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.