How to make a great Altbier (German Ale)
I’ve made several alt style beers for my neighborhood parties. I always am asked “what kind of beer is this”, which is quickly met with blank stares when I call it an “alt” style beer. In fact, I received so many blank stares at park parties I eventually relented and started calling it a “German ale”.
Altbier is somewhat similar to an amber lager. This is because the beer is usually lagered after fermentation. This produces cleaner beers compared to British ales with significantly fewer esters.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style guidelines list two alt beers in the Amber Hybrid Beer (7) category, the Düsseldorf Altbier (7A) and the Northern Germany Altbier (7C). It’s considered a hybrid because the beer uses ale yeast, but tastes more like a lager. If you’re thinking California Common or steam beer, you’re on the right track. California Common is 7B in the Amber Hybrid Beer category.
The Alt beer shares much history with Kölsch. Both beers originate in Cologne (Köln), Germany, but the Alt style is associated with Düsseldorf and Northern Germany.
In Cologne, ales have ruled since the 1600s. In 1603 and again in 1698, Cologne banned lagers within city limits to compete with lagers. Brewers had to swear to an ale version of Rein-heitsgebot which said, “you prepare your beer, as of old, from good malt, good cereals, and good hops, well boiled, and that you pitch it with top-yeast, and by no means bottom yeast, no Tollbier, ‘raw wort, no noxious herbs, no matter of what name”. The oath not only specified top-fermenting ale yeast, it also called out bottom-fermenting lager yeast as a big no-no. Tollbier means lager beer in this oath, so you had to swear twice you would not make lagers.
If you wanted a lager, you had to get it outside of Cologne. Lagers were still very popular, and were made in many German cities outside of Cologne. In Germany lagers are king, so by 1750 Cologne gave in and started making lagers. The ales were the old, or “alt” which is old in German, way of making beer.
In Colonge, Kölsh is now the standard beer. Alts are found about 40 kilometers to the north in Düsseldorf, so the style is now associated with Düsseldorf. Neither beer has been called “alt” or “kölsch” until the 1900s. Around this time German ales started to become popular again. Most likely to compete with the lagers surrounding Cologne, the style developed into the lager like profile. There really isn’t any reliable data showing what the German ales were like prior to the turn of the last century.
Altbiers are light copper to light brown ales with white heads. The beer is very clear due to the lagering. The aroma is slightly malty, with almost no hop aroma. The flavor is bitter. Not an IPA bitter, but still a firm bitter flavor. Some of the altbiers have a light caramel flavor, which I like, and is followed by a dry finish. The beer could be compared to a hoppy Vienna style lager. The alcohol content of the beer is lower than average, usually between 4.5% to 5.2%. This makes altbiers a great session beer.
Here’s the recipe I use for my Altbier.
You’ll want to mash the beer at 152 F (67 C). You should boil the beer for 90 minutes to reduce DMS, so adjust the boil volume to match your evaporation rate. Carbonate the beer between 2 and 2.5 volumes.
Once the beer has fermented I’ll lager the beer for at least two weeks, longer if I find some courageous amount of patience and self-discipline. I tried serving the beer once without lagering and it was met with disastrous results. The beer stayed a bit cloudy, and it was very grainy. I ended up putting the beer back into the fridge for a few weeks, and was rewarded with a much cleaner and clearer beer.
I used to go to a bar in Montreal, Canada called Alt Munich. It’s a giant beer hall that served lots of German food and pitchers of beer. I have no idea if it’s still there, an exhaustive 30 second Google search turned up inconclusive results. Still I had great, if not very blurry, memories of the beer hall. This beer is dedicated to that bar.
The recipe is as simple as you can get. It’s an all Munich malt alt. Well mostly Munich malt. There’s just a bit of CaraMunich to give the beer a little caramel hint, and a little bit of Carafa II to make the beer a bit darker without adding too much astringency. The beer is again mashed at 152 F (67 C), lagered for at least two weeks, and carbonated between 2 and 2.5 volumes.
I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!