Nick Carr on April 20, 2016 3 Comments History of Altbier Much of what we need to know about Altbier can be found in its name. First it’s a German name, so it’s a German beer style. In German “alt” means old. This is meant as an allusion to the older style of brewing, using top-fermenting yeast, which is much older than bottom fermenting lager yeast. But, “old” also accurately describes the evolution of this style over the centuries leading up to the first use of its name in 1838. Alt also — and this is obviously purely coincidence, but still worth noting — could also describe an alternative beer to the lagers; the driving force behind the alt style as it is understood today. As the city of Cologne has become synonymous with kölsch, so the town of Dusseldorf — sitting only 20 miles north — has become synonymous with the alt style. Alt, as a distinct style, really isn’t any older than the first appearances of its name in the 1800’s; but, as with many modern styles, its roots run to the ancient. Cologne was founded as an Ubii (A Germanic tribe) village and named “Colonia” by the Romans in 50 AD. Brewing was likely an important part of even this early history, but would truly come into its own in the 1200s. It was in this same period that the small village of Dusseldorf was granted a town charter. Ale yeasts used down through these early years and into later centuries were slowly refined and selected to become yeasts able to perform vigorous fermentations even at the cooler temperatures known around the Rhine. Temperatures less than ideal for the average ale yeast. These yeasts would become the defining ingredients in both the kölsch and alt styles. Hops had been making inroads into German brewing since 1160, but some regions around the Rhine River, like Cologne and Dusseldorf, rejected the use of hops for quite some time. Instead, these stubborn Germanic brewers stuck to another “old” brewing technique, that of the gruit beer, or beer flavored and bittered with aromatic herbs of some sort. Resolve waned over the course of the following century and hops finally found their way to the brew-pot even in this region, but these same brewers found another enemy to shun… the lager, which made its first appearance in 15th century Bavaria. In fact, in his book ‘Designing Great Beer’, Ray Daniels references a passage from J.P. Arnolds book ‘Origins and History of Beer and Brewing’ that explains a 1698 “brewer’s oath,” which swore a brewer to…. “Prepare your beer, as of old, from good malt, good cereals, and good hops, well boiled, and that you pitch it with top-yeast, and by no means with bottom yeast, no ‘Tollbier,’ raw wort, no noxious herbs, no mater of what name.” Learn More About German Beer As you can see, this passage not only prohibits the use of lager yeast twice, ‘Tollbier’ is just another reference to lager beer, but it also prohibits the use of the “noxious herbs” the brewers fought to continue to use for so long. Lagers continued to gain popularity across Germany and Cologne continued to fight the would-be usurper. But, just as the brewers had relented on the hop issue they finally admitted defeat-by-lager in the face of overwhelming popularity. By the late 1700s even these holdouts were brewing lagers. 19th century advancements in brewing technology — such as new malting techniques, progress in refrigeration, and the ability to better isolate yeast strains — would only feed lager growth. But some of these same advancements also helped separate alt and kölsch into two distinct styles. Refrigeration would have been a welcomed boon for both styles and all of lagerdom. However, while Cologne continued to use pale malt in their “obergaerige lagerbier,” — literally and slightly oxymoronically “top-fermented lager beer” — the brewers of Dusseldorf and a few other cities took advantage of the advances in malting and started using darker malt in their work. “It never rains in the Brewhall.” -Old German Saying In 1838, The Dusseldorf Brauerei Schumacher was the first to use the name alt to, no doubt, proudly display the Rhineland’s deep set brewing roots, but also distinguish between its “top-fermented lager beer” and the more popular bottom fermented lager beer. Thus, the style was inevitably tied to Dusseldorf. Today, if you go to Dusseldorf and ask for a beer you’ll get an altbier. If you want something different you have to specify. For all its fame in Dusseldorf and a few other German cities it is not well known or represented in the United States. Hopefully, just as other obscure styles, such as Gose, have enjoyed discovery and a boost in popularity through American craft brewing, alt can also find such a moment of esteem. Altbier Style Profile & Characteristics Quick Characteristics Color Range: 11-17 SRM Original Gravity: 1.044-1.052 OG Final