Saturday, March 14, 2009

Almost Altbier

Famed for their lagers though they may be (and rightly so), the Germans can whip up a quality ale or two. You may have heard of such top-fermenting all-stars as Hefeweizen, Kölsch and Weizenbock. Add to the list Altbier, the copper-colored, imminently well-balanced ale found most famously in Düsseldorf, in northwest Germany.

Quick beer lesson for those who don't know: "alt" in German means "old," and so the name "altbier" refers litterally to the old style of brewing – that is, the brewing of ales, which was the de facto norm before the development of lager brewing around the 16th century. So really, as much credit as we give Germany's brewing heritage for its impeccable lagers, Altbier offers a glimpse even deeper into the nation's beery past.

With all that said, I took a crack (my first) at an Altbier (BJCP parameters) of my own.

The details, for a 5-gallon (final volume) batch:

OG 1.057 FG 1.010
ABV 6.1% AA 82%
IBUs 54 SRM 12

48.8% (5.25 lbs) German Munich
47.7% (5.125 lbs) German Pilsner
2.3% (0.25 lbs) Caramunich
1% (2 oz) Carafa III

5 IBUs (0.5 oz) Spalt – FWH
47 IBUs (1.05 oz) Magnum – 50 mins
0.5 oz Spalt – 5 mins


That last ingredient should help make sense of the "almost" in this post's title. Of course, genuine Altbier is brewed using a real, Germany-sourced Alt strain – Wyeast 1007 and White Labs 036 are popular choices – and here I've simply used a dry American ale strain. Partly this was out of convenience, but the move was not entirely haphazard: German Alt strains are crisp, clean, dry fermenters, and so is US-05. I fermented at around 60° to help keep ester production to a minimum.

At first, the flavor bordered on off-putting (almost "foot-like," for lack of a better descriptor); this may have been due to the Spalt hops, which I'd not used before. Could simply be an acquired taste. The flavors, as would be expected, mellowed and smoothed out with a bit of lagering. It's now been more than six months in the keg, and still drinking fine.

Yet certainly, this beer is no match for such authentic classics as Zum Uerige or any of the other Düsseldorf beauties I was lucky enough to sample on my visit there. But if nothing else, simply the act of sipping my own attempt reminds me just how sublime Altbier can be. And that, for sure, gives me something to shoot for.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Session #25 – Love Lager

Though some in more Northern – read: still frigid and snowed-under – climes may disagree, with the welcome if gradual warming of the Southeast upon us, John at The Beer Nut picked an appropriate topic for this month's Session. Going "back to basics," John invited us to talk pale lagers: "what's so great about them, and what's awful ... is there a time for some thoughtful considered sipping of a cold fizzy lager?"

I have the luxury of being a week late with this Session post and therefore able to review John's Session roundup and his reaction to how others tackled the subject. Seems John wanted us to go all in with this whole "fizzy, cheap, yellow" thing – not hide behind statements like "Helles is awesome in Munich" or "I drank my weight in Pilsner Urquell in Prague." Which is a pity, because I would enthusiastically offer up both declarations.

No matter. You want cheap beer, you say? Confessions of a macro drinker? You've got the right guy.

I feel no shame in admitting that I've had more than my share of "mega-swill" pass through these kidneys. Like most American males, I cut my teeth on whatever was cheap and plentiful (and alcoholic, let's not forget) – Natty, Beast, Icehouse, High Life, whatever. Does Malt Liquor count? Make mine OE 800. When you're on a budget and have simple tastes, such things will do.

Oh, but why should wealth and sophistication mean we put those days in the rearview? Well into my craft-beer and homebrew days, I have maintained an occasional habit of reaching for the frostiest, fizziest, yellowest, corn-and-riciest beers around. Often I'll go through phases, "committed," almost, to a particular cheap brand until it starts tasting heinous and the novelty wears off. Then I move on. I don't always keep crap beer stocked next to the "real stuff," but periodically some makes it into the fridge. I'm not ashamed.

My tendency toward going low grade is much stronger when drinking outside the home. Here are some times when I am not ashamed – not ashamed, mind you – to take off the beer-snob hat:
  • At tailgates. For most of the football season here in the SEC it's about 130 degrees. You tell me Busch Light isn't refreshing as hell then.
  • At dive bars. You say Natty Light is $1 all day, every day? I'll take 20, thanks. PBR on special? Sign me up.
  • At others' houses/parties. Free Bud Light? Let's see – I have a hand, a mouth and a bladder. I'm in.
  • Just because. Miller Light is on special and drinking it gets me an extra Bingo card? Fine.
  • When I'm in for the long haul. At hardly more than 4% alcohol by volume, the light stuff keeps thirst at bay without packing the wallop of an equal quantity of 6.5% IPA. Sometimes inefficiency's a good thing.
  • When in Rome. Red Stripe, Bohemia, Jupiler, Kronenbourg – all acceptable (and maybe even a little tasty) in their native lands.
So there you have it: One man's lack of shame over tipping back the odd cheapo beer. If given half the chance, I'd do it again. And again. And again.
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