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Typically when you think of German beer, the word "lager" comes to mind. However, long before lagers Germanic brewers brewed ales, which have been crafted in Germany for at least 3,000 years. Not many specific styles of beer can be traced thousands of years, however Altbier is one of them. An ale at heart, "alt" is German for "old" and helps to reflect how far back this style has been around. Even when the Romans invaded what is present day Germany they were surprised to see such a nomadic race with the intellect to brew something similar to wine by using the resources around them, though they still thought beer was an inferior drink in comparison. In the south of Germany, bad tasting beer was common during the summer, so brewing was restricted to the colder months and beer was stored in cool places in the mountains. Bavarian beers thus became lagers (from the German verb lagern -- "to store"). When refrigeration allowed brewers to control the temperature at which beer was made, Europe's lager revolution began in earnest. The name Altbier was put to use back in the 1800's when much of central Europe decided to switch to onslaught of light-coloured lagers, while the local beer drinkers in the Rhineland stayed loyal to beers brewed the old school way (ales).
Horst Dornbusch, master brewer and native to Düsseldorf, describes the alt's profile in his book "Altbier" as: "If alt were a British beer, it would rank in the flavor spectrum somewhere between a brown and dark ale. As a German brew, however, alt has a few distinctly continental characteristics." He also points out that due to the brewing process of alts they have more residual proteins and dextrins that cannot be broken down. These lend more texture to the beer and consequently more body, mouth-feel and effervescence making for a full-bodied beer with a creamy long lasting head. Bitterness is moderate and malt sweetness is just enough to compliment. Alts are left in the fermenter for long periods of time, at lower temperatures, or rather they are lagered (stored, aged and matured in conditions near freezing), this process allows the yeast to reabsorb off-flavours into the beer and provides the clean and soft finish that has become expected from altbiers. Proper alts should be served in straight-sided glasses, ranging in size from 0.2-, 0.3- or 0.4- liters.
Düsseldorf is traditionally the home of altbier, however you can find it distributed throughout Germany. Sadly, authentic German-brewed alt rarely lands on American shores, and even more saddening is the fact that domestic alt is also hard to find, since the process of making it is so complicated that few brewers consider it worth the trouble. Decent examples are to be found though and if it wasn't for the ingenuity of American brewers, the altbier style could have been a dead one, and without a doubt lost in the heated mergers of the brewing industry in Europe. Here are some brands to try to further get your nose into this somewhat obscure style.
(Mercury Brewing, Ipswich, MA) - A German Style Düsseldorf-Style Altbier that grabbed a bronze medal at the 19th Annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver last year. This is a favourite for us BeerAdvocates.
(Longtrail Brewing, Bridgewaters Corner, VT) - Vermont Locals have dubbed this as their unofficial state craft brew by making this the most sold micro brew in the state. An easy drinking ale with a German accent that has been brewed since 1989.
Ottercreek Copper Ale
(Ottercreek Brewing, Middlebury, VT) - This beer is one of the few beers that still have a strong foothold throughout New England with a extremely popular following. It is their flagship brew and dominates that taste buds with a complex mix of six different malts and three hop varieties.
Sunday River Alt Beer
(Stone Coast Brewing, ME and NH locations) - A magnificent Portland, ME brewed alt that is a rich, smooth, full-bodied, malty beer. If you search, you can find this outstanding Americanized example. Another BeerAdvocate favourite.
Alle Tage Altbier
(McNeil's Brewery in Brattleboro, NH) - Not sure on the availability on this one, but you can occasionally pick this up direct from the brewery. Clearly a spot on specimen of the alt style, and a very complex one at that.
German Altbiers (Available in the Boston area):
Pinkus Organic Münster Alt
(Munster, Germany and Imported by Merchant Du Vin, Seattle, WA) - This one has been around since the early 1800's, the wonderful house yeast strain really brings out the malt character with a slightly tart fruit flavour within.
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