German Altbier

Altbier

Altbier

When I was recently writing my Brü Club introduction on the club forum, it got me thinking back to when I first started homebrewing, and what exactly got me started with this obsession. There are lots of reasons we all share, like the challenges of copying our favorite commercial craft beer. Or maybe it’s the creativity to create a unique brew of our own? Perhaps the money we would save brewing our own beer? Stop laughing; I think I used that one on my wife. For me, my homebrew genesis can be traced back to my first homebrew kit of German Altbier. My success with that kit opened my eyes to the world of homebrewing. I was so astonished I could make a German Alt so close to the real thing that I was instantly hooked on homebrewing.

For those unfamiliar with this style, Alt is many times described as a “hybrid” style. To the Germans, its name means “old”. Old in terms of representing an older style of brewing using top fermenting yeast, which precedes bottom fermenting yeasts like lagers. Altbier’s history has its origins back to the 1800s in the German city of Dusseldorf. In fact, the town is synonymous with this style of beer. To this day, it is said if you travel to Dusseldorf and ask for a beer, you will be served an Altbier.

Here is the summary profile for a German Altbier:

Color Range:  11-17 SRM
Original Gravity: 1.044-1.052 OG
Final Gravity: 1.008-1.014 FG
IBU Range: 25-50
ABV Range: 4.3-5.5%
Appearance: Clean, complex & grainy; German malt characteristics; Low to medium-low fruity esters; Low to moderate hop aromas.
Aroma: Crisp & clean malty profile; Low to moderate hop flavors with peppery or floral notes; Fruity esters are possible; Long & dry finish with nutty hints; Possible light sulfur or mineral characters.
Flavor: Range from light copper to deep auburn, never dark enough to be considered brown; Excellent clarity; Thick off-white & creamy head; Good retention.
Mouthfeel: Medium body; Medium to medium high carbonation; Smooth with low astringency.
Serving & Storage Temperature: 46-48°F
Shelf Life: 9 Months
Suggested Glass: Stange Glass

Source: BJCP & Kegerator.com

 

If you’re going to brew an Altbier, you need to decide if you are brewing a Dusseldorf or a Northern German Altbier. In his book, Brewing Classic Styles, Jamil Zainasheff profiles the two Alts this way:

Northern German Altbier –

A very clean, slightly bitter beer with a smooth malt character. This is an intermediate style that can be brewed by extract-with-grain or all-grain methods. Ferments at 60° F (16° C)
OG FG IBU Color Alcohol

1.046-1.054

(11.4-13.3 °P)

1.010-1.015

(2.6-3.8 °P)

25-40

13-19 SRM

26-37 EBC

4.5-5.2% ABV

3.6-4.1% ABW

Source: Brewing Classic Styles, Jamil Zainasheff & John Palmer 2007

 

Dusseldorf Altbier –

A well balanced, bitter yet malty, clean, smooth, well-attenuated, copper-colored German ale. This is an intermediate style that can be brewed by extract-with-grain or all-grain methods. Ferments at 60° F (16° C)
OG FG IBU Color Alcohol

1.046-1.054

(11.4-13.3 °P)

1.010-1.015

(2.6-3.8 °P)

35-50

11-17 SRM

22-33 EBC

4.5-5.2% ABV

3.6-4.1% ABW

Source: Brewing Classic Styles, Jamil Zainasheff & John Palmer 2007

You will notice the key differences in styles are the Northern version is maltier and less bitter than the Dusseldorf style.

Guidance when brewing an Altbier

For what its worth, I’ve been served a lot of poor craft beer Altbiers. Given the styles hybrid reputation, I think the style is misunderstood by a lot of craft beer brewers. The best advice I can offer is to take the traditional German approach to this style by limiting your ingredients to toasty, biscuit and caramel character grains and German noble hops.

Base Malts
Start with primarily Pilsner malts and secondarily add Munich malt. Many well known brewers offer recipes featuring as little a 5% Munich up to as much as 50%.

alitbier outside

German altbier

Secondary Malts
Consider adding CaraMunich, Melanoiden, Carafa Special II, Black Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, Aromatic, Vienna, and Carafoam malts to get the full, rich complex character you desire.

Hops

Any German noble hop would be good choices. The classic Altbier hop is Spalt. This hop adds a bold, spicy flavor to Altbier.
Other popular choices include Magnum, Perle, Mount Hood, Northern Brewer, and Brewers Gold.

Mashing
The authentic Altbier mash is a decoction. For the less adventurous, mash at 148-152°F

Yeast
White Labs offers a Dusseldorf Alt yeast (WLP036). Wyeast offers a German Ale yeast (1007). Alt yeasts can be aggressive, be sure you leave plenty of headspace in your fermentor to allow for a significant head of krausen. Fermentation should be low and thorough. Shoot for a temperature range between 55° and 62°F depending on the specific yeast you choose.

Water
The consensus online seems to be using an Amber Dry (e.g. Bru’n Water) water profile. This profile makes sense given the more bitter characteristic of this style. Here’s the profile for Amber Dry:
Ca: 50 | Mg: 15 | Na: 15 | SO4: 110 | Cl: 50

Amber Balanced might makes sense as well, especially if you’re brewing a Northern German Alt. Here’s the Amber Balanced profile:
Ca: 50 | Mg: 10 Na: 15 | SO4: 75 | Cl: 63

 

My experiences brewing a German Altbier
As described earlier, my first brewing experience came from brewing an Alt using a homebrew kit. Since then my friends and I have attempted to refine our extract and all-grain recipes in an attempt to match our favorite commercial German Alts. Our recipe fine-tuning has included experimenting with different German manufacturers of pilsner malt, to changing our mix of secondary malts. We’ve also played with mashing temperatures to find the right balance of a malty but dry Alt. For hops, we have experimented with various traditional German noble hops for bittering, but have stuck with traditional Spalt hops for late additions. Our preferred yeast is Wyeast 1007. As referenced earlier, this strain produces a crazy amount of krausen, so make sure you allow for a greater than normal amount of fermentor headspace. Be prepared to rig a blow-off once fermentation begins to take off. This yeast strain tends to be a little slow starting but picks up steam quickly. It also tends to be a long fermenting strain, so don’t rush things. The krausen also seems to stick around even once fermentation is complete. The manufacturer reports this is a powdery strain that stays in solution a long time, so cold crashing and conditioning are a must for gaining clear Altbier.

For fun, here’s my latest recipe for brewing a German Altbier. This is more of a nod toward a Northern German Alt. My version is also out of style, with an ABV of 5.4%. If you wish to be true to style, you will want to scale your recipe a bit.

Alt ist Neu
Weyermann Pilsner Malt (84.4%)
Melanoiden Malt (9.5%)
Caramel Munich 60L (4.6%)
Black Patent Malt (1.2%)
Brewers Gold (60 mins.) 29 IBUs
Spalter (20 mins.) 4 IBUs
Wyeast #1007
Mash at 156°F
OG: 1.058, FG 1.016
33 IBUs, SRM: 14.3

Those are my experiences. Please share yours. Selfishly I hope your insights will help me to produce the perfect German Altbier. Prost!

Forum discussion about this article can be found here.

By Tom Ayres