History of Altbier
It’s rather unfortunate that Altbier (German for “Old”) beer is not only an underdog style, but it also suffers a bit from being difficult to categorize and break down. Multiple sub-styles of Altbier exist, all of which can be seen as variations of Dusseldorf Alt, the beer that started it all in an effort to differentiate a beer style that strayed from the pale lagers that were dominating Germany in the 1800’s. Much like Cologne’s highly protected and revered Kolsch, Dusseldorf Alt is the represented beer of that region. The Beer Judge Certification Program breaks Altbier down in 2 separate categories, Northern German Altbier and Dusseldorf Altbier, and within that style we have Sticke, and Munster, 2 variations that can be considered “specialty” beers. The gentlemen at Beeradvocate lump everything into an Altbier category, and that’s what I’m doing today – giving sort of a quick and dirty lesson on each sub-style, while still picking my top 5 overall.
Northern German Altbier Characteristics
The majority of Altbier produced outside of the Dusseldorf region falls into this category. Very much a compressed, catch-all style, it represents a variety of “brown lagers” with similar characteristics of Vienna Lager or a Marzen. Therefore, the term “Alt” being applied to them is a bit misleading, since it refers to an old style of brewing (making ales). Northern German Altbier has a delicate, malty aroma with a bit of grain and low to no hop aroma with a clean lager character. They’re light copper to light brown in color and very clear due to the extended cold conditioning. A fairly bitter yet balanced flavor with a smooth malty sweetness and some biscuity, caramely notes will be evident. Again, very little hop flavor with some slight sulfury notes and a clean, smooth mouthfeel. Being in an alcohol range from 4.5 – 5%, Northern German Altbier borders on being great for sessioning. The most common one you may see is Long Trail Ale, which many times in the past has been a go-to beer for me when I’m searching for something with lower alcohol and high drinkability.
Dusseldorf Altbier Characteristics and its Variations
Dusseldorf Altbier is an ale that is top fermented at cooler temperatures that arrived before bottom fermenting yeast strains became popular, but it approximates many of the same characteristics of lager beers. They have a clean yet complex aroma of rich maltiness, noble hops, and fruity esters. Light amber to orange/bronze to deep copper is the color you’re looking for with brilliant, bright clarity and a thick and creamy, long lasting off-white head. Aggressive hop bitterness (but not what you would get in an IPA) is well balanced by a solid, crisp malt character and some fruity esters in there as well. There is a long-lasting bittersweet, nutty finish that will reflect both the malt and the hops with some slight sulfur or mineral notes. These beers are medium-bodied and very, very smooth and like its Northern brothers and sisters, an excellent session beer.
The two sub-styles of Dusseldorf Alt are Sticke (or “Secret”) beer and Munster Alt. Sticke is basically a stonger, darker, and richer version of an Alt, a beer that many breweries in the region would try and get away with serving during colder months or when there was a special occasion. Munster Alt is arguably much more unique version which is typically lower in gravity and alcohol, and is slightly sour and lactic, lighter in color (golden) and can contain a significant amount of wheat. Pinkus Mueller is in my top 5 as a Munster Alt, and is a very interesting beer worth seeing out when you’re looking to change things up a bit.
Altbier and Food Pairings
As you may have guessed, with the number of varieties of Albiter comes a great versatility with food. The big caramel flavors in the beer (with the exception of Munster) is fantastic with roasted meats or poultry, sausage, or fattier, heavier fishes (including shellfish), and is an excellent beer to use as a base for beef stew, chili, or even pot roast. The hops in the Dusseldorf variety can stand its ground against sauces and soups, and also pairs very well with pizza, hamburgers, and Mexican food. If you’re looking for a cheese to grab with Albiter, go for some aged gouda or a crumbly Cheshire. And even desserts will work with this style – a nutty, dark cake of any kind is a winner.
As I had stated earlier, Altbier is an underrated style, primarily for two reasons – it doesn’t have the presence or assertiveness of the other goliath-like beer styles out there, such as an American IPA, a Russian Imperial Stout, or a Belgian Strong Ale. Admittedly, I’ve never found myself heading to the bar and saying, “Man, I just can’t WAIT to get to the bar and order a Grolsch Amber!”…I have to be honest, it’s not a beer that really generates excitement. But if you’re looking for something nice and clean and drinkable, without sacrificing flavor or that satisfaction element you get from certain craft beers – try out one of these, and let me know what you think.
[techtags:ALTBIER, ALTBIER CHARACTERISTICS, ALTBIER FOOD PAIRINGS, ALTBIER HISTORY, TOP ALTBIERS]