Altbier (German for 'old beer') is a style of beer originating in Germany. It was first brewed in the historical region of Westphalia and is a speciality of the city of Düsseldorf. Its name comes from its production using the technique of top fermentation, an older method than bottom fermentation, characteristic of lager styles of beer.
Altbier is usually a dark copper colour. It is brewed at a moderate temperature using a top-fermenting yeast which gives its flavour some fruitiness, but matured at a cooler temperature, which gives it a cleaner and crisper taste more akin to lager beer styles than is the norm for top-fermented beers, such as British pale ale.
Altbier in Germany
Altbier is the dominant beer variety in the Lower Rhine region and especially in the towns of Düsseldorf, Krefeld and Mönchengladbach. The first producer to use the name Alt to contrast its top fermenting beer with the bottom fermenting kinds was the Schumacher brewery of Düsseldorf which opened in 1838.
The market leader in terms of volume sold is Diebels, a brand within the InBev brewing empire. Other mass-market brewers of Altbier include the Radeberger Gruppe under the brands Schlösser Alt and Hansa Alt. These are complemented by small breweries, predominantly based in Düsseldorf.
Some Altbier breweries have a tradition of producing a stronger version known as Sticke Alt, coming from a local dialect word meaning "secret", originally a special reserve beer intended for the brewers' own consumption. It is generally a seasonal or special occasion brew, and is stronger in taste and alcohol as well as darker than the brewery's standard output.
Producers in Düsseldorf
There are nine bars in Düsseldorf which brew Altbier on the premises:
- Alter Bahnhof (Gulasch Alt)
- Brauhaus Joh Albrecht (Johann Albrecht Alt)
- Vereinshaus Unterbach (Unterbacher Dröppke)
- Brauerei Möhker
Füchschen, Uerige, Schlüssel and Kürzer are all brewed and sold in the Old Town (Altstadt). Schumacher is located between the Altstadt and the main train station (Hauptbahnhof), although it also has a pub in the Altstadt, Goldener Kessel, directly across the street from Schlüssel.
Each brewpub produces a seasonal "Sticke" variant in small quantities, though the names vary: Schlüssel spells it "Stike", without the "c", while Schumacher calls its special beer "Latzenbier", meaning "slat beer", possibly because the kegs from which it was poured had been stored on raised shelves. Füchschen's seasonal is its Weihnachtsbier (Christmas beer), available in bottles starting mid-November, and served in the brewpub on Christmas Eve.
Producers outside Düsseldorf
Altbier has been produced in the city of Venlo in the Netherlands since at least 1753. Venlo is on the border to Germany approximately 50 km (30 miles) from Düsseldorf. The beer was produced up until the Second World War but then had a hiatus until its revival in 1983. It is produced by the Lindeboom brewery, who bought the recipe in 2001.
Altbier is also brewed in small quantities in Austria, Switzerland, the United States, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Altbier is also brewed in the United States, though not always to traditional recipes. Great Basin Brewing Company produces and bottles Wild Horse Ale, which is billed as an alt-style ale. "Copper Alt" from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, North Carolina is based on the original Düsseldorf Altbier style. Arbor Brewing Company of Michigan produces "Olde Number 22" altbier as a seasonal specialty.
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