Though beer styles have evolved relatively recently, all have tangible connections to more ancient brews through ingredients or methods. Brewers were bound by resources and climate on one hand; and regional heritage, pride and individualism on the other. For altbier, the indigenous brew of Düsseldorf, it is a combination of all those factors. Obliged to the climate out of necessity, and to history by choice, altbier proudly alludes to its past in its very name, German for “old beer.”
Altbier has its roots in the earliest brewing traditions of Germany, its autonomous philosophy in the Middle Ages, and its modern interpretation in the mid-nineteenth century.
Altbier brewers of the Rhineland resisted the lager movement of Continental Europe in the nineteenth century, and instead stayed true to centuries of tradition and collective independence. Altbier has its roots in the earliest brewing traditions of Germany, its autonomous philosophy in the Middle Ages, and its modern interpretation in the mid-nineteenth century. The elegant, yet rustic, result is a top-fermented and lagered brew, with a coppery smile and hoppy sneer. For altbier, the ride was bumpy, but the destination never in doubt.
Developed by the Germanic tribes, shunned then embraced by the Romans, and perfected by cloistered religious orders, German brewing was poised for a commercial role by the close of the first millennium. Over the next few centuries, secular brewers became more important in commerce.
The Hanseatic League, formed in 1159 in Lübeck, Saxony on the Baltic Sea, served to unify and facilitate trade from London to Western Russia. League member Köln, the capital of North Rhineland-Westphalia, and fortuitously situated on the Lower Rhine, had easy access to the North Sea. The hamlet of Düsseldorf, just downstream from Köln, was formed in 1288 and grew from village to city, eventually rivaling Köln commercially.
Their respective breweries were similar and would follow parallel paths for centuries. They were also different from the rest of Germany, Bavaria in particular. The main difference was in the empirically-driven, climate-dependent brewing method itself, with Rhine brewers producing ales, and Bavarian brewers, lagers. Eventually, that distinction would become a legal one through a series of edicts and laws. Rhenish brewers fought hard for their right to brew as they pleased, and as charter members of the League, were well aware of the benefits of a mercantile freedom.
By the sixteenth century, private secular and communal brewing was widespread, but many practitioners were neither as skilled nor knowledgeable as their monastic predecessors. Substandard beer was prevalent in Bavaria where seasonal temperature extremes allowed brewing only during cool months. Bavaria’s response to this was two-fold; the Reinheitsgebot Purity Law in 1516 limiting ingredients to barley malt, hops and water, and further legislation in 1553, permitting brewing between September 29th and April 23rd only. This greatly favored the production of bottom-fermented, lagered beer.
In the Rhineland, continuous brewing was possible with the year-round ambient temperature cool by comparison. Not beholden to Bavarian law, they developed a separate brewing culture. Rhenish ale yeast, selected over innumerable generations, further defined the product. The taxation of “imports” and legislation in 1603 mandating top-fermentation in Köln ensured protection for local brewers. Tradesmen and rulers in Düsseldorf passed the “Düsseldorf Reinheitsgebot” in 1706, stating that only barley, hops, and water could be used to brew their definitive ale. Addendums further allowed the tapping of only bright and aged beer.
The nineteenth century saw numerous brewing innovations, some of which were wholly ignored in Düsseldorf, as the development of pale malt and isolation of lager yeast led to the boom of pale lagerbier. Altbier brewers already had a unique strain of yeast, well-suited for cool-fermented ale, and a dark brew that didn’t rely on a grist of golden malt.
The founder of the oldest operating brewpub in Düsseldorf, Mathias Schumacher of the Brauerei Ferdinand Schumacher (1838), essentially established the template of modern altbier. He boosted the hop rate of brown Düsseldorf ale and matured it in wooden casks, the manner in which it is still served in brewpubs. Newly-invented refrigeration meant that brewers could now cold-condition their beer. Kölsch and altbier brewers added this innovation and strategy to produce obergaerige lagerbier (top-fermented lager beer).
The dawn of the twentieth century saw Düsseldorf brewers distinguished themselves from the new culture of lager brewing by adding “alt” to the name, touting themselves as old-school, traditional brewers. About this same time, the brewers of Köln began using predominantly pale malt, and as their beer was unique to the city, dubbed it Kölsch (of Köln). The stylistic divergence was now complete.
World War in Europe during the twentieth century left many cities in Germany decimated, but Düsseldorf was spared the devastation somewhat. Today their pubs and brewpubs are as busy and revered as ever, an apt and vigorous symbol of perseverance.
The best and most authentic altbier can be sampled in or near the Altstadt (old town) district of Düsseldorf, with many pubs serving the specialty. Also found here are the brewpubs that make altbier: Zum Uerige, Zum Schlüssel, Im Füchschen, and Ferdinand Schumacher. Their speciality is dispensed from wooden casks into 0.20 or 0.25 L cylindrical stanges, showing off the bright copper color and leaving enough room for a couple of inches of proud, off-white foam.
Altbier is mashed to provide a crisp beer, especially when coupled with fully-attenuating yeast, leaving a lithe, but appreciable body. The grist of altbier may vary, but invariably contains pilsner malt. The burnish can come from toasted (Vienna and Munich varieties ) or caramel malts, with perhaps a touch of black malt to deepen the hue. Though light on the palate, altbiers offer a bounty of spicy malt complexity in the flavor and aroma.
Late hop additions are subdued, though some noble German aromatic hop character sneaks through. Mostly, hops are used to provide a solid bitter backdrop. The mellow nature of German hops keeps the bitterness surprisingly at bay, and puts a delicious punctuation mark in the finish. Spalt is the most traditional variety, as it was historically grown in the region.
Altbier is fermented with yeast that is at its best at temperatures between that where top- and bottom-fermenters toil. This cusp is roughly between 55 and 60 degrees F, warm enough for vigorous fermentation, but cool enough to stave off excessive fruity components. Several weeks of cold-conditioning leaves the finished beer clean and smooth, a nifty hybridized package of exquisite German brewing art. Most fall between 4.5 and 5.0 percent ABV.
Outside of the Altstadt, other brewers in Northern Germany and the Netherlands make decent representatives of the style. Though somewhat rare, there are dozens of true-to-style versions made in American brewpubs and microbreweries. The term “session beer” is used rather broadly these days, and certainly classic altbier is worthy of inclusion in that realm. Perhaps this unusual style will find another upswing in popularity.