Hop rates in the low- to mid-20s provide the perfect complement to the elegant malt character. Minimal aroma hops are traditional and, in a beer this delicate, even a meager aromatic addition will be noticeable. As one who loves to make classic versions of beers, I usually stick with German low-alpha-acid varieties such as Tettnang, Hallertau, or Hersbrucker, as well as Czech Saaz for aroma. American hops with German pedigree are also acceptable.
There are several Kölsch yeasts available from both Wyeast and White Labs; all of them are highly attenuative and will serve to retain the feathery malt character that you have so ardently striven to achieve. I have found that some lend an herbal character, enhancing the hops, while others provide a soft malty and even vinous note. As always, consult the vendor specs online.
Since traditionally altbier is a shade of copper/amber, it is a bit more forgiving with grain bills and more accepting of diverse hop schedules. Even those found in the Düsseldorf Altstadt, the epicenter of altbier brewing, exhibit a range of hoppy profiles. Zum Uerige is considered the prototype. It comes in at 50 IBU, but most others are more balanced.
Decide for yourself whether you want a malt-accented, or hop-kissed brew. Maltiness can be achieved with a measure of Vienna, Munich, aromatic or Caramunich varieties. Mashing low will give the crisp, dry body and finish, without compromising the malt flavors.
Traditional altbier comes in at 4.5 percent ABV on average (OG 1044-1048). Just like Kölsch, altbier stays light on aromatic hops, but a hint of nobility in the aroma is a touch of grace. Spalter is the signature hop of altbier, but any of the German varieties will fit the profile.
If someone were to put my feet to the kettle, I’d go with a grain bill of 20 percent Munich, 75 percent pilsner, 4 percent Caramunich I and 1 percent Carafa I; 40 IBU, a modest addition of noble German hops at 15 and five minutes before knockout, and either Wyeast 1007 or WLP029. If mashed at 148 degrees F, this will give a crisp, lightly malty, aromatic and decidedly German character, with some mouthfeel and body provided by the secondary malts.
Base malt grist heavier on Vienna and Munich would also work well and create as authentic an altbier as any. The famous Sticke altbier from Zum Uerige is made a bit stronger and hoppier than its flagship altbier. It also makes a doppelsticke at 8.5 percent ABV.
Variations on the Theme
Now that I’ve offered some stodgy, classic guidelines, it is time to step outside the lines. The nature of the both Kölsch and altbier yeasts is one of adaptation and melding, able to cozy up to a variety of hops and malt. They go especially well with German ingredients, of course, so using that as a starting point, your recipe palette is relatively broad.
Kölsch yeasts play nicely with malted or flaked wheat or rye or even adjunct grains, and accent even the most delicate of hop schedules. Summertime wheat ales, heavy on American ingredients, with a slightly tart, quenching and herbal hop character, are impeccably brewed using Kölsch yeast. Cream ale and bière de garde are other options.
Something a little darker, with Vienna and Munich malts in the grist, higher ABV and higher hop rates, favors these yeasts rather nicely. Use that strategy to craft a well-hopped German “pale ale.”
Altbier yeasts are just as versatile and can handle generous doses of darker malts such as caramel and roast, and base malts such as wheat and rye. One of my favorite homebrews is a German-style “dry stout,” using pilsner, Munich, malted wheat and Carafa III in the grist, hopped to 40 IBU with Perle, finished with a German noble and fermented with altbier yeast. It will remind you of Guinness, with a German twist.
Malty amber and brown beer also favor the yeasts of Düsseldorf, even those in the 7 to 8 percent ABV range (especially bière de garde). Both Kölsch and altbier yeasts will offer full attenuation without suppressing, and even reinforcing, the malty notes. One thing to remember about these yeasts is that they are poor flocculators (sometimes called “dusty”) and will stay in suspension longer than most others. This is, once again, where patience and cold-conditioning come into play.
Both styles present an excellent chance to experiment with the new German hop cultivars for aromatic additions (Saphir, Opal, Smaragd). The fact that both are so well-adapted to the extensive pool of German ingredients especially, but American and Belgian as well, means that you are bound only by your imagination, unless of course, you want to create a Rhineland classic.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.