Düsseldorf's Altbier: Old Style German Ale

Ale in Germany?

While most of central Europe switched to blonde-colored lagers in the late 1800's, beer drinkers in Germany's Rhineland stayed loyal to ale brewed in the old style. The local product acquired the name altbier, after the German word for "old."

What is altbier? Horst Dornbusch, the owner of a Massachusetts brewery producing German-style beers, describes it as somewhere between a British brown ale and dark ale. But Dornbusch points out that alt, unlike British ales, has a characteristically German full-bodied flavor and is maltier and less bitter. He adds that many altbiers are sweetish (some even have a nutty flavor), and that a glass of alt has a rich, creamy, long-lasting head. Dornbusch ought to know. He literally wrote the book on altbier, and grew up in Düsseldorf, the world's alt capital.

Altbier is the result of historical happenstance. In the south of Germany, bad-tasting beer was common during the summer. As a result, brewing was restricted to the colder months, and beer was stored in cool places in the mountains. Bavarian beers thus became lagers (lager comes from the German verb for "to store"). When refrigeration allowed brewers to control the temperature at which beer was made, Europe's lager revolution began in earnest.

Düsseldorf, however, was far enough north that ales could be made year-round. Thus the local brewers never shifted to lager. But they did take advantage of the same scientific advances as their southern counterparts--including storing beer at low temperatures after the primary fermentation. Altbier is classified as an ale because it's made with top-fermenting yeast. However, after the primary fermentation, alt is cold-conditioned at temperatures closer to lagers than ales.

The best places to drink altbier are Düsseldorf's four surviving brewpubs. The pubs, which are more than a century old, are located in or close to the city's Altstadt, or old town, a district filled with so many drinking establishments that it's been called "the longest bar in the world." All of the pubs are within walking distance of one another.

The city's biggest and most famous brewpub is
Zum Uerige (Bergerstrasse 1). The pub's name is German for "The Grouch," but the atmosphere inside is anything but grouchy. Stay here long enough, and you'll see workers unloading 10-liter casks from the dumbwaiter and rolling them across the floor to a bar elsewhere on the premises.

Two pubs are located close to Zum Uerige in the Altstadt:
Zum Schlüssel (Bolkerstrasse 43), with a brightly-lit stand-up bar in the front and quieter rooms toward the back; and Im Füchschen (Ratingerstrasse 28), often recommended for drinkers with an appetite. Ferdinand Schumacher (Oststrasse 123), the city's oldest brewpub, is a large establishment located just outside the Altstadt.

Each of the brewpubs is a series of interconnected rooms, which vary in atmosphere from stand-up bars to beer halls lined with long, wooden tables to quiet dining rooms. Hearty German fare and snacks are available. Most of the pubs offer beer to go in wire-bale-top bottles or miniature casks.

The proper way to serve altbier is in cylindrical one-fifth or one-quarter-liter glasses. Bartenders keep track of the tab by writing tick marks on a coaster, then toting up the bill when it's time to leave. At one pub, I sat next to a local couple well into their sixties, and counted at least twenty marks on their coaster! They were no worse for wear, probably because alt is relatively low in alcohol, less than five percent by volume.

Although altbier is a Düsseldorf specialty, it's distributed throughout Germany. However, German-brewed alt rarely finds its way to North America. Good domestic alt is also hard to find, since the process of making it is so complicated that few brewers consider it worth the trouble. 

Aside from Dornbusch Alt, American altbiers include Alaskan Amber Ale, St. Stan's Amber, Schmalz's Alt, and Widmer Springfest. These brands are not widely or consistently distributed, and may not be available where you live. All the more reason why Düsseldorf belongs on the itinerary of a beer trip to Germany.