Altbier (German: old beer) is a style of beer brewed in the historical region of Westphalia and around the city of Düsseldorf, Germany. Its name comes from it being top-fermented, an older method than the bottom fermentation of other lagered beers.
Altbier is usually a dark copper colour. It is fermented at a moderate temperature using a top-fermenting yeast which gives its flavour some fruitiness, but matured at a cooler temperature, which gives it a cleaner and crisper taste more akin to lager beer styles than is the norm for top-fermented beers, such as British pale ale.
Altbier in Germany
Altbier is the dominant beer variety in the Lower Rhine region and especially in the towns of Düsseldorf, Krefeld and Mönchengladbach. The first producer to use the name Alt to contrast its top fermenting beer with the bottom fermenting kinds was the Schumacher brewery of Düsseldorf, which opened in 1838.
The market leader in terms of volume sold is Diebels, a brand within the InBev brewing empire. Other mass-market brewers of Altbier include the Radeberger Gruppe under the brands Schlösser Alt and Hansa Alt. These are complemented by small breweries, predominantly based in Düsseldorf.
Some Altbier breweries have a tradition of producing a stronger version, Sticke Alt, coming from a local dialect word meaning "secret". Originally a special reserve beer intended for the brewers' own consumption, it is generally a seasonal or special occasion brew and is stronger in taste and alcohol as well as darker than the brewery's standard output.
Producers in Düsseldorf
There are eight bars in Düsseldorf which brew Altbier on the premises:
- Alter Bahnhof (Gulasch Alt)
- Brauhaus Joh Albrecht (Johann Albrecht Alt)
- Brauerei Möhker
Füchschen, Uerige, Schlüssel and Kürzer are all brewed and sold in the Altstadt (Old Town). Schumacher is between the Altstadt and the main train station (Hauptbahnhof), although it also has a pub in the Altstadt, Im Goldenen Kessel, across the street from Schlüssel.
Each brewpub produces a seasonal "Sticke" variant in small quantities, though the names vary: Schlüssel spells it "Stike", without the "c", while Schumacher calls its special beer "Latzenbier", meaning "slat beer", possibly because the kegs from which it was poured had been stored on raised shelves. Füchschen's seasonal is its Weihnachtsbier (Christmas beer), available in bottles starting mid-November, and served in the brewpub on Christmas Eve.
Altbier brewed outside Düsseldorf includes that produced by Pinkus Müller brewery in Münster, the Diebels brewery in Issum, the Gleumes brewery in Krefeld, the Bolten brewery in Korschenbroich and the Warsteiner brewery in Warstein, which owns the brand "Frankenheim Alt", which was originally brewed in Düsseldorf. The biggest Altbier brewery is located in Krefeld: Former Rhenania brewery, now called Königshofer brewery produces besides their self labelled Königshofer Alt a variety of different brands including the Carlsberg owned Hannen Alt and Gatzweiler Alt. Altbier is somewhat similar to Cologne's native beer style Kölsch, being warm-fermented at a lower temperature than British ales, and Altbier proper is also brewed in Cologne's smallest brewery "Braustelle" as "Ehrenfelder Alt".
Altbier has been produced in the city of Venlo in the Netherlands since at least 1753. Venlo is on the border to Germany approximately 50 km (30 miles) from Düsseldorf. The beer was produced up until the Second World War but then had a hiatus until its revival in 1983. It is produced by the Lindeboom brewery, who bought the recipe in 2001.
Altbier is also brewed in small quantities in Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the UK, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In 2003, Drayman's Brewery in Pretoria, produced what was probably the first commercially available Altbier in South Africa, Düssel Altbier.
Versions of Altbier are brewed in the United States, though not always to traditional recipes.
Kilannan Brewing Company near Owen Sound, Ontario has been brewing an Altbier since 2012. Kilannan also produces a traditional Kölsch. The Creemore Springs brewery in Ontario, Canada celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012 by producing an Altbier in collaboration with the Schlüssel brewery of Düsseldorf.
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7A. Northern German Altbier
Aroma: Subtle malty, sometimes grainy aroma. Low to no noble hop aroma. Clean, lager character with very restrained ester profile. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Light copper to light brown color; very clear from extended cold conditioning. Low to moderate off-white to white head with good retention.
Flavor: Fairly bitter yet balanced by a smooth and sometimes sweet malt character that may have a rich, biscuity and/or lightly caramelly flavor. Dry finish often with lingering bitterness. Clean, lager character sometimes with slight sulfury notes and very low to no esters. Very low to medium noble hop flavor. No diacetyl.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body. Moderate to moderately high carbonation. Smooth mouthfeel.
Overall Impression: A very clean and relatively bitter beer, balanced by some malt character. Generally darker, sometimes more caramelly, and usually sweeter and less bitter than Düsseldorf Altbier.
Comments: Most Altbiers produced outside of Düsseldorf are of the Northern German style. Most are simply moderately bitter brown lagers. Ironically alt refers to the old style of brewing (i.e., making ales), which makes the term Altbier somewhat inaccurate and inappropriate. Those that are made as ales are fermented at cool ale temperatures and lagered at cold temperatures (as with Düsseldorf Alt).
