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.
Altbier brewers employ the same elegant malts that German lagerbier brewers do. Generally the grist is composed of pilsner malt, Munich malt, and a small measure of a dark variety such as caramel or black malt. Pilsner malt provides a crisp backbone to the beer. It has a high degree of fermentability and contributes a little body. Munich malt is modified a bit beyond the pilsner variety by toasting. Its footprint on the wort is a malty flavor and aroma, a bit more residual, or dextrinous, character, and an engaging copper/bronze color. The dark malts, used in very small quantities, are used to color the beer only and perhaps add a little more body. The malts are mashed in such a manner that helps create a dry-finishing product.
Authentic altbiers are among the more heavily-hopped beers. In fact, the quantitative measure of an altbier’s bitterness would seem to be at a level more befitting an IPA. A taste, however, will reveal a dry, lingering bitterness that is not at all lopsided. This seemingly reckless use of hops is tempered marvelously by the qualities of the German malt, and a period of post-fermentation conditioning at cold temperatures that reduces the bitterness to a very noticeable, but less sharp edge. Hop additions for flavor and aroma are kept to a minimum. Of course traditional German varieties such as Hallertau, Tettnang, Perle and Spalt hops are used, with Spalt being the signature hop in the more traditional recipes.
Altbiers are top-fermented. But because they were brewed in the cool climate of the lower Rhine, conditions dictated that a yeast tolerant of lower temperatures was needed. Slow and steady workers, the altbier yeasts work at temperatures in the range that generally separates the usual ale and lager fermenters. The result is an ale that presents little of the estery, fruity character of other ales. Instead, there is a soft, lightly malty, sweet, toasty aroma that is clean and inviting. Altbier yeast is also special in that it is very aggressive in its ability to attenuate wort. In other words, the beer is fermented quite completely, leaving it fairly dry.
Altbiers are also unusual ales in that they undergo a period of cold-conditioning, or lagering, to help round out the beer. In fact, the designation obergärige lagerbier (top-fermented lager beer) can be found on some labels. A fully mature altbier is a beautifully round package of clean, malty flavor produced by tempered and full fermentation, and hopped copiously, then finished with a mellowing spell of lagering. Most are in the range of 4.5 to 5% ABV. A beer unlike any other.
To experience a slice of altbier heaven, one would have to travel to Düsseldorf. There are several famous altbier breweries within the city limits. A sampling of them would reveal subtle differences, but all exhibit the glistening bronze or burnished-copper color, the lingering bitterness, and the light, malty background. The area of the city known as the Altstadt (Old Town) has within its confines three altbier brewpubs (Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen, and Zum Schlüssel). Scattered around the city are a few others. Most bars feature one of the many locally made alts.
The style is also represented in some of the surrounding cities in the Rhineland. Breweries in The Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland make their own interpretations.
The brewpubs and taverns in Düsseldorf have a reputation of being busy and eclectic. Coupled with some world-class beer, this would make for some fine entertainment. Often altbier is dispensed from wooden casks by gravity and is always served in small, cylindrical glasses. The bright, crystal-clear altbier supports a fine, stiff head that is typical of beers made with the protein-rich German malt. Occasionally, a stronger altbier, known as Sticke (secret), is brewed to honor the regular patrons.
Some brands of altbier manage to make their way to North America. A recent addition to the shelves is Frankenheim alt, a brew that does the style fine justice. Diebels Alt, Bolten Alt, and Schlosser Alt are all worth trying if you are lucky enough to encounter them. From The Netherlands, Grolsch produces a beer known simply as Amber, that is an altbier and is balanced a bit more toward malt rather than hops.
The American landscape is far from barren with regard to altbier offerings. The reigning king of the style in North America is Widmer Alt from Portland, OR. The highly-acclaimed Southampton Secret from Long Island is an exemplary altbier that is a bit bigger than most and fits into the Sticke mold. Otter Creek Copper Ale is wonderfully dry, lightly hopped, full of flavor, and widely available. Boston Beer Co. produces a Stock Ale that is made with German hops and is cold-conditioned. It is clean and malty, and could rightly be considered altbier. Alaskan Amber from the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau is a malty version of altbier that should definitely be tried if available.
Altbier is an esoteric brew because of its ale/lager nature and a lack of availability. It might be thought that altbier brewers ply their trade with just a nod to tradition. One could argue against that notion, however, because their beer has in recent history remained unchanged. Altbier is a tangible symbol of the Altstadt and demonstrates that the status quo is often enduring perfection.