Gravity: 1.008-1.014 FG IBU Range: 25-50 ABV Range: 4.3-5.5% Appearance: Clean, complex & grainy; German malt characteristics; Low to medium-low fruity esters; Low to moderate hop aromas. Aroma: Crisp & clean malty profile; Low to moderate hop flavors with peppery or floral notes; Fruity esters are possible; Long & dry finish with nutty hints; Possible light sulfur or mineral characters. Flavor: Range from light copper to deep auburn, never dark enough to be considered brown; Excellent clarity; Thick off-white & creamy head; Good retention. Mouthfeel: Medium body; Medium to medium high carbonation; Smooth with low astringency. Serving & Storage Temperature: 46-48°F Shelf Life: 9 Months Suggested Glass: Stange Glass Food Pairings: Roasted chicken, Pork chops, Sausage dishes, Grilled tuna, Camembert & Cheshire cheese, Caramel glazed apple pie, Maple-walnut cake The guidelines for the Altbier style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below characteristics are a summary of what an Altbier should represent, and what you should expect when tasting this style. The BJCP classifies the Altbier style as an “Amber Bitter European Beer” and it can be found in their guidelines as category 7B, right between Vienna Lager (7A) and Kellebier (7C). Appearance: Colors may range from light copper to a darker and deeper auburn, but never going dark enough to be considered brown. Shows excellent clarity and a showy off-white cream-thick head with good retention. Aroma: Clean, complex, and grainy with German base malt characteristics of nutty toastiness, baked bread, and bread crust. Low to med-low fruity esters may be present. Hop aroma is of the Saazer hop variety and can come through as spicy, floral, herbal, or peppery, and may even push a perfumy quality. Mouthfeel: Usually medium bodied pushed by medium to mid-high carbonation. If served from the cask the carbonation will likely be below medium. Smooth across the palate with low astringency, if at all. Complex and flavorful yet light enough to work as a session beer. Taste: No harshness here. The malt profile is clean and crisp, often showing good complexity despite the beer’s higher attenuation. Hop flavors remain moderate to low bringing a peppery, floral spiciness. A drier example will have more perceived bitterness while a slightly sweeter example will hide much of its bitterness behind a more robust malt backbone. Fruit esters may make it through to the finished beer. The cherry-like esters weather lagering better than some of the others. The finish can be long, medium-dry to dry, with nutty hints speaking to the play of hop and malt complexity. Some examples will display light sulfur or mineral characters. Serving: For best presentation and greatest appreciation, an altbier should be served at around 46° – 48°F in the authentic straight sided and narrow stange glass. They are best stored at cellar temperatures away from light and enjoyed within 9 months. Food Pairing: Altbier is very diverse when it comes to pairing with food. Its malty backbone works well with roasted chicken, pork tenderloin, pork chops, and most sausage dishes. Fish also works nicely; pair it with a pine-board baked salmon or grilled tuna. The crisp edge in this beer allows it to handle some foods usually left to dry hoppy beers such as gourmet pizza and burritos. It will work well with earthy cheeses such as Camembert and Cheshire. Don’t forget dessert either. With a full malty backbone this beer can stand up to the likes of caramel glazed apple pie and maple-walnut cake. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Award-Winning Examples of the Style Copper Alt from Zipline Brewing Company (Lincoln, NE)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2015. Available: Year Round. Generation Alt from Flix Brewhouse (Carmel, IN)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2015. Available: Unknown. Altbier from Liquid mechanics Brewing Company (Lafayette, CO)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2015. Available: Year Round. Red Alt from White Bluffs Brewing Company (Richland, WA)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2014. Available: Rotating. Dusseldorf Altbier from Redwood Curtain Brewing Company (Arcata, CA)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2014. Available: Rotating. Alt Bier from Devils Backbone Brewing Company (Roseland, VA)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2014. Available: Unknown. ALTitude Altbier from Altitude Chophouse &Brewery (Laramie, WY)World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2014. Available: Year Round. TAPS Alt from Taps Fish House & Brewery (Brea, CA)World Beer Cup Winner, Silver, 2014. Available: Unknown. Balt Alt from Union Craft Brewing Company (Baltimore, MD)World Beer Cup Winner, Bronze, 2014. Available: