In the days of old, before the advent of railroads, freeways, and automobiles, people traveled less. The distances between the cities and towns felt further than it does today. Commerce did occur, of course. But generally, each village was a semi-isolated community where residents identified more strongly as citizens of the town than of the nation or state.
This relative isolation led to the creation of local specialties – crafts, cheese, cuisine, and even beer. Brewers brewed beers that were adapted to locally available ingredients and water supplies. Einbeck had bock beer. Dortmund had Dortmunder lager, a strong-ish, balanced, golden, lager with a pronounced hop presence. There was the weissbier of Berlin and the altbier of Düsseldorf. It’s not that these brewers set out to create a “style,” they just made beer the way it was made in that particular place.
Düsseldorf’s altbier wasn’t always called “alt,” the German word meaning “old.” It was once just called “beer.” Through the 1800s the new-fangled lager beers were on the rise. The crisp, clean, cold-fermented brews caught the imagination of beer drinkers and quickly spread across the land. But there were a few holdouts. In places like Düsseldorf and Cologne brewers clung to their old-style, top-fermenting ales. And so the term “alt” was applied to differentiate them from the rapidly encroaching “new” beer.
Altbier is an amber-colored, malt-forward style that features the warm, nutty, toasted bread flavors of German, kilned malts. Bitterness can be assertive, but is never harsh. Low notes of spicy, German hops complete the picture. It’s a crisp, easy-drinking beer designed to enhance social gatherings.
While it was originally a wider regional specialty, altbier is now heavily associated with Düsseldorf and especially with that city’s Altstadt or “Old City.” The city center was mercifully spared bombardment during World War II, leaving its cobblestone streets and medieval structures intact. With over 300 bars, the Altstadt is known in Germany as “the longest bar in the world.” It is the historical and cultural heart of the city.
The Altstadt is also the heart of modern altbier. Many of the brewpubs that have defined the style for our age are located there within a few hundred yards of each other, including the famous Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen and Zum Schlüssel. The oldest altbier brewpub, Schumacher, is only a 10-minute walk. It opened in 1838. There are bigger altbier breweries, but these quaint, old pubs where beer is poured from wooden casks, are the best place to get the true feel of the style. A relaxed stroll from one pub to the next is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Altbier is drunk from distinctive, straight-sided glasses in 0.2-, 0.3- or 0.4-liter sizes. When your glass is empty, waiters will quickly set a new one down in front of you, making a mark on your coaster to keep track of how many you’ve had. The beer will just keep coming until you tell them to stop.
The Altstadt of Düsseldorf is one of the stops on the Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour – A Taste of the Rhine River. We’ve teamed up with Altbier Safari to give you guided tours and samplings at five Altstadt brewpubs – Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen, Schumacher, Brauerei Kürzer, and Zum Schlüssel. You’ll taste the best that altbier has to offer in the place that it was meant to be experienced.
In addition to altbier in Düsseldorf, A Taste of the Rhine River will take you to a kölsch brewery in Cologne, and wineries on the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. We’ll visit castles, cruise the Rhine, and end up at the greatest beer festival on earth, the Munich Oktoberfest. It’s going to be a great trip.
To learn more or to sign up visit our friends at Defined Destinations.