by Martin Lodahl (Brewing Techniques)
Reddish brown, bitter and malty, Altbier was for many years Düsseldorf’s secret link to brewing’s past. Luckily for us, it’s a secret no more.
Imagine sitting in the crowded, barely lit brewpub named after the crafty fox, Füchschen, in the Altstadt (old city) of Düsseldorf. The Füchschen Brauerei’s wooden floors and tables and chairs soak up most of the lighting, except in the new sun room adjacent to the main room. The food menu could be translated to simply “1001 ways to prepare pork.” The waiters in their characteristic blue aprons busily take orders and replace empty beer glasses with full ones.
The menu lists only one beer, Füchschen Altbier, a medium-brown beer with the bitterness of grapefruit and a high malt character. The written description of the beer on the menu contains only two words, Obergäriger Lagerbier, which means “top-fermented lagered beer.”
Those two words open the window to a beer style that is enjoying a resurgence in Germany and a high degree of interest among home brewers and craft brewers in America.
Until the early 1800s, all beer in Western Europe was top fermented. Microbiology was in its infancy, and breweries relied on certain parts of the liquid from a previous batch for “God’s blessing” for a successful fermentation.
The cooking of the malted barley was done without accurate temperature controls. Using “blood warm” as a starting temperature, brewers pulled off fractions of the mash and heated them to a boil before mixing them back in with the rest of the grains. Trial and error produced a system of brewing that began to establish different tastes in beer as the cooking process was altered for different conditions or types of grain.
After lautering and boiling, the wort was cooled naturally in cellars or caves before the yeast was pitched. Experimentation and experience had led to formulas for correct pitching rates. A long fermentation and lagering time ensured a fairly smooth product, although quality control and consistency was not as vital as it is today.
The word alt, meaning old, describes the style of beer we now associate with Düsseldorf and, to a lesser extent, a few other areas around Germany. It is a reminder of the way beers once tasted. It is safe to say, however, that the hightech nature of German brewing leaves little to chance now.
The city of Düsseldorf, chartered in 1288, opted to stay with the traditional top-fermented beer rather than accepting the newer bottom-fermented styles that were embraced wildly around western Europe in the middle of the 19th century. To this day, it is very hard to find a kneipe (pub) that doesn’t offer an Altbier.
In Köln, a related local specialty is called Kölsch. Also top fermented using many of the same schemes as Altbiers, Kölsch is made using the palest of malts and has a smooth malty taste with slightly less hop bitterness than Altbier.
Altbiers now make up 6% of all beer sold in Germany. Led by the giant Diebels Alt, Altbier sales are now on the upswing in that country. Altbier offers a smooth, rounded alternative to the sharp, bitter Pilseners that make up over 60% of all beer sales in Germany. Diebels Alt is the 6th best selling of all brands (Warsteiner is the current sales leader).
Düsseldorf affords no question as to the popularity of Altbier. In the Altstadt, it is typically poured from 20-or 50-L gravity-fed kegs. Away from the Altstadt, carbon dioxide systems are standard in kneipes and restaurants. Altbiers require no settling of the foam if they are carbonated correctly. One pour from the tap is usually enough to get the proper amount of beer and a generous amount of foam into the short, stubby cylindrical glass (typically 0.2–0.3 L capacity).
In America, most of the Altbier action occurs on the West Coast, led by Widmer Alt (Widmer Brewing Co., Portland, Oregon). Star Brewing Co. (also of Portland) and Big Time Brewing Co. (Seattle) also produce Altbiers.
Altbier Definitions and Profiles
Although the Altbier family does claim as its members certain variations of style, some characteristics of Altbiers are clear (data points taken I from reference 7).
Grain bill: Anywhere from 100% dunkel malt to 90% pale malt and 10% caramel malt. As much as 20% wheat malt is allowed.
Hops: Noble hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria or Saazer (Zatec) hops from the Czech Republic.
Water: 10 °dH (German hardness scale)*
Fermentation: The beer is fermented warm (54–72 °F [12–22 °C]) for 3–7 days and then lagered cool (39–41 °F [4–5 °C]) for 1–3 weeks
Original Gravity: 1.044–1.048
Alcohol (w/v): 4.6–4.8%
Color: 10–20 °Lovibond
Bitterness: 28–40 IBU
*According to Noonan, 1 °dH (German hardness) is equal to the alkalinity of 10 mg/L lime, or calcium oxide (CaO), which is equivalent to 17.9 mg/L calcium carbonate. The value provided here for Altbier is equivalent to a total alkalinity of 180 mg/L as calcium carbonate, which means that carbonate content in the water is no more than 180 mg/L, and likely somewhat less.
