Tastings School - Germany - Read Alt about it (Altbiers)

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Germany - Read Alt about it (Altbiers)

Altbiers are the dark, top-fermented ales popular in Düsseldorf and the Rhineland, as Adrian Tierney-Jones reports

Several brewers will tell you that yeast is the unsung hero of the brew-house. Malt is the soul of beer, hops the grapes, while even the liquor, especially in the old Burton breweries, has its halo. Poor old yeast is the workhorse, though without it what would tease out alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation and add fruity and warming flavours and aromas, especially in the stronger beers? (There’s probably a team of chemists out there trying to invent that process as I write).

Furthermore, as if to pin down the importance of yeast, it’s this single-cell fungus that was at the heart of that great 19th century schism in the family of beer — as cold or bottom-fermented yeast became irrevocably linked to Pilsner styles and its warm or top-fermenting cousin continued to do the business with ale.

Travel to the German Rhineland and some of the local beer styles are remnants of a pre-lager time.

Düsseldorf and its environs have Alt (though examples can also be found in Hanover, Munster, Holland and the United States), while Köln has Kölsch, which has its own appellation.

Even though the latter’s top-fermentation produces enough fruitiness (hints of wild strawberries on the palate with one of the Kölsch I have tasted) to set it apart from other German beers, it still has the golden aura of a Pilsener — and we all know that many beer lovers drink with their eyes.

Witness the massive success of golden lagers across the globe in the 19th century and closer to our time the rampant onward march of Golden Ales in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Alt is a darker, biscuity, grittier beer and closer to British bitter, though its rough edges are smoothed out by a bout of cold-maturation. Both are great survivors, local specialities, cult beers and deadly rivals.

Given that the northern French bières de garde and the witbiers originating from Liege over the border in Belgium continued in the main to use topfermenting yeast, it would be interesting to see if there is some sort of link between these beer styles of north-western Europe. For instance, could river traffic have been the carrier? I know a bar-owner and nascent brewer in the Dutch town of Venlo who suggests that the Maas River is responsible for bringing witbiers up from Liege into the Dutch province of Limburg. So maybe the Rhine did the same thing with top-fermenting ales?

However, theories about beer are hardly uppermost in the minds of the Sunday afternoon drinkers at the Schmitz-Mönk brewpub in the small town of Anrath, west of Düsseldorf. In the pine-clad, stone-floored bar, the pub’s own 4.5% Mönk Alt is going down a treat. Golden-brown in colour and full of roast malt and slightly smoky notes, it has a dry fruity finish that adds to the sense of harmony in the glass. This is a neighbourhood pub, though sadly the slightly stern-looking landlord/brewer doesn’t have time to do a tour. Still, it’s a good introduction to the style on the way into Düsseldorf.

Heavily bombed during the Second World War, Düsseldorf was almost entirely rebuilt and to walk around the old town you wouldn’t think that most of it is less than 50 years old. This is a lively beery area, full of bars and restaurants. Adverts for the InBev owned Diebels, the best-selling Alt, litter the place, run a close second by one of its rivals, Frankenheim.

However, it’s the quartet of small local brewpubs that connoisseurs of Alt come to investigate: Schumacher, Schlüssel, Fühschen and Uerige.

On the night I visit these are jam-packed with both tourists and locals. First impressions are of the blueshirted beer waiters called ’Kobes (they are also called this in Köln) bustling their way through the crowds, looking for empty glasses to be replenished.

They wander round, tray in hand, topping up the thirsty, posing for pictures, aware of their top dog place in the hierarchy of the pub.

When you order a beer, they make a mark on your beer mat and when it’s time to go total it up for the bill. There is a possibly apocryphal story of the anguish of a father when he realises his small son has been making his own marks on the beer mat.

Alt may be darker than Pilsener, but just as with British bitter, there are nuances and differences between the various ones. Schumacher Alt (4.6%) is light amber in colour, and fruity, while Schlüssel Alt (5%) is slightly fragrant on the nose, cereally, biscuity with a dry finish. Fühschen Alt (4.5%) has a biscuity, malty nose with murmurs of resiny hop in the background, and I hazard a guess that it is one of the more traditional ones.

Finally there is Uerige Alt (4.5%).