Ingredients: Typically made with a Pils base and colored with roasted malt or dark crystal. May include small amounts of Munich or Vienna malt. Noble hops. Usually made with an attenuative lager yeast.
|Vital Statistics:||OG: 1.046 – 1.054|
|IBUs: 25 – 40||FG: 1.010 – 1.015|
|SRM: 13 – 19||ABV: 4.5 – 5.2%|
Commercial Examples: DAB Traditional, Hannen Alt, Schwelmer Alt, Grolsch Amber, Alaskan Amber, Long Trail Ale, Otter Creek Copper Ale, Schmaltz Alt
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7B. California Common Beer
Aroma: Typically showcases the signature Northern Brewer hops (with woody, rustic or minty qualities) in moderate to high strength. Light fruitiness acceptable. Low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics support the hops. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Medium amber to light copper color. Generally clear. Moderate off-white head with good retention.
Flavor: Moderately malty with a pronounced hop bitterness. The malt character is usually toasty (not roasted) and caramelly. Low to moderately high hop flavor, usually showing Northern Brewer qualities (woody, rustic, minty). Finish fairly dry and crisp, with a lingering hop bitterness and a firm, grainy malt flavor. Light fruity esters are acceptable, but otherwise clean. No diacetyl.
Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied. Medium to medium-high carbonation.
Overall Impression: A lightly fruity beer with firm, grainy maltiness, interesting toasty and caramel flavors, and showcasing the signature Northern Brewer varietal hop character.
Comments: This style is narrowly defined around the prototypical Anchor Steam example. Superficially similar to an American pale or amber ale, yet differs in that the hop flavor/aroma is woody/minty rather than citrusy, malt flavors are toasty and caramelly, the hopping is always assertive, and a warm-fermented lager yeast is used.
History: American West Coast original. Large shallow open fermenters (coolships) were traditionally used to compensate for the absence of refrigeration and to take advantage of the cool ambient temperatures in the San Francisco Bay area. Fermented with a lager yeast, but one that was selected to thrive at the cool end of normal ale fermentation temperatures.
Ingredients: Pale ale malt, American hops (usually Northern Brewer, rather than citrusy varieties), small amounts of toasted malt and/or crystal malts. Lager yeast, however some strains (often with the mention of California in the name) work better than others at the warmer fermentation temperatures (55 to 60?F) used. Note that some German yeast strains produce inappropriate sulfury character. Water should have relatively low sulfate and low to moderate carbonate levels.
|Vital Statistics:||OG: 1.048 – 1.054|
|IBUs: 30 – 45||FG: 1.011 – 1.014|
|SRM: 10 – 14||ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%|
Commercial Examples: Anchor Steam, Southampton Steem Beer, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager
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7C. Düsseldorf Altbier
Aroma: Clean yet robust and complex aroma of rich malt, noble hops and restrained fruity esters. The malt character reflects German base malt varieties. The hop aroma may vary from moderate to very low, and can have a peppery, floral or perfumy character associated with noble hops. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Light amber to orange-bronze to deep copper color, yet stopping short of brown. Brilliant clarity (may be filtered). Thick, creamy, long-lasting off-white head.
Flavor: Assertive hop bitterness well balanced by a sturdy yet clean and crisp malt character. The malt presence is moderated by moderately-high to high attenuation, but considerable rich and complex malt flavors remain. Some fruity esters may survive the lagering period. A long-lasting, medium-dry to dry, bittersweet or nutty finish reflects both the hop bitterness and malt complexity. Noble hop flavor can be moderate to low. No roasted malt flavors or harshness. No diacetyl. Some yeast strains may impart a slight sulfury character. A light minerally character is also sometimes present in the finish, but is not required. The apparent bitterness level is sometimes masked by the high malt character; the bitterness can seem as low as moderate if the finish is not very dry.
Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied. Smooth. Medium to medium-high carbonation. Astringency low to none. Despite being very full of flavor, is light bodied enough to be consumed as a session beer in its home brewpubs in Düsseldorf.
Overall Impression: A well balanced, bitter yet malty, clean, smooth, well-attenuated amber-colored German ale.
Comments: A bitter beer balanced by a pronounced malt richness. Fermented at cool ale temperature (60-65?F), and lagered at cold temperatures to produce a cleaner, smoother palate than is typical for most ales. Common variants include Sticke (secret) alt, which is slightly stronger, darker, richer and more complex than typical alts. Bitterness rises up to 60 IBUs and is usually dry hopped and lagered for a longer time. Münster alt is typically lower in gravity and alcohol, sour, lighter in color (golden), and can contain a significant portion of wheat. Both Sticke alt and Münster alt should be entered in the specialty category.
History: The traditional style of beer from Düsseldorf. Alt refers to the old style of brewing (i.e., making top-fermented ales) that was common before lager brewing became popular. Predates the isolation of bottom-fermenting yeast strains, though it approximates many characteristics of lager beers. The best examples can be found in brewpubs in the Altstadt (old town) section of Düsseldorf.
Ingredients: Grists vary, but usually consist of German base malts (usually Pils, sometimes Munich) with small amounts of crystal, chocolate, and/or black malts used to adjust color. Occasionally will include some wheat. Spalt hops are traditional, but other noble hops can also be used. Moderately carbonate water. Clean, highly attenuative ale yeast. A step mash or decoction mash program is traditional.
|Vital Statistics:||OG: 1.046 – 1.054|
|IBUs: 35 – 50||FG: 1.010 – 1.015|
|SRM: 11 – 17||ABV: 4.5 – 5.2%|
Commercial Examples: Altstadt brewpubs: Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen, Schumacher, Zum Schlüssel; other examples: Diebels Alt, Schlösser Alt, Frankenheim Alt