Kurt Widmer started his brewery with the hope of making and selling an Altbier using the recipe and yeast from Zum Eurige of Düsseldorf. Scott Wenzel and Scott Bauman of Star Brewing developed a recipe for Altbier based on what they remembered from Widmer’s original recipe. Dick Cantwell of Big Time Brewing offered an unfiltered Alt that met with limited sales success.
The brewers of Rogue Red (Rogue Ales Brewery/Oregon Brewing Co., Newport, Oregon) claim it to be a type of Altbier; St. Stan’s Brewery, Pub & Restaurant (Modesto, California) also claim an Altbier variant. Both of these latter beers represent West Coast tastes and the perception that an Altbier should be reddish in hue. It would appear that American Altbier might emerge to be a type of “red ale.” That, in my opinion, would fall far short of the mark. The accompanying box shows the basic characteristics of true Altbiers.
Diebels Brewery of Germany currently sells 1,750,000 hL/year (1,491,350 bbl/year) and is growing. Diebels uses 90% summer two-row barley and 10% Dunkel malt. The hops are Hallertauer from Bavaria. Original gravity is 1.048 (although Diebels Alt in the can reads 1.044–1.046 O.G.). Diebels also markets two variants: a Diebels Light, an 1.032 O.G. beer that ferments out to 2.8% alcohol by volume; and Diebels Alkoholfrei, in which most of the alcohol has been removed by the process of reverse osmosis.
Füchschen Brauerei produces 10,000 hL (8522 bbl) of Altbier per year. It has an original gravity of 1.048, which climbs to 1.051 during certain seasons. They use only Zatec hops from the Czech Republic.
Kurt Widmer’s Alt has undergone some changes since it was first conceived and brewed. With a hopping rate of 60 IBU, Widmer Alt found only a few fanatics to carry the banner. Widmer was more or less forced to change the recipe. The current product has a bitterness of around 40 IBU but still lags far behind Widmer’s cash cow, the Hefeweizen. Sales volumes are around 45,000 bbl/year for the Hefeweizen and only 1,000 bbl/year for the Alt. The beer itself is medium amber in color with a sharp hop bite and a clear malt character. It is fairly smooth but not as smooth as the longer lagered German Alts.
Star Brewing’s Alt Bier Ale is made with 78% Great Western two-row malt, 20% Vienna malt, and 2% caramel and chocolate malt. Out of 2,500 bbl/year produced at the brewery this year, only 140 are Altbier. Star’s best selling beer is its Raspberry Ale. The Star Alt typically comes in 22-oz bottles. The color is a medium dark amber. The taste is malty and strong in hops. The sample I had was slightly overcarbonated and lacked the smoothness of the German versions.
An authentic Altbier should be medium to dark amber in color. In most cases, the color is more brown than red. Readers of Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer usually take note of the words “copper colored” and notice the picture of the beer from Zum Eurige, which has a deep copper color. Many more Altbiers, however, have a brownish amber color.
Fruitiness and diacetyl character in Altbiers are minimal to nonexistent. They should have a pronounced malt character, and the hops must balance but not be assertive (unless you are aiming for the Alt variants as brewed by the “microbreweries” Zum Eurige, Füchschen, or Schumacher). The Alt should have a dry finish, partly due to the attenuation of the wort during primary fermentation.
Interestingly, when Kurt Widmer was asked to describe Altbier, his comment was “hoppy with a dry finish”. This description no doubt reflects his study at Zum Eurige, the “microbrewery” that emphasizes hop bitterness in its product.
The mash: Decoction, upward infusion, or single infusion? There is an interesting contrast in the mashing schemes used by the three main Altbier breweries. Partially based on equipment and somewhat based on philosophy, the differences in methods offer several options for craft and home brewers.
Contemporary German Alts — Tasting Notes
In a controlled tasting* of four Altbiers brought back from Germany this past summer, the panel made the following notes:
Bolten Alt: Brown copper color; tight head; low hop aroma; dunkel malt nose; medium body; round dark maltiness; good hop finish; well balanced; malt taste is close to Oktoberfest; slightly caramel/crystal. (This brewery dates back to 1266 A.D.)
