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.

Four Alts:

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, itÕs 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. DonÕt 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.

Reprinted courtesy of Gregg Smith.