Altbier sounds like a faintly condescending term, such as “alternative rock” or “alternative lifestyle,” with little to no real meaning regarding its subject. This is not the case for altbier, however.
Historically, “alt” means “old,” a reference to the fact that this is an ancient style whose nomenclature was only finalized in the modern sense in the 1800s, when it became threatened by the “new” style of making beer with bottom-fermenting lager yeast.
A more modern spin on the altbier name refers to the fact that this beer is brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, which is commonly used for all ale styles – such as IPAs, pale ales and stouts as opposed to the typical bottom-fermenting yeast used to make lagers. Since altbiers employ top-fermenting yeast, they showcase all the hallmarks of smooth, easy-drinking, bottom-fermented lagers but are technically ales due to the strain of yeast they are brewed with. Hence the term “alternative beer” or altbier.
Further confounding the issue is the fact that altbier are fermented at cool ale temperatures (59 – 68° F) and then conditioned and lagered at colder bottom-fermentation temperatures (roughly 50° F).
Either way, altbier originated in the historical region of Westphalia and are a specialty of the German city of Düsseldorf (hence the spelling of beer as “bier”). It is still one of the most popular beer styles in that city.
Well-made altbier should be balanced, attenuated, clean and smooth and should exhibit a clean, sharp bitterness tempered by a strong, sweet malt character. Generally, they should drink like a classic lager, but with a higher level of hop bitterness. The color is similarly lager-like, with amber coloration laced with darker copper hues being the norm.
Another discerning characteristic of altbier is its full flavor profile, far different from the often dull lagers that replaced it in 19th century Düsseldorf, though they retain the light-bodied and sessionable elements of those beers as well.
The malt tends to be the more prominent element of an altbier’s ingredient list, with German base malt varietals in the forefront such as Pils, Munich and trace amounts of crystal, chocolate and black malts to adjust the color. Rich nutty and bready flavors emanate from the malt bill and are balanced and accentuated by the use of Saaz or Spalt hops, which provide a spicy, herbal and perfume-like character – creating a fascinating blend of malty earthiness and fragrant hop-forward aromas and flavors.
The finest examples of altbier are found straight from the source in Düsseldorf, though a few American breweries are beginning to experiment with this ancient style, though often with higher alcohol strengths in the sticke or doppelsticke categories.
OG: 1.044 – 1.052
IBU: 25 – 50
SRM: 11 – 17
ABV: 4.3 – 5.5%
Commercial Examples: Bolten Alt, Diebels Alt, Füchschen Alt, Original Schlüssel Alt, Schlösser Alt, Schumacher Alt, Uerige Altbier, Union Craft Brewing Balt Altbier, Summit Unchained #20 Sticke Alt