Zum Eurige: Dark amber color; more red than brown; copper color; sweet malty aroma; soft malty nose; bitter!; bitterness in the middle; tangy bitterness; hopping is different than NW hopping schemes; dry; slightly dry finish; flavor comes in layers — complex in phases; really long finish; nice lace.
Diebels Alt: Light brown color; no caramel in nose; nice nose; balanced; not dry but not sweet; good bitterness; light hopping; low hop aftertaste; hops up front but fade a bit; dry finish; slight esteriness; an “industrial” Altbier.
Füchschen Alt: Light brown amber color; frothy head; low aroma; medium to full body; well balanced; slight fruity flavor; Munich malt flavor; dry finish for malt richness; harsh after-bitterness; hops linger but never become harsh (Füchschen, like Eurige, is a “microbrewery” of Altbiers in Düsseldorf).
Other Flavor Profiles From Altbiers Tasted in Germany
Schumacher Alt: Medium brown amber; slight fruity aroma; quite bitter; fabulous head retention; medium maltiness and easy drinkability.
Schlüssel Alt: Noble hop aroma quite loud; the first taste is bitter but fades to malt smoothness at the end; a little less bold than the “microbrew” Alts from Eurige, Füchschen, and Schumacher.
Schlösser Alt: Medium brown; Noble-hop aroma; malt aroma quite strong, with a bitter come-on in the aftertaste; chocolate malt evident; dry finish to an extent that it almost tastes thin; must be a German “lawn mowing” beer.
Rhenania Alt: Malty aroma with hops that come on at the end; sweet aftertaste that just covers the hops; a smooth lagered flavor; nice balance.
*1 September 1994; panel members were Larry Barello, Larry Baush, Darryl Richman, Brian Vessa, and Norm Hardy.
Typical German breweries use a double decoction mash. Most breweries use more highly modified malts, and as a result the decocted grains are gradually raised over 90 min to a boil without the usual stops at prescribed temperatures. Water treatment is usually not a factor because decoction mashing lowers the pH to acceptable levels.
For home brewers, the following double decoction scheme gives a good start. Use 1.4–1.5 qt water/lb of malt. Heat the water to 130 °F (54 °C). Dough in and rest the 125 °F (52 °C) mash for 25 min, and then draw off about one-third of the thickest portion of the grains. Slowly heat to a boil, taking 30 min to pass through the 125–160 °F (52–71 °C) range. Then crank the heat and get the decoction up to a boil and hold it there for 20 min, stirring constantly or at least enough to prevent scorching.
Slowly mix the boiled grains into the main mash container. Rest for 20 min. The temperature should be around 144–148 °F (62–64 °C). Repeat the process of removing one-third of the mash and heating it to a boil. Each fraction will take less time to boil. Boil and stir for 20 min. Remix with the main mash again. Rest for 20 min. The temperature should be around 158–162 °F (70–72 °C). Then raise the whole mash to mash-out temperature.
Kurt Widmer has said that decoction mashes with domestic malts may be inadvisable, because only extended lagering would reduce the tannins (released by boiling the grains) to a tolerable level. Malt character, he said, can also be obtained through proper choice of darker malts.
Widmer Alt is brewed “within the parameters” of the German definitions using an upward infusion mash. Typical mash temperatures are 125, 144, 158, and 169 °F (52, 62, 70, and 76 °C) over 1.5–2 h.
A typical German infusion mash program starts with a malt-to-water ratio of 1:2.5 (w/w). Adding “sufficient” amounts of 185 °F (85 °C) water to the mash raises the temperature to the next level.
Star Brewing’s Alt Bier Ale is mashed in a single-infusion mash at 152 °F (67 °C) for 90 min. Scott Wenzel has commented that perhaps 45 min would be enough, but he prefers to play it safe with the mash.
Authors Dave Miller, Gregory Noonan, and Darryl Richman have serious discussions of decoction mashing in their books. Miller sites upward-infusion mashing as the method of choice for domestic malts and also comments on equipment and practical concerns for modern microbreweries. Noonan’s book is a tour-de-force on decoction mashing. Richman’s book zeros in on the advantage of decoction mashing for the “creation and maintenance of melanoidins,” which “provide many of the malty, bready, and beery aromas” that distinguish the Bock style. It is malty character that is desired in an Altbier.
