Some people are just stubborn, I guess. You can offer them brand-new, highly improved technologies, but they still cling to outmoded procedures in spite of everything.

So the world is stuck with British brewers using sugar in the kettle and open fermenters, Belgians putting god knows what in their mash tuns and leaving the wort to sit around and practically rot, and a little clump of German brewers using primitive yeast strains and inappropriate temperatures for fermentation.

When pale, clear, lagered beers became all the rage, beginning in the mid-1800s, these stubborn German brewers missed the boat, and a good thing, too! Most of these recalcitrant Germans live in the northwest of their country, in and around the industrial city of Dusseldorf, where they brew classic altbiers.

“Alt” means “old,” a reference to the use of “old” techniques — primarily the continued use of top-fermentation after most other German brewers had adapted to new bottom-fermenting yeasts and cooler fermentation temperatures. Altbiers (and their near-cousins, kölschbiers) are the Teutonic equivalent of British ales — but different.

If Dusseldorf is the center of altbier brewing, the Altstadt (Old City) is the core within Dusseldorf. Three of Dusseldorf’s four brewpubs are in this region, with the fourth close by. They are “brewpubs” in the sense that the brewery is either in or attached to the tavern, but the sense of scale the terms carry for Americans is inadequate. Several years ago Portland, Ore., brewer Kurt Widmer reported that one of these pubs, Zum Uerige, produced as much beer as the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco — and sold every drop on the premises.

The altbier houses have impressive menus — pork, in various guises, is a big item — but the focus is on drinking beer. Much of the beer is poured from wooden kegs, by gravity flow; no pumps, no tanks of gas. Altbier glasses are short, straight-sided, and stubby, holding about one-quarter liter. When a glass is emptied, a waiter replaces it immediately, marking the total on a chalkboard or noting the score some other way.

An old brewing partner of mine had the good fortune to be sent to Dusseldorf on business. He visited the Altstadt nightly. Not all of his co-workers enjoyed the visits with the same fervor as Pete, and one placed a beer mat over his glass (indicating that he was done) after only the second round. The waiter was outraged. “If you only want two beers,” he shouted, “go to the grocery. This place is for drinking!”

The Altstadt taverns are unlike American brewpubs in another regard: No attempt is made to offer any variety. One beer is served, although the brewery occasionally will present a sticke (“secret”) beer, with no great fanfare, for the enjoyment of its regular customers. These beers may be brewed to a higher gravity and even dry hopped as a change of pace. Unfortunately for tourists, there is no way to plan visits around Stickebiers; they are not brewed for holidays, nor are they seasonal specialties like bocks or barleywines might be.

If each brewery offers only altbier, the beers themselves vary from brewery to brewery, much as pale ales do. Some are drier than others, some more bitter. In some cases there may be an apparent hop aroma, although this is unusual.

In general, however, the beers are akin. The color ranges from deep copper to something near brown. Maltiness is always evident, although this is not to say that the beers are sweet. Alt brewers are not afraid to use hops, and the levels of bitterness range from apparent to intense. German brewers tend not to add hops late in the boil, so that hop flavor is usually well married to the malt. Original gravities are in the same ranges as pilsners, about 12° Plato (1.048), with alcohol content about 4.5 to 4.8 percent by volume.

The fruitiness that characterizes British ales is negligible or nonexistent in altbiers. This is largely a result of yeast selection (along with hop choice). Unlike British ales, altbiers are given a period of cold-conditioning at low temperatures for several weeks after the initial warm fermentation. This process (undoubtedly the great-grandpapa of modern lagering techniques) provides a characteristic mellow smoothness very different from a British ale.

Outside Dusseldorf altbiers can be found in nearby cities, with one brewery, Diebels, mass producing a version. In Munster the brewpub Pinkus Muller brews a very different but most admirable version (fortunately available in bottles here in North America). Unlike the Dusseldorfer alts, Pinkus Alt is quite pale, with a significant portion of wheat in the grist and a crisp, tart character derived from six months of cellaring (along with what Michael Jackson claims is a resident lactic culture). Anticipating the American rage for fruit beers by decades, the pub serves its altbier in a punch made with sweetened fruits.

