Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:
One of only a handful of traditional German ales. Altbier is Copper-colored, cool-fermented, cold-conditioned, clean-tasting, with an aromatic hop presence, a firm creamy head, a medium body, and a dry finish. It is indigenous to the Rheinland, which is part of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in the northwestern part of Germany, near the Dutch border. The best known Altbiers come from the Düsseldorf, the state capital.
Related beer styles:
A Sip of Altbier
is a Sip of Beer History Itself
"Alt" means "old" an allusion to the old style of brewing. Altbier is an ale, as were virtually all beers of Europe before lagers were invented in Bavaria in the 16th century AD. Altbier is now identified with the Rhineland, especially its capital city of Düsseldorf, barely 50 miles from where the borders of Germany, Holland and Belgium meet. The Altbier is an ancient brew, but it acquired its name and its distinction as a modern beer style only in the 1800s, when it became threatened by the "new" beer, the lager style, which is now the most popular brew in the world. Before that time, in Düsseldorf, Altbier was just "Bier."
Few people are aware that Düsseldorf ranks among the oldest inhabited places on the globe. In fact, Neanderthal, which gave the Neanderthal man his name, is a suburb of Düsseldorf, about 10 miles east of the city center. Herr and Frau Neanderthal roamed the Rhineland some 50 to 100 thousand years ago. The first-ever skeletal remains of these precursors of Homo sapiens (that's us!), was unearthed in Neanderthal in 1858. It is unlikely that Neanderthal man ever made beer, but we have reason to think that his Stone Age successors, the Celtic and Germanic tribes of the Neolithic period, started brewing ales from wild grains in the Rhineland at least 3,000 years ago, and brewing hasn't stopped there since. Because Altbier has evolved from primitive tribal roots, it is arguably the oldest continuously brewed beer style in the world.
In spite of its ancient lineage, Altbier is considered a cool modern brew, sipped by suave Düsseldorfers fom straight-sided 0.2-, 0.3- or 0.4-liter glasses in the city's many ancient brewpubs and ritzy bars. In the city's Altstadt (old town), almost every house, many of which date from the 13th to the 17th centuries, contains a pub. There are more than 200 of them crowded together in an area less than one mile square! The Altstadt mercifully survived the bombings of World War II unscathed. With its cobble-stoned lanes, it is known affectionately as the longest bar inthe world, and it is there that you can find three of the four brewpubs that have defined the Altbier style for our age. Within a few hundred yards from each other, there is the Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen and Zum Schlüssel. In translation, these names mean "at the grouch," at the little fox," and "at the key," respectively. The oldest Altbier brewpub, Schumacher, so-named after its founder Mathias Schumacher, is only a 10-minute walk to the east of the Altstadt. It opened in 1838.
Düsseldorf's climate is not unlike that of Britain. It rarely gets very hot or very cold, ideal for ale making. Altbiers are fermented with a specialty ale yeast at a cool 55°F (13°C) to 67°F (19°C) and then aged for one or two months, like a lager, to bring out its mellow maltiness and aromatic hoppiness.
In Germany overall, Altbier has a market share between two and three percent, but on its home turf, in Düsseldorf, just about every second beer drunk is still an Altbier. Most of it is poured on-premise, tapped from wooden casks. It has an alcohol level of 4.7 to 4.9% by volume.