What is Altbier?
Overview of Altbier
There are not many styles of beer that can be traced back thousands of years, but Altbier is one of them. Altbier is a Germanic brew and its name literally translates to “old beer.” This is for good reason! Not only is this an obscure style of beer, but it is also quite rare in the market. In fact, it practically died out before the American craft beer industry brought it back to life. Altbier is now beginning to merge back into the European market, where it once began so long ago.
When most people think of German beer, they think of lagers. However, Germanic brewers have been focused on ales long before the lager style became popular. Even the Romans were impressed with this form of alcoholic beverage, despite still finding it inferior to wine. The ability for the German’s to utilize their minimal resources to create such a brew, was astounding. Altbier is one of the only indigenous ales in Germany.
Düsseldorf is traditionally the home of Altbier, but now you can find it throughout most of Germany. Altbier began competing with lagers, only after refrigeration became a part of people’s lives. Up until then, lager production was restricted to areas where it could be stored in cool places, like the mountains of Bavaria. The term “Altbier” was adopted in the 1800’s for the people that chose the “old” (alt) ales, over the new and popular lagers.
In his book “Altbier,” master brewer and Düsseldorf native Horst Dornbusch describes the flavor profile of 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.”
Altbier generally has an ABV of 4.5-5 percent, and has a moderate bitterness. The sweetness of the malt, however, greatly complements the other flavors. Alts are processed just like lagers, meaning they are left in the fermenter for long periods of time, in cold temperatures.
Altbiers are one of the only craft beers that have such a restricted choice of yeasts to work with. Unlike many British brews looking for yeasts with fruity complexity, Altbiers are the exact opposite; bitter.
The yeast is essential to this style of craft beer, because the brewing process allows the yeast to re-absorb bad flavors in the beer. This gives Altbiers their typical copper-bronze color, and a clean, soft finish.
When trying out any new craft beer, it’s important to know how to properly store it and pour it. Altbiers should always be kept at about 41 °F (5 °C), in a cool, dry place. These beers are typically served in a straight-sided 7 oz. glass (or more), that is never chilled.
Altbiers are brewed in such a way that they often have residual proteins which cannot be broken down. Since you want a good head on these beers, you want to pour regularly, but stop at the neck to reserve any residue at the bottom. As custom goes, you can still offer the patron the bottle with the remaining sediment, but you’ve still saved the flavor of the beer.
A fun way Germans drink Altbier is called “Lüttje Lage” in which a glass of vodka or schnapps is held with the same hand as the beer, and poured simultaneously into the mouth.
Domestic Altbiers are pretty rare, as most alts sadly do not make it out of Germany. Because the beer has been developed over centuries and has so much tradition, Americans have had to get crafty (see what we did there?) about extracting the recipe.
The process of making the beer is so complicated, many American breweries won’t even try. At least a few, however, are making an attempt, and enjoying great success in doing so. The following are three of the most popular domestic Altbiers on the market right now:
- Dornbusch Ale– Brewed at the Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich, MA, this German inspired craft beer is a Düsseldorf-Style Altbier. It also won a bronze medal at the 19th Annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO.
- Sunday River Alt Beer– Made at the Stone Coast Brewing Company in Portland, ME – this Altbier is full-bodied, rich, and incredibly smooth. A malty beer with intense, deep flavors, it can be somewhat hard to come by.
- Longtrail Ale– Created at the Longtrail Brewing Company in Bridgewaters Corner, VT, this has been the most popular micro brew in the state since the late 1980’s. It is also Vermont’s unofficial, state craft brew.