German Altbier or Alt is a top fermenting beer that originated in the German Westphalia region and later grew in popularity around the Rhineland. This week we take a look at brewing Altbier at home. The term “Alt” or “old beer” refers to the old methods of using a top fermenting ale yeast at ale temperatures but then cold aging the beer to form a slightly bitter, malty, well attenuated German ale. The term Altbier first appeared in the 1800’s to differentiate this traditional ale from newer pale lagers getting popular in Germany.
The BJCP recognizes two distinct style of Altbier, the Dusseldorf Alt is primarily produced near the town of Dusseldorf, and is slightly more bitter than the more widely brewed Northern German Altbier. The Northern version generally has a slight caramel flavor and is sweeter and less bitter than the Dusseldorf. Some Altbiers are also produced in small quantities in the Netherlands near the German border as well as Austria, Switzerland and the US microbreweries.
The Altbier Style
As mentioned above, Altbier is an amber colored ale with a very smooth, well attenuated finish. The beer should be well balanced with some bitterness and some maltiness. Fruitiness from the ale yeast is appropriate. Color is generally bronze to brown (11-17 SRM). There is low dyacetyl flavor and the beer generally has moderate to high carbonation.
There are differences between the Northern and Dusseldorf Altbier styles. The Dusseldorf style has medium bitterness and medium to high maltiness and is often brewed with moderately carbonate water. The Northen style may have a malty, grainy, biscuity and even slight caramel maltiness. The Nothern style is generally less bitter than the Dusseldorf and is sometimes made with a mix of ale and lager yeasts or even a highly attentive lager yeast alone.
The BJCP style guide specifies an original gravity of 1.046-1.054 and final gravity of 1.010-1.015 for both styles. The Dusseldorf color runs bronze to brown, or 11-17 SRM. The Northern can be slightly darker at 13-19 SRM. Carbonation is a bubbly 2.5-3.1 volumes of CO2.
Brewing an Altbier
The base malt for Alts is German Pilsner malt, which typically makes up 80% of the grain bill. A small amount of Munich or Vienna malt is often used to add some malty flavor. Dark Crystal malt is used in the Northern style to reach the appropriate color and add a small bit of caramel flavor. The Dusseldorf style uses less crystal malt, and instead substitutes small amounts of chocolate or black malt to achieve the desired color.
The traditional mash schedule is a German triple decoction, though a single step infusion mash is more than adequate if you are using modern highly modified malt.
Both styles require a highly attentive yeast with a clean finish. The Dusseldorf style always uses a high attenuation ale yeast such as White Labs WLP036 Dusseldorf Alt Yeast or WLP001 California Ale or Wyeast 1056 American Ale. The Northern Alt style also requires a high attenuation yeast, and most often lager yeasts are used though occasionally a mix of ale/lager or ale yeast may be used. Interesting yeasts to use include various German Lager yeasts, Kolsch yeasts from both labs, and the Alt ale yeasts listed above.
Spalt hops are traditionally used for the Dusseldorf alt, though many noble hop varieties are suitable as well. The Northern style uses noble hop varieties as well and there is some variation between breweries on which is best to use. The Dusseldorf style may use moderately carbonate water to accentuate the bitterness of the hops while the Northern style typically does not use carbonate water.
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