Most beer styles are, in one way or another, connected to their past. Collectively, the roots are ancient; stylistically, more modern. Even today’s nouveau styles are based on traditional beers. Only two reference their antiquity in their name, the British old ale, and the German ale known as altbier. Altbier, meaning old beer, is so called because of the reverential grasp its brewers have maintained on Rhineland brewing traditions. Indigenous to Düsseldorf, altbiers are top-fermented, full of hops, and with a winsome copper color. Altbier, or simply alt, bridges the chasm between ales and lagers in a manner that flatters both.
The radical changes that occurred in brewing circles in the early part of the 19th century improved beer quality immeasurably.
The Roots of Altbier
In Europe during the Middle Ages, most of the brewing was done in private households and by monasteries. Monks in particular were rather adept at brewing, and took an analytical approach to the craft. Eventually, it was almost universally agreed upon that malted barley, bittered with hops, made the best beers. It can also be assumed that all beers, except those brewed in the coldest of climates, were top-fermenting ales. Most were also quite dark.
Despite the improved deftness of many brewers of the time, sub par beers were still common. The now-famous beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, drafted in Bavaria in 1516, was an attempt to discourage the production of poor-quality beer. The brewers of the Rhineland were not bound by this decree. This is not to say that there were necessarily more undrinkable beers in the northwest of Germany, but it nevertheless allowed the brewers there to assert some individuality based on this independence.
The cooler climate also allowed Rhineland brewers to brew throughout the year; which was illegal in Bavaria. These factors contributed to a separate brewing culture in the northwest that is very much alive today in Düsseldorf and Köln.
The radical changes that occurred in brewing circles in the early part of the 19th century improved beer quality immeasurably. Lighter, softer malts that produced golden-hued beers, and the isolation of bottom-fermenting lager yeasts, led to the production of crystal-clear, golden lager beers known as pilsner, brewed first in Plzen, Czechoslovakia and embraced shortly thereafter in Munich. Brewers in continental Europe adopted these innovations and it wasn’t long before similar beers were produced everywhere.
The indirect result of improved malting technology was that traditional darker malts could be produced that were more consistent. In Bavaria, old-style dark beers like Munich dunkels and bocks were not abandoned, but refined with better malt and lager fermentation technology.
In the northwest, the brewers of Düsseldorf adopted the malting technology, but eschewed lager yeasts, thinking them unnecessary. It is easy to see how the altbiers of today are the way the are based both on this history and a resistance to the most sweeping changes.