German Altbier

German Altbier: Discovering the Rich History and Flavor of this Classic Brew

German Altbier, a unique and traditional beer style originating from the Rhineland, particularly around the city of Düsseldorf, has managed to maintain its distinct identity amidst the popularity of lagers. Altbier, which translates to “old beer” in German, earned its name due to its top-fermenting brewing method, which is considered more historic than the bottom fermentation employed by lagers. Typically characterized by a dark, copper color with a balanced, harmonious interplay between hop and malt flavors and aromas, Altbier offers a beer experience that defies the common categorizations of ale and lager.

German Altbier

The distinctive nature of Altbier can be partly attributed to its brewing process, which combines aspects of both ale and lager production. This hybrid brewing approach contributes to the beer’s unique flavor profile, with subtle fruity esters and peppery, floral hop notes. As a nod to its roots in Düsseldorf, Altbier is often referred to as Düsseldorf Altbier or simply Düsseldorfers, and many local breweries in the region take pride in continuing this centuries-old tradition.

With its rich history, unique brewing techniques, and distinctive flavor profile, Altbier has managed to carve out its own niche in the world of beer. Be it the appreciation for traditional brewing methods, the versatility in food pairings, or the distinct regional variations that contribute to its allure, Altbier remains an intriguing and enjoyable beer style to explore, transcending the standard classifications of ales and lagers.

Key Takeaways

  • Altbier is a traditional German beer that has its roots in Düsseldorf, combining aspects of both ale and lager production.
  • This unique beer style is characterized by its dark, copper color and a balanced interplay between hop and malt flavors and aromas.
  • Altbier offers a distinct beer experience that goes beyond standard classifications, making it an intriguing and enjoyable choice for beer aficionados.

History of Altbier

Altbier, a German beer style, is deeply rooted in history. Its name, “Alt,” meaning “old” in German, is a direct reference to the older top-fermenting brewing method, which predates the more modern bottom-fermenting technique used in lagers. This top-fermenting yeast method is believed to have been first consumed about 3,000 years ago.

In 1838, the Schumacher brewery of Düsseldorf was the first producer to coin the name “Altbier,” as a way to distinguish their top-fermenting beer style from the bottom-fermenting varieties that were becoming popular at the time. Locals in Düsseldorf have remained loyal to the traditional Altbier style, even though lagers have taken the lead in popularity across Germany.

Despite the prominence of bottom-fermenting lagers, some mass-market brewers still produce Altbier. Notable examples include Diebels and Radeberger Gruppe, who produce brands such as Schlösser Alt and Hansa Alt.

Brewing Process

Mashing and Boiling

The mashing process for Altbier begins by combining the German base malt with specialty grains, such as Vienna or Munich malts, along with small amounts of caramel and/or dark malts. The temperature of the mash should be around 148°F – 152°F (65°C – 67°C) for 60 minutes, which helps achieve a balance between fermentable and unfermentable sugars.

After mashing, the wort is collected and brought to a boil. Traditional Altbier recipes call for noble hops, such as Hallertauer, Tettnanger, or Spalt. The hops are typically added at three stages during the boil:

  • Bittering hops are added at the beginning of the boil to provide a solid bitterness that balances the maltiness.
  • Flavor hops are added at around 30 minutes into the boil to contribute subtle hop flavors.
  • Aroma hops are added in the final 5-10 minutes to impart a pleasant hop aroma.


After the boil, the wort is quickly cooled to below 70°F (21°C) and transferred to a fermenter. For Altbier, it’s essential to use a clean, neutral yeast strain, such as a German Ale yeast (Wyeast 1007 or White Labs WLP036). The fermentation temperature should be on the lower end of the ale yeast range, around 60°F – 62°F (15°C – 17°C), to produce a cleaner, crisper beer with minimal ester production. Fermentation typically takes 7-10 days to complete.

Lagering and Conditioning

Once the fermentation is done, the beer enters the lagering phase. In this step, the beer is aged at close to freezing temperatures (about 34°F or 1°C) for a period of 4-6 weeks. Lagering enhances the clarity and smoothness of the Altbier, giving it a more refined character similar to a lager.

During this conditioning process, any remaining yeast or sediment will settle, leaving you with a crystal-clear beer. After lagering, the beer is ready to be packaged and served, showcasing the balance and complexity that defines the Altbier style.

German Altbier Style Description

Aroma and Flavor

German Altbier, a traditional beer style originating from Düsseldorf, showcases a harmonious balance between hop and malt flavors and aromas. The malt profile typically features rich, dark Munich malts with a hint of caramel flavor, while the hop profile contributes bitterness and subtle fruitiness. Aroma-wise, low fruity esters, and some peppery and floral hop notes can be detected as well.


The appearance of Altbier is characterized by its amber to copper color, often presenting with hues of chocolate or ruby. The beer’s clarity ranges from clear to slightly hazy, and it is usually topped with a creamy, off-white head that has good retention.