This has a good malty nose, underpinned by subtle resiny hop, fragrant and fruity with a dry and hoppy finish. It is the bitterest Alt by far and when I first tasted it (having only tried what I regarded was the disappointing Diebels) I realised how good Alt could be.

Uerige’s pub isn’t bad either. Once again the obligatory ’Kobes rove about the multi-roomed establishment. It’s a cosy place where people sit and drink at old wooden barrels. Some rooms have absurdist-style figures painted on the wall, while another room has black-and-white photos of long forgotten local actors.

At the back of the pub stands the well-burnished brewing copper. If you’re hungry, tough luck if you’re a vegetarian. These brewpubs are centres of robust meat (especially pork) cuisine with black pudding, sausages, pork knuckle and a roll topped with raw mince and chopped onions just some of the items on the menu.

Next morning I visit two differing styles of Alt brewery. The first is Schlüssel, where a warm, cereally aroma is a sign that mashing is already in progress. The taciturn brewmeister is a chap called Walter (he won’t give his second name) and he has been there for 36 years. The mash tun and kettle are both raised on a platform at the back of the pub and enclosed behind glass, a sign that Schlüssel is not shy about showing off its brewing handiwork. So far, so straightforward.

However, nothing prepares me for the subterranean network of rooms and corridors where the beer is fermented and kegged. It’s a bit like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Down below, there are fermenting rooms, lagering rooms, a filtering room and kegging area. Men walk about, while there is the noise of machinery and kegs clanging together. Oak casks that hold 100 litres are used at the pub but metal casks are used to send out the Alt to other pubs.

I ask Walter if he brews any other beer styles. He replies: “Alt, Alt, Alt.” Twice a year they brew a Latzen Alt, he then tells me, which is stronger and hoppier.

Schlüssel brews 8-12 times a week, producing 45 hectolitres in one go. Pilsen malt and caramalt go into the mash tun, while Hallertau pellet hops help to produce the slightly fragrant nose I had identified the night before. The beer then spends three days in fermentation and 12 days lagering, before being sent out either to the pub above or to 40 other establishments.

Bolten Brewery is a different copper kettle of Alt. Situated out of the city in Korschenbroich, this looks like a British tower brewery and claims to be the oldest Alt brewery in the world.

Carsten Stein is the head brewer and is unashamedly enthusiastic about his beer.

Last year, the brewery ground to a halt and Michael Hollmann, a former big cheese at beverage group Brau und Brunnen, rode to the rescue. “There was no beer, the tanks were empty and there weren’t even any trucks as they had all been sold,” says Stein.

Prior to that it was producing 56,000 hectolitres a year and Stein hopes to get back to that capacity. I am sure it will, as I am told that brewing is a 24-hour operation with Alt making up 70 per cent of the output.

Bolten may have the look of a classic lager brewhouse with its array of stainless steel vessels with their tall chimneys vanishing into the ceiling, but top-fermenting yeast is top dog around here. However, as Bolten also produces a wheat beer, there is a separate yeast strain for that.

“We have to keep them apart,” laughs Stein, “like kids at a kindergarten.” As well as its traditional 4.8% Alt, Bolten produces an unfiltered gorgeously moreish Ur- Alt (4.8%) and a pale-coloured Landbier (4.9%), which Stein says is a bit like a Kölsch. Given the friendly beery rivalry that exists between Düsseldorf and Köln this is a brave thing to admit.

Outside I bump into owner Michael Hollmann and grab a few words about the market for Alt.

“In the beer market you have big players like InBev and Carlsberg, then you have mid-sized ones such as Bitburger and Veltins,” he says.

“I think it is they who will have difficulties, but then that means there is a good chance for little regional breweries like us. I do believe that Düsseldorf’s home brewers of Alt also have a future.

“You have to have a feeling for beer,” he continues, “and we do. We are working hard, it needs a year and then we will see what we will do. I am very optimistic, if not I would not do it.” The market for Alt is regional and small especially compared to Pilsner, but the drinkers of Düsseldorf, if their tastes in the brewpubs of the old town are anything to go by, show a football fan-like loyalty to the beer.

In a world of global brands where everyone, whether they’re in Brisbane, Bristol or Bremen, drinks the same beer or coffee and wears the same clothes, the survival of beers like Alt and Kölsch is a cause for calling the Kobes over for another beer.