Yeast considerations: Wyeast offers three yeasts that would be suitable to the malt and hop character of Altbier — numbers 1338 (European Ale), 1007 (German Ale), and 2565 (Kölsch). Perhaps one of those is the same strain as the Zum Eurige yeast that Kurt Widmer uses in his Altbier. An active and sufficient supply of Altbier yeast is necessary for a wort that starts fermentation in the low 60s °F (~16 °C). I have had good success with building up a Wyeast foil pack two times to a size of about 1 L of liquid for a 5-gal batch.
Kurt Widmer obtained the Widmer Altbier yeast, with permission from Zum Eurige, from the yeast bank of Weihenstephen in Bavaria. Widmer also obtained another Alt yeast and tested both side by side before deciding on the Eurige strain. Star Brewing’s Alt Bier Ale is made with the same Wyeast Kölsch yeast strain that is available to home brewers. Diebels Alt yeast is proprietary, stored in two separate yeast banks.
Altbier yeast should be fairly attenuative. Altbiers generally finish on the dry side, despite the rather pronounced malt character.
Fermentation: The Altbier of Diebels starts fermentation at 59 °F (15 °C) and ends one week later at (an amazing) temperature of 78 °F (26 °C). It is unclear whether the temperature curve slopes up sharply during the final two days.
Star Brewing ferments their Alt Bier Ale at 65–67 °F (18–19 °C) for four days.
Kurt Widmer would say only that the Widmer Alt fermentation falls within the parameters of the German definition. German texts state that an Altbier should have a primary fermentation temperature of 54–72 °F (12–22 °C), a rather wide range to be sure but one that ensures a quick fermentation before the lagering phase.
My own experiments have found that a primary fermentation starting in the low 60s °F (~16 °C) and ending up near 70 °F (21 °C) results in an efficient, well-attenuated, one-week primary fermentation.
Lagering: It would be bold but accurate to say that an Altbier must be lagered to obtain the smoothness and character that distinguishes it from other top-fermented dark ales in Europe and England. The smoothness of the Altbier must be tasted to be appreciated. Home brewers and craft brewers must not dismiss the need for a lagering time of two weeks or more.
Diebels Alt is lagered for three weeks at 50 °F (10 °C). Füchschen Alt is lagered for one month at 41 °F (5 °C).
Star Alt is capped after the initial fermentation and then allowed to lager at 65 °F (18 °C) for 7–10 days before being moved to refrigerated bright tanks for another 7–10 days.
Widmer Alt is lagered for less than three weeks before being kegged.
Dispensing: At a very busy restaurant in Düsseldorf it was surprising to see 20-L wooden kegs of Altbier being used to dispense the beer, by gravity. The beer flowed freely and the kegs were frequently replaced. The beer was in the glass and ready to serve after only a short turn of the handle. I learned that some of the “wooden” kegs were in fact stainless steel with an insulation coating painted to resemble wood.
Serving temperature is warmer than for Pilseners and colder than for cask-conditioned ales. Based on my experience in Düsseldorf, I would estimate the serving temperature to be in the 40–50 °F (4–10 °C) range.
Düsseldorfers do not like waiting for their beer, typically served in straight cylindrical glasses ranging from 0.20 to 0.30 L in size. In Düsseldorf, it is typical to find Pilsener beers poured and served in about 1 min, compared with the usual 4–8 min typical of other parts of the country. The Altbier drinker is expected to drink more than one glass at a sitting, although not necessarily at a quick pace. The tourist must demonstrate restraint not to get tipsy.
The carbon dioxide systems typically found away from the Altstadt have their pressure set to be equivalent to gravity-fed taps.
My German friends and relatives have been most helpful in finding various Altbiers around Düsseldorf. My wife’s Düsseldorfer cousin Frank Dupper made the statement “We don’t think the beer, we drink the beer.” How true, with such a variety of beers on tap there is little need to be selective. The beer just tastes great, especially if served from the tap (vom Fass).
The Altstadt of Düsseldorf is a beer heaven for the home brewer and beer lover. Beers from Prague, Dublin, Pilsen, Munich, Belgium, Budvar, Hamburg, London, Dortmund, and other places are on tap within walking distance of each other.
A personal anecdote illustrates the Düsseldorfer pride in Altbier (at the expense of rival city Köln): I was at a restaurant outside the Altstadt and asked the waiter if the restaurant had any Kölsch. He said (in English), “I’m sorry, but we serve only beer here.” When I repeated (in song) a local slander about Köln, the waiter laughed out loud and said, “I will buy you your next beer.” He came back with two Altbiers. We toasted and then drank the beers (he in one gulp).
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