Altbiers have appeared at any number of American craft breweries, with varying degrees of authenticity and success. Certainly the first was Widmer (now Widmer Brothers) Brewing Co.’s flagship beer, an alt inspired by Kurt Widmer’s visits with Zum Uerige’s brewer, Herr Schnitzler.

Widmer’s earliest attempts, shared with the local homebrew club, were huge malty beers with enough bitterness to stand one’s hair on end. The beer (toned down only slightly) developed a cult following in Portland in the mid-1980s but eventually was mainstreamed and almost phased out as Widmer’s wheat beer developed a huge popularity. Fortunately for beer geeks, the brewery makes limited supplies of Ur-Alt (a fine beer) for its Gasthaus and a few other locations.

Most of the other American “altbiers” I’ve encountered (such as Alaskan Amber and St. Stan’s) have been disappointing, although I was pleasantly surprised by a contract-brewed version by New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewery and a “doppelalt” brewed at the Boston Beer Works.

Producing a good altbier at home is a worthy cause but not tremendously difficult. A caveat: Whether a good, homebrewed altbier will do well in competition is another issue; with the paucity of good commercial examples — Dusseldorfer alts don’t appear on American grocery shelves — it’s difficult for brewers or judges to pin down the style.

Just as in lager brewing, refrigeration of some sort is virtually essential. The rest is simply a matter of care.

I believe the critical component to an altbier is malt. The problem many brewers seem to have, however, is a confusion between “malty” and “sweet.” Altbiers, in the main, have a dry finish — a combination of thorough attenuation during fermentation and a discernible hop presence. A good alt, then, should be refreshing yet engaging. The key, as I said, is the use of malt.

One of the best approaches, available to all-grain or extract-mash brewers, is the use of a good Munich malt. Until recently I would have insisted on only a German or Belgian Munich malt. But fine malts are now available from domestic maltsters such as Gambrinus and Great Western.

Caramel malts can be used with restraint, and even a tiny amount of black malt (such as German carafa malt) might be appropriate. Some alt brewers reportedly use small additions of wheat malt, presumably to enhance head retention.

I have brewed altbiers from the same recipe using a decoction, a temperature program (step), and a single-infusion mash, all with good results and a good malt profile. Given the high modification of modern malts, decoction mashes are most useful for enhancing color and malt flavor, but a good percentage of Munich malt seems to be a fine substitute. The one clear distinction among the three processes is that the decocted version was darker — probably too dark — and did not need the touch of carafa malt.

Hopping should be done with continental varieties or their new American clones. Dusseldorfer brewers are apparently fond of Spalt, one of the German “noble aroma” hops. Like all the noble aroma varieties, Spalt is fairly low in alpha acids (about 5 percent), the hop compounds responsible for bitterness in beer. To produce an intensely bitter altbier such as Zum Uerige’s (45 to 50 International Bitterness Units) must require massive hop additions. Reserving the noble aroma hops (Spalt, Saaz, Hallertauer, Mt. Hood, or Liberty, for example) for late-kettle additions (about 30 minutes before ending the boil), a brewer could do well by bittering with mid- to high-alpha hop varieties such as Northern Brewer or Perle. The hops should always balance well, never overpowering the malt. A big, hoppy nose would be completely out of character for the style.

A number of appropriate yeasts are available to homebrewers. My personal favorite has been Wyeast 1007, which performs very well in open fermentation and is very attenuative (ferments the wort thoroughly).

Although I have seen this yeast described as “highly flocculent” (clumps and sinks well), I have found a day of cold conditioning (at 40° F) was needed to clarify the beer — not a problem, of course, with a beer destined for three weeks at such temperatures. For bottle conditioning it may be necessary to re-pitch some yeast with the priming sugars.

Fermentation temperatures for altbiers are reasonably warm (in the high 70° F range for at least one brewery!) as long as the yeast strain doesn’t produce too much fruitiness or any phenolic flavors. For most strains temperatures in the high 60° to low 70° F range should work very well. Lagering for a few weeks in the 40° to low 50° F range will promote the wonderful smoothness of a good altbier.

Issue: October 1996