The craft beer lifecycle and search for simplicity
When you work in beer for a while, you start to notice certain patterns. And there’s one cycle I’ve watched countless beer drinkers go through when they’re first branching out beyond mass-market lagers. First they explore darker import beers or Belgians, beers that are more intensely flavored and higher in alcohol than your typical Bud or PBR. Then they start gravitating toward double IPAs, imperial stouts, and sour beers. This is the pursuit of more — more hops, more booze, more roast, more everything.
Then there’s a turning point: you gravitate again toward lighter beers, and lower ABV.
Then there’s a turning point: After a few ulcers, wisdom and common sense begin to creep into the conversation. They find themselves going for more session IPAs, focusing instead on just how good beers can taste and smell rather than the need to order something new every time. They gravitate again toward lighter beers, and lower ABV…and often find themselves back where they started: crisp, light lagers, but maybe this time with a little more refinement.
I won’t lie, I’ve been on that ride. It’s actually what inspired us to start experimenting with lager brewing at Fort Point a few years ago, a process that I’m excited to say has culminated in our first packaged lager: Export. This beer has been a long time in the making, and the result is a lager that feels like a perfect addition to the Fort Point lineup. A beer you want to crack open after a hard day’s work and just…relax with.
Of course, our goal is to always brew balanced, drinkable beers no matter the style. But lagers are the epitome of a refreshing, easy-to-drink beer, and brewing one presented a fun challenge for our production team. Despite their reputation as simple or cheap, lagers require tremendous attention to detail and considerable resources to produce. Big hop bombs and pastry stouts may taste more complex, but that complexity does not always translate to the beer-making process. It’s similar to cooking eggs. Making a big, 10-ingredient scramble is fun and impressive (plus very good at fixing hangovers), but have you ever had a perfectly poached egg? Way more impressive.
"During my research I discovered that the historical water profile of Dortmund is very similar to our own water from Lobos Creek."
One of the main differences between ales and lagers is the yeast used for brewing. The most common ale yeasts are top-fermenting and prefer warmer temperatures. Lager yeasts prefer cooler environments, and are considered to be bottom-fermenting strains, since they don’t form as much foam as their ale counterparts and sink quickly to the bottom of the tank after fermentation. This cooler environment encourages a slower, more gradual fermentation that results in the clean, neutral flavor for which lagers are known.
In general, lager yeasts are much more flavor-neutral than ale yeasts, which allows the water, malt, and hops to be the focus of the beer. With that in mind, we started our lager experiment by selecting a clean-fermenting Danish lager yeast strain that tends to accentuate the hop character of the beer. Next, we needed to determine the flavor profile, and specifically what type of lager we wanted to make.Our very own Port of Oakland has some geographic similarities with the German port city of Dortmund.
Our brewing philosophy typically steers us towards the in-between — taking the best parts from a few styles and combining them into a single beer that is quintessentially “Fort Point.” With Export, the “a-ha” moment really came when I delved deeper into the lesser-known Dortmunder Export lager style. The Dortmunder Export lager was first brewed around 1873 in the north German city of Dortmund, as a response to the increasingly popular Czech pilsner. It falls somewhere between the maltiness of a southern German Helles lager and the crisp hop character of a Czech pilsner. More importantly, during my research I discovered that the historical water profile of Dortmund is very similar to our own water from Lobos Creek.
"Export fully engages you with the malts and hops, and it’s a little edgy. You’re almost able to deconstruct what you’re tasting and trace each flavor back to its raw ingredients."
Dortmunder-style lager became our destiny (or maybe it always was). We decided to go all in with a fairly traditional recipe, which makes Export a bit of an outlier compared to our other beers. However, the similarity in our water sources offered us a unique opportunity to put a very subtle Fort Point spin on the style, and give the beer a sense of place. For a beer that is so strongly connected to its birthplace, this seemed like a fitting tribute. The Bay Area also has some cultural and geographic similarities to the hard-working port city of Dortmund, which we nodded to in the can’s design.
Our water is high in sulfate and carbonate, which enhances the hop character and increases the perceived bitterness of the beer. This is complimented by a mostly traditional grain bill of Pilsner malt, Maris Otter malt, and a bit of Caramunich and Carafoam to balance the body and give a hint of sweetness. Export also brings out the best in three very classic German varieties of hops: Hallertau mittelfruh, Spalt Select, and Hersbrucker. These varieties combine to create a yin and yang of aroma: bright grass, flowers, and hay are balanced by more complex spice and tobacco notes.
All told, it’s among our most refreshing, versatile beers. Export fully engages you with the malts and hops, and it’s a little edgy. You’re almost able to deconstruct what you’re tasting and trace each flavor back to its raw ingredients.
I’m personally very excited about this next chapter in brewing at Fort Point. Export definitely won’t be our last lager; there are some other lager projects in the works that I’ll share when the time is right. But I don’t think I’m alone: as more people make it through the craft beer lifecycle, I think we’ll see brewers begin to explore the lighter side. Export is a natural fit into this greater lager revival, as well as to the Fort Point beer family. The depth in this beer is there if you want to go looking for it — but if you’re not in the mood, it’s just crisp and refreshing, and will get you back to enjoying the simpler things in life.
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Mike Schnebeck is the head brewer at Fort Point Beer Company.