Thursday, June 10, 2010
Style Breakdown - Altbier
If I asked the average beer enthusiast to name a German style of beer, what do you think they would say? Bock? Hefeweizen? Oktoberfest? Those are all correct answers, and are very well-known styles. What if I asked what the oldest known German style was? Do you think they would know? I bet they would be struggling with the answer. Would you know? You could at least venture a guess, because it's in the title of this post. That's right, it's Altbier, the subject of this style breakdown.
Long before the creation of lagers in Bavaria, the brewers in Germany made ales much like the rest of Europe. In fact, ales in Germany (that were the ancestors of Altbier) can be traced back at least 3000 years. The modern name and style of Altbier did not exist until the 1800's, when it became threatened by the popularity of lagers. In the Rhineland there were many fans of the local ale, which they just called bier. In order to preserve this old style, members of this region started asking for it by a new name. Altbier literally means "old beer," a reference to the ancient method of brewing ales, as opposed to the "new" lager beers.
When recently looking into the BJCP's classification of Altbier, I was surprised to find they consider it a hybrid style. It seems that after the emergence of lagers, German brewers adopted new ways of making their favorite ale. They still use top-fermenting ale yeast with ale fermentation temperatures (albeit on the low end of the range). However, they then condition the ale at cold temperatures for long periods of time, similar to lagers. This is meant to mellow out some of the fruitiness associated with an ale. What they end up with is an ale with very lager-like qualities.
Altbiers are typically amber to brown in color. They are generally well balanced, with the malt and hops working together to create rich, caramelly and/or biscuity flavors along with some nice bitterness. Usually light to medium bodied and around 4 - 5% ABV, they make great session beers. There is also a stronger version of an Altbier called Sticke (which means "secret", as in "I made a secret, stronger alt, are you brave enough to try it?"). This iteration is typically darker, richer, and higher in alcohol than a standard Altbier.
If you happen to see this lesser-known German style somewhere, definitely give it a try. In my experience, true imported German Altbier can be hard to find in our area. Our own local Schell's brewery does make one called Schmaltz's Alt. Unfortunately, it's a winter seasonal so you'll probably have to wait to try it. Otherwise, Tyranena Brewing from our neighboring state of Wisconsin makes Headless Man Amber Alt year-round.