By Gregg Smith
No German style causes more misunderstanding and argument in the United
States than Altbier. It seems wherever you go someone has something else to
say about the profile of Alt. Opinions like 'Alt should have big hops';
'No, alt's possess a sweetness'; 'They have a light bright color'; 'No way,
they're dark and murky.' shoot back and forth, in bars, at beerfests, and
over the mash tun. How does a beer enthusiast cut through it all? Maybe it
requires a trip back to the old country.
Associated with the city and surrounding area of Dusseldorf, Alt represents
one of the few surviving German ales. Alt means old in German, a most
appropriate designation, because Dusseldorf defiantly stood with tradition
as the majority of German brewers embraced a "new" style - lager beer.
Lager, in reference to that new style, inferred the use of 'lager' yeast.
In that context it has a relatively short history. Lager yeast was only
discovered in the 1840's, and before then all brewers used one type of
yeast - ale. However, unlike the yeast strain of the same name, the brewing
technique called 'lagering' (which simply describes the process of storing)
reaches farther into the past. Early European brewers discovered that
placing beer in cool storage (lagering) enhanced it. As the beer matured,
low temperatures increased its clarity and rounded any rough edges. This
was the practice which rendered German ales graceful and inviting. In fact,
by comparison the ales of other countries were crude and primitive.
Thus, in regions of western Germany the introduction of lager yeast brought
forth a resounding 'so what.' Many thought the new strain of yeast an
abomination; after all, ale yeast was old, established, reliable, and
natural. Moreover the process of 'lagering' achieved approximately the same
results. Why switch? In some towns, Dusseldorf and Koln (Cologne) among
them, brewers swore to never abandon ale yeast. They carried on with
tradition, and to this day Alt, like its southerly cousin Kolsch, undergoes
a warm fermentation followed by a period of cold aging (lagering.) Thus,
the two maintain a common bond, but with the exception of hops, the two
beer relatives diverge.
Served in a short, cylindrical glass Alt beers have a 'bright' appearance
(clarity) but its color runs well into the deeper hues associated with
brown ales. Commonly, Alt's from the brewhouses of Dusseldorf feature an
inviting cast of bronze to dark copper. No product of chance, brewers use
specialty malts to deliberately infuse the beer with a darkness that
succeeds in deceiving well experienced palates. Although an Alt beer
undergoes thorough fermentation, which attenuates nearly all the available
sugars, it doesn't seem thin. In fact, it offers the drinker an
astonishingly firm mouthfeel. It acquires this, in part, from the use of
Pilsener and Munich malts, but what you sense as full body should rightly
be credited to the suggestive power of the rich bronze color.
More aggressively hopped than Kolsch, both styles deliver pronounced hop
bitterness while suppressing any hint of hop aroma or flavor. Brewers of
Dusseldorf rely almost exclusively on Spalt, a hop considered an equal to
the German classics of Hallertau and Sazz. Rarely available in the US, the
lack of Spalt often forces substitution of other German varieties; these
usually return a faithful recreation. However, those brewers trying to
pinch pennies with US varieties, notably Cascade, impart a distinctive
American taste which pushes the beer well beyond authenticity. Hopping
rates regularly average 28 to 40 IBUs and beyond. Surprisingly, despite
this high hop addition, the beer remains smooth and well balanced.
Smooth? With those hops? How? Thank the cold aging (lagering) which lasts 3
to 8 weeks, the low temperature somewhat softens the bite and almost
eliminates the fruity character (esters) so prevalent in ales.
Indeed, Alt presents a profile dramatically different than any other ale.
On introduction the unassuming aroma often confuses the drinker. It raises
doubts about its designation as an ale and encourages speculation that the
brewer omitted hops. Don't be fooled, Alt's true personality bursts forth
at the first sip. It welcomes you to world class bitterness, but does so
with a subtle undercurrent often described as acidic or sour. Not sharp,
the sourness, when detected, resembles a transient spirit, was it there or
merely the flirting of an ephemeral presence? No matter, the building malt
and mouth feel replaces it at the center of attention. Then, once you're
confident it will linger, the malt fades into a clean finish, punctuated
with yet another intriguing dash of thirst quenching sourness.
What a beer. Yet sadly, until recently, few examples of Alt were found in
the United States. Gratefully the industry has seen this error and
credible versions have begun to appear. When you find a good one sit back
and think of this beer's fine brewing tradition, then come back here and
help America clear the confusion surrounding Alt.
Alaskan Amber - Obviously the name was created for the general public.
Still, Alaskan Amber qualifies for its general adherence to the Altbier
style. The amber color reflects the deep richness of the Alaskan gold
fields, and delivers what starts as an abundance of malt. Then, in
mid-taste, the bitterness swells before a gradual fade. If Alaskan Amber
has one fault, it's hop selection which imparts a distinct American taste.
But that indiscretion we forgive in such a well crafted beer.
Grolsch - The Dutch giant imports a rendition by the name Grolsch Amber.
Don't be misled by the image of an adjunct filled, commercial beer. Not to
be dismissed, they brew from an all-malt recipe (with a slight addition of
wheat for head retention.) It greets you with a lighter mouth feel than
most Alt's, but the smooth body and significant hop bitterness, especially
in the finish, grants admission to the Alt family reunion.
Pinkus Muller - A good drinking beer promoted in the Alt style. For many
experienced Alt drinkers it might seem a little light - with lean color,
malt and hopping rates. However, for the unexperienced drinker it offers a
pleasant initiation without intimidation. Of the German brewed Alt's you
can find Pinkus Muller easiest. For better examples of German versions
(especially Zum Uerige Alt) you must buy a ticket to Dusseldorf. Therefore,
in the interest of economy, try Pinkus before graduating on to others.
Widmer Alt - Often cited as brewers of the first modern American Altbiers,
the Widmer brothers of Portland, Oregon (where else?) were descended from
Dusseldorf stock. Their heritage and dedication to tradition manifests
itself in one of the better US Altbiers. Brewed with big malt, (including a
touch of roasted malt) and balanced with aggressive hops, it presents an
alluring color of deep copper. Without challenge it embodies everything
you'd expect from an Alt.
© Gregg Smith