. It was part of everyday life 100-plus years ago, strategically placed next to major public transit stations and market squares.
The Bergmann Stehbierhalle of today might seem familiar to craft beer aficionados from the U.S., accustomed to heading out to the sparsely populated corners of the warehouse district where some enterprising brewers have grabbed cheap, disused factory space. If the beer is good, drinkers will follow, and soon the food trucks aren’t far behind.
That’s the Bergmann of the 21st Century, with a pack of lycra-clad cyclists out front, replenishing their calories post-ride, and thirsty tourists trickling into the cube-shaped building for a local brew.
Festival der Dortmunder Bierkultur
Less than 24 hours before showing up at Bergmann, I’d never heard of it. The tip came from a couple of employees at Dortmund’s local tourism bureau, raving about the new Stehbierhalle outside of the city center.
The actual purpose of my visit was to check out the ongoing beer festival, now at the tail-end of its five-day run. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating, spitting out November temperatures and damp, bone-stabbing winds on the first weekend of May. That meant lighter crowds for an otherwise sizeable beer festival featuring 30-plus breweries and a healthy helping of street food vendors.
Marcus from Dortmund Tourism joined me for a drink, starting naturally at Bergmann.
“Do you want an Export or Maibock?” he asked.
“What’s the difference?”
“Maibock is basically an Export, but stronger,” he explained.
“Stronger” in this case meant “more alcohol.” I’d been battling a nasty cold for going on a week, so I thought a strong dose of old-fashioned medicine might help me get some sleep. “Stronger” sounded solid.
We clinked our official beer fest glasses and grabbed a standing spot alongside Bergmann’s booth. The Maibock had a rich amber body and the flavor to match. It was a delicious, drinkable beer – the kind you could come back to time and time again when you’re feeling indecisive and want something reliable.
Increasingly I’ve come to better appreciate Germany’s brewing tradition. I arrived with the false presumption that the only beer I was interested in was craft beer as if throwing that one word in front of a product somehow made it better, like “organic” or “FDA approved.” (Okay, some labels mean something.)
I thought Germany’s reputation for brewing was overblown by Americans only familiar with its Hefeweizens and that the country’s younger brewers were unnecessarily hampered by the (in)famous Rheinheitsgebot – the 1516 law that stipulates the ingredients of different German beer styles, a framework brewers have to adhere to in order to call their product a beer.
The truth, as it usually is, isn’t so black and white. Some German brewers wanting to push the boundaries have found ways around the Rheinheitsgebot (like calling it “brew” instead of beer) and others have found ways to update traditional recipes for contemporary drinkers expecting stronger flavor profiles.
In Dortmund, Bergmann has found their place in Germany’s evolving beer story by linking the past with the present.
Bringing Back Bergmann
As recent as the 1970s, Dortmund had the reputation of Europe’s preeminent beer city. But the industry shrunk in the following decades with some breweries merging into larger corporations.
Bergmann was originally founded in 1796 and closed in 1972. The brewery would’ve drifted off into beer history had it not been for Thomas Raphael who recognized the old Bergmann logo while employed at a trademark database for the office of German trademarks and patents. On a whim, Thomas requested rights to use the brand, but he could only keep it if he provided an actual product with the brand name.
Returning the brand to its brewing roots made sense, so Thomas set off to convince the brewmaster of Vormann Brauerei (in nearby Hagen-Dahl) to brew Dortmund’s traditional Export Beer under the Bergmann name. In 2007, Bergmann’s Export was shipped off to a company party where the editor of the local Ruhr-Nachrichten newspaper happened to be, tasting it, and setting off to share the story.
Things only snowballed from there. Thomas bought and refurbished an old kiosk in the center of town to sell Bergmann Bier. Then, he set his sights on opening a brewery where they could serve right onsite. That’s the Bergmann Stehbierhalle of today, a piece of German beer drinking tradition brought back to Dortmund in modern style, enveloped by the city’s industrial heritage (Bergmann = miner), like the hulking Hochofen Phoenix West facility – its winding pipes and towering tanks like something out of a science fiction film of the early 20th Century.
Bergmann stands as an impeccable representation of contemporary German brewing. Drinkers overseas typically herald the country for its centuries-old Hefeweizens that have withstood the test of time and the modern craft beer boom. Locals, on the other hand, lament the restrictions of the Rheinheitsgebot.
But Bergmann shows that there can be success in celebrating local history and representing that in a modern drink. Not everything needs to be cheap, mass-produced, watered-down beer nor does it have to be a Barley Wine Double IPA with a staggeringly-high ABV served by a guy with a Paul Bunyan beard. They have their tried and true Export, sure, but they’re far from limiting themselves – a fact I was happy to cheers to with a glass of their Red IPA, Hopfensünde.
Literally, that’s “sinning hops.”
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, how to ride the German train system, and preview chapters of There Must Be Order! on life in Germany.