As for mouthfeel, Altbier offers moderate carbonation and a smooth, medium-bodied texture. With an IBU (International Bitterness Units) typically in the 25-50 range, the beer’s bitterness is perceivable but not overwhelming, resulting in a balanced and enjoyable drinking experience.

Key Ingredients of Altbier

Malt Varieties

German Altbier typically uses a combination of different malt varieties, with Munich and Pilsner malts being the most commonly used base malts. The ratio of dark Munich to German Pils or dark Munich to light Munich can vary greatly, with some brewers opting for a half-and-half mix as a starting point. Vienna malt is also sometimes incorporated to provide additional depth of flavor and color. Specialty malts, such as Caramunich, Chocolate malt, and Black malt, are used in smaller quantities to enhance the beer’s color and flavor profile.

Hop Varieties

Noble hops are typically used in Altbier, providing a slightly spicy, herbal character to the beer. The key is to achieve balance between hop bitterness and malt flavors. Some popular hop varieties for Altbier include Northern Brewer, Tettnang, Spalt, and Saaz. These varieties are known for their distinct yet subtle flavors and aromas. Preference for hop varieties may vary depending on the regional style or personal preference of the brewer.

  • Northern Brewer: Known for its moderate bitterness and mild aroma.
  • Tettnang: Provides a mild, slightly spicy, and floral aroma.
  • Spalt: Known for its mild aroma and moderate bitterness.
  • Saaz: Imparts a spicy and herbal character.

Yeast Strains

Altbier is brewed using top-fermenting yeast, namely ale yeasts. Since it is fermented at lower temperatures than most ales, this beer showcases a clean, lager-like character. Nevertheless, the yeast strain chosen should still allow for the prominence of malt and hop flavors while keeping fruity esters at a minimum. Some brewers may opt for specific German ale yeast strains, while others might choose more neutral ones to suit their desired Altbier style and flavor profile.

Notable Altbier Breweries and Brands

Altbier, a traditional German-style brown ale, is primarily brewed in Düsseldorf and the surrounding region. Thanks to its rich history and unique brewing methods, it boasts several notable breweries and brands that are worth a mention.

Füchschen is a renowned brewery located in Düsseldorf, producing its famous Füchschen Alt. Established in 1848, this brewery has stood the test of time and continues to thrive by embracing traditional brewing recipes and techniques.

Schlösser Alt forms part of the Radeberger Gruppe’s offerings and is another established brand known for its consistency and adherence to authentic brewing practices. Similarly, Frankenheim Alt is a Düsseldorf-based brand with a strong presence in the market.

Expanding outside Germany, Alaskan Brewing Co. is an American brewery that produces a well-regarded Altbier called Alaskan Amber. Inspired by the traditional German style, this award-winning beer has found success in the U.S.

In Vermont, the Long Trail Brewing company crafts an Altbier named Double Bag. Known for its malty profile and smooth finish, this American take on the classic German style has gained traction in the craft beer community.

Another U.S. brewery inspired by Altbier is Grimm Brothers Brewhouse from Colorado, with their offering called Little Red Cap. This beer has a balanced combination of malt, hops, and yeast flavors that pay homage to its German origins.

Among the smaller breweries in Düsseldorf, Kürzer stands out for its innovative brewing techniques. Though it opened in 2010, making it the youngest brewery in Düsseldorf’s Old Town, it has gained popularity, especially among college students.

Last but not least, Uerige is a well-respected brewery and brand that produces a traditional Altbier. Known for their secret, stronger version called Sticke Altbier, they have preserved this intriguing local dialect term, which translates to “secret.”

Regional Variations and Differences

Düsseldorf Altbier

Düsseldorf Altbier is a top-fermenting beer from the Düsseldorf area in Germany. This German-style Brown Ale is well-balanced, with medium bitterness and medium to high maltiness. It is often brewed with moderately carbonate water, giving it a unique taste profile. The malt flavor profile tends towards a blend of dark Munich and light Munich or German Pils, ranging from a 10/75 to a 50/50 ratio. The conditioning period for Altbier is longer than normal, leading to a smoother, more mature finish. Aromas in the Düsseldorf Altbier include low fruity esters, peppery notes, and floral hop aromas.

Cologne Altbier

Cologne Altbier, also known as Kölsch, is another German ale originating from the Cologne region. While both Altbiers are top-fermented and have some similarities, the Kölsch has distinct differences that set it apart from the Düsseldorf Altbier. Kölsch is lighter in color and body, with a pale yellow appearance. It has a crisper and cleaner taste, with a dry, bitter snap of spicy and floral hops in the finish.

In comparison to the Düsseldorf Altbier’s maltiness, the Kölsch has a more grainy, biscuity, and sometimes slight caramel maltiness. Following the BJCP guidelines for German ales, the Kölsch often has a more pronounced bitterness, making it relatively easy to drink and refreshingly crisp. The yeast used for Kölsch fermentation differs from the one used in Düsseldorf Altbier, contributing to its unique flavor profile.

