Altbier – One of the World’s Oldest Beers
This is the first blog in our new monthly series reviewing every craft beer style in the industry. In each edition, we will explore ideas such as: how the beer is made, flavor profiles, their origin, and where they can be found domestically.
As a bar owner, if there is any style you want to see covered, feel free to contact us, and we can review it next; otherwise this series will be in alphabetical order.
There are not many styles of beer that can be traced back thousands of years, but the German brew Altbier, is one of them. The name literally translates to “old beer,” and there is a good reason why. Not only is this an obscure beer style, it is quite rare in the market. In fact, it practically died out before the ingenuity of 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 lager, but long before that style became popular, Germanic brewers were focused on ales. 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.
“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.
Store and Pour
As a bar owner, 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. As a beer that is secreted away, and enjoyed by old custom tradition in Germany, Americans have been particularly crafty 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 80’s. It is considered Vermont’s unofficial, state craft brew.