As the fall season begins, I start to get a hankering for more hearty beers. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just make a leap into drinking heavier beers straight away. I need some beers that will ease my palate into the heavier brews of winter. There are lots of beer-style choices to consider brewing during this transitional season. My “go-to” beer for fall is a German Altbier. To me, it’s the perfect blend of hearty and easy drinking.
For those unfamiliar with this style, Altbier 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:
|Original Gravity:||1.044-1.052 OG|
|Final Gravity:||1.008-1.014 FG|
|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|
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 Altbiers 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)
|1.046-1.054 (11.4-13.3 °P)||1.010-1.015|
|25-40||13-19 SRM |
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)
|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 |
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 it’s 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 brewers. Many craft versions taste like overly hoppy Amber Ales. 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.
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%.
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.
Any German noble hop would be good choices. The classic Altbier hop is Spalt. This hop adds a bold, spicy flavor and aroma to an Altbier.
Other popular choices include Magnum, Perle, Mount Hood, Northern Brewer, and Brewers Gold.
The authentic Altbier mash is a decoction. For the less adventurous brewer, mash at 148-152°F
White Labs offers a Dusseldorf Alt yeast (WLP036). Wyeast offers a German Ale yeast (1007). Altbier 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 68°F depending on the specific yeast you choose.
When brewing an Altbier, consider 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
My first brewing experience came from brewing an Altbier using a homebrew kit. Since then my friends and I have worked to refine our extract and all-grain recipes in an attempt to match our favorite commercial German Altbier. Our recipe fine-tuning has included experimenting with different German manufacturers of pilsner malt and 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. When considering yeasts, Wyeast 1007 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 start slowly but then 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. WLP036 seems to ferment very differently. My experience has been that it starts in less than 8 hours and finishes super quickly.
I scoured the internet for some more well known recipes to consider brewing. The first is a Northern Altbier (despite the name) and the second is a Dusseldorf style.
Doozie Dusseldorf Altbier Recipe (Northern German Altbier): Craft Beer & Brewing
OG: 1.054, FG: 1.014
- 4 pounds Pilsner Liquid Malt Extract
- 2 pounds Munich Liquid Malt Extract
- 1 pound Dark Munich
- 1 pound German Pilsner
- 0.5 pounds Caramunich II
- 0.25 pounds Carafa I
- 0.25 pounds White Wheat Malt
- 0.25 pounds Melanoiden Malt
- 1.25 oz. Perle at 60 mins
- 1 oz. Spalt at 15 minutes
- 1 oz. Spalt at 5 minutes
Yeast: German Ale (Wyeast 1007/2565) or White Labs WLP036/029
Directions: Chill to 62 degrees and hold for one week, then let free-rise to high 60s degrees to finish. After conditioning, age cold for 3 weeks or more.
Dusseldorf Altbier: American Homebrewers Association
OG: 1.053, FG: 1.012
Boil Time: 60 minutes
Pre-boil Volume: 3 gallons
- 2 Cans (6.6 pounds) Light Malt Extract
- 1.25 pounds Light Liquid Munich Malt Extract
- 0.5 pounds Special B Malt (120L)
- 0.5 pounds Caramunich Malt (60L)
- 0.25 pounds Carafa Malt (400L)
- 1.5 oz. Perle Hops, 8.75% AA (60 mins)
- 1.0 oz. Tettnang Hops, 4.5% AA (15 mins)
Yeast: 2 packages Wyeast 1007 or White Labs WLP036 Dusseldorf Alt yeast, or White Labs WLP029 German Ale / Kolsch yeast
Directions: Steep the grains in 2 gallons of cool water. Heat the water to 170 degrees, then strain the grains. Stir in the malt extract and add enough water to bring the volume up to 3 gallons, and bring to a boil. Add bittering hops and boil for 45 minutes, then add aroma hops and rehydrated Irish moss (0.75 tsp) and continue boiling for 15 minutes. Cool the wort, and then pour into fermenter with enough cold water to make 5.5 gallons. Aerate and pitch the yeast once the temperature drops to 65 degrees. Ferment at 65-68 degrees until fermentation is complete. Age the beer for one week at 65 degrees.
Altbier is my suggestion for what beer you should be brewing now. Please share your suggestions for which beer styles to brew for fall. Prost!