Beer School: Altbiers

AltbierI celebrated my birthday this year at Proletariat and, planning to start my celebration right, I walked up to the bar and requested the bartenders suggestions based on my taste in beer which I confidently recited with one new addition to my list of preferred styles, Altbiers.

What is an Altbier, you ask?  Excellent question!  Once I had my gateway Altbier (Greenport Harbor Brewing Company Sapsuckers Anniversary #4) at a tasting, I had to find out myself.  What follows is a brief history:

Altbier is an ancient (potentially more than 3,000 years old!) dark ale or brown ale that originated in Dusseldorf, Germany and, until the advent of “lagers” in the 1800s, was simply known as “bier” in the region.  As lagers grew in popularity around Europe, the brewers of “bier” in Dusseldorf began to distinguish what they were making as an ale, the “old” style (“Alt” is german for “old”).

Others maintain that the name comes from the latin for top or high (alta) because the yeast is a top fermenting yeast.  This brings us to the question “So what is so unique about Altbiers as compared to other ales?”  It’s all in the yeast.  The yeast used in an Altbier likes cooler temperatures (remember, Altbiers are brown ales and typically ale yeasts like warmer temps…).  This allows the beer to be fermented warm and then conditioned for an extended period of time at cool temps in wooden casks.  The extended cool conditioning really rounds things out, mellows out the fruity-ness of a typical ale and “takes the edge” off the large hop load that is in an Altbier.  For those of you feeling super beer nerdy, yes, a Kolsch is also an ale that is fermented warm and has a long cool conditioning phase, the difference here is that Alts have a lot more hops that a Kolsch.

Altbiers are typically a full bodied beer with lovely copper or bronze color with a hit of bitterness well balanced by malty sweetness.

And theeeeeennn there’s the Sticke-Alt or “Secret Old.”  Herein lies my birthday beer.   The style started out as a small batch brewed only a twice a year (in January and October), the recipe for which is not shared.  While the batches are larger now, they are still brewed only twice a year.  Sticke Alts are typically higher in ABV, richer, maltier, roasties, darker and more complex – I often find a few chocolate notes.  Yes, it’s my favorite permutation of an Altbier.  Here are a few that I have tried lately.

Freigeist Hoppeditz: Sugary but dry in that lovely stickealt way. A small hint of smoke, earthy and caramel-y with a hint of spice at the back

Uerige Obergärige Hausbrauerei DoppelSticke: Sweet with raisins, dark fruit and figs.  Caramel and nuts too.

Greenport Harbor Brewing Company Sapsuckers Anniversary #4: Chocolatie, amber, malty and smooth.  My gateway Alt

Off Color Brewing Scurry: Maple, molasses, caramel, malty and roasty

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