Year Round. More Popular Altbiers to Try Copper Ale from The Olde Mechlenburg Brewery Uerige Alt from Uerige Obergärige Hausbrauerei Amber Ale from Alaskan Brewing Company Double Bag from Long Trail Brewing Company — A Double Alt (higher ABV) Widmer Alt from Widmer Brothers Brewing Company Adam from Hair of the Dog Brewing Company — A Double Alt (higher ABV) The Monarchy Methusalem from The Monarchy Brewing Company — A sour double Alt Tips to Brewing Altbier If you’re interested in brewing your own Altbier at home, here are a few things you should know going into it. Click Here to Buy an Altbier Ingredient Kit Grain Bill: Maltiness is all important for any Altbier; how you get that “maltiness” however, can take several different routes, but try to stick to German malts. You can use Munich malt only, somewhere in the range of 5 to 8oLovibond. If you have a Munich with a higher Lovibond rating (10 – 20oL) you could easily mix it with a lighter Munich to arrive at your desired color or, as many German brewer’s do, use with German Pils malt and supplement with a dark Munich. The ratio of either dark Munich/German Pils or dark Munich/light Munich can range from 10/75 all the way up to 50/50, it will take some experimenting to find what you like, but in most cases a ration of half and half is a good start for your first try. Note that Pils will add more fermentables, which equates to a crisper and somewhat drier beer. You could also add a portion of Vienna malt (up to 25%) and a small amount of Cara-malt (up to 5%) to add complexity. Black malt, or dare I say even Chocolate malt, may have a place here in very restrained quantities (less than 2%). Often time’s small amounts of wheat or dextrin malt, like Carafoam, may be used to fortify the head; up to 5% of the total bill. Extract brewers are pretty lucky when it comes to brewing this beer because Weyermann makes a Munich Amber Extract by decoction mashing its Munich Malt Type I. It doesn’t get any easier than that! There are no steeping grains used or needed, but if you feel adventurous you can always try for a partial mash. Hops: Authentic Alts have assertive bitterness ranging from 25 to 50 IBU, but have only minimal, if any, hop flavor or aroma. Keep this in mind as you build your recipe. Focus on your bittering additions at the beginning of the 90 to 120 minute boil. Spalt hops are the favorite of most German brewers, but with a bittering level of only 4-5 IBU, you’re looking at quite the load of hops. Other varieties can be substituted; Hallertaure Mittelfrüh, Saaz, Tettnanger, Perle, Mount Hood or Northern Brewer can all work. You’ll want any flavor or aroma to be of the noble variety so if you plan to add a late addition, which many German brewer’s do; keep it a single addition, keep it light, and keep it noble. The Mash: Again the authentic mash would be a dreaded decoction mash. But we have to remember that one of the main reasons decoction mashes were used was because of the lower modification of the malt. With today’s highly modified malts most brewers will tell you that an infusion mash will work just fine. Whether you decide to do a step infusion or single infusion or go for the decoction is really up to you. Each will work whether one makes a better Altbier over the others is up for debate. If doing a single infusion mash look to hit a saccharification temperature between 148° and 150°F. This will allow for more fermentable sugars and that crisper mouthfeel. Yeast: The Altbier yeast has evolved over the centuries into a unique strain; an ale yeast that ferments vigorously at temperatures that would slow other ale yeasts to a dying crawl. This may be one of the most limiting beer styles when it comes to yeast. White labs makes A Dusseldorf Alt yeast (WLP036) and Wyeast makes a German Ale strain (1007). If looking to go dry the Safale K-97 may be your best bet. Although authentic Altbier should only be made with Alt yeast strains this isn’t to say other yeasts won’t do the job. If planning to search outside the alt “box” you’ll be looking for an ale yeast that can withstand fermentation at low temperatures, has high attenuation, and low ester formation. Alt yeasts can be aggressive, be sure you leave plenty of headspace in your fermentor for the rising head of krauesen. Fermentation should be low and thorough. Shoot for a temperature range between 55° and 62°F and fermentation should be finished within 3 to 6 days. The fermentation should leave a clean beer with little residual sweetness. After fermentation lager your beer for 4 to 8 weeks at around 40°F this will mellow the hop profile and smooth out any rough edges. It will also help with beer clarity. If you happened to ferment at a higher temperature lagering can help reduce some of the fruity esters inevitably produced. Cheers!