True story. A few days ago I had a dream about a new Minnesota brewery that made only German altbier. They made multiple varieties of altbier, most of which I had not even known existed. I was personally excited by this. I love altbier. But I remember telling