Food Pairing and Serving Suggestions

When it comes to pairing German Altbier with food, you have a wide range of options due to its malty backbone and well-balanced flavor profile. Some popular choices include roasted chicken, pork tenderloin, pork chops, and various sausage dishes, such as bratwurst and currywurst. These savory dishes complement the maltiness of Altbier.

In addition, Altbier can also be enjoyed alongside some German classics like beef rouladen or sauerbraten, as its mild bitterness can help cut through the rich flavors of these dishes. Moreover, you may find that pairing the beer with dishes that incorporate sharper, tangier ingredients, such as pickles, sauerkraut, or mustard, provides a pleasant contrast and enhances the overall taste experience.

When it comes to serving Altbier, the ideal temperature for storage and consumption is around 46-48°F (8-9°C). Proper storage at this temperature ensures a longer shelf life of up to nine months and also highlights the beer’s complex flavors. Slightly chilling the beer can make it more refreshing and enjoyable, especially when paired with heavier dishes.

As for glassware, it is recommended to serve Altbier in an appropriately-sized glass to showcase its medium amber color and frothy head. A traditional German “stange” glass, which is tall, slim, and cylindrical, is a popular choice for Altbier, allowing the beer’s aromas to be concentrated at the top of the glass, enhancing the drinkers’ sensory perceptions. Alternatively, a standard pint glass or even a tulip glass can be used to serve this versatile beer style.

Altbier Recipe and Homebrewing Tips

Altbier is a well-balanced, amber- to copper-colored German beer that combines the characteristics of both lagers and ales. It is brewed with a top fermenting ale yeast and then cold aged, which gives it a slightly bitter, malty, and well-attenuated taste. Homebrewing Altbier can be an exciting and rewarding process.

To start with an Altbier recipe, we first need to discuss the grain bill. The German base malt is the backbone of this beer, offering toasty, baked bread, and crusty flavors. A combination of lighter, darker, and crystal malts is used to achieve a complex, grainy character. You can experiment with various proportions to fine-tune your desired flavor profile.

Dry yeast is an important factor when brewing Altbier. Wyeast and White Labs offer excellent options for yeast strains specifically designed for this style. WLP036 (Düsseldorf Alt Yeast) from White Labs is a popular choice as it imparts a touch of ester while maintaining the cleanliness of a lager. A regular ale yeast can also work, but make sure to keep fermentation temperatures in the range of 60-65°F (15-18°C) and allow it to cold age for a smoother finish.

A decoction mash can be employed to enhance malt complexity in your Altbier. This process involves boiling a portion of the mash and then returning it to the main mash, raising the temperature in stages. Although this method is time-consuming, it can help create a more authentic and rich malt character in your beer.

The hop aroma in Altbier comes through as spicy, floral, herbal, or peppery. Use noble hops like Tettnanger, Hallertau, or Spalt for a traditional and balanced bitterness. Aim for medium body and medium to medium-high carbonation in your final beer, resulting in a smooth mouthfeel with low astringency.

When brewing a Sticke Alt, a stronger and hoppier version of Altbier, you will need to increase the malt and hop quantities in your recipe to achieve a more robust, yet balanced flavor.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the taste profile of Altbier?

Altbier has a balanced flavor profile, featuring both hop and malt flavors and aromas. The taste can include low fruity esters, along with peppery and floral hop notes. Its finish is typically malty to nutty and bittersweet. The body is full, with a firm, lacey white foam and a copper-brown color.

What are the key differences between Altbier and Amber Ale?

The main differences between Altbier and Amber Ale are the brewing techniques and flavor profiles. Altbier is a German ale that uses top-fermentation, similar to an ale, but has a lagering process. Amber Ale, on the other hand, is a category of ales characterized by its amber color and flavors that range from balanced to more malt-forward. Altbiers tend to have a crisper, cleaner taste with a bit more hop character, while Amber Ales may lean more toward maltiness.

Which yeast strain is used in Altbier production?

Altbier uses top-fermenting ale yeast strains, which are responsible for its distinct flavor characteristics. These strains ferment at warmer temperatures and contribute to the fruity, spicy notes that are distinctive to ales, including Altbier.

Which are the most famous Altbier breweries?

Some of the most renowned Altbier breweries are located in the Düsseldorf area of Germany. These include breweries like Uerige, Füchschen, Schumacher, and Schlüssel. Each brewery has its own unique Altbier recipe, showcasing subtle variations in flavor, color, and aroma.

What type of glass is best for serving Altbier?

The ideal glass for serving Altbier is a traditional German stange glass, which is a cylindrical, straight-sided glass with a 200ml (6.8 oz) capacity. The stange glass is designed to showcase the beer’s color and clarity while maintaining its aroma and head.

Where can I find and buy Altbier?

Altbier is widely available throughout Germany, especially in the Rhineland and Düsseldorf areas. It can also be found in specialty beer shops and online retailers around the world. When shopping for Altbier, look for reputable German brands or well-reviewed craft breweries that produce this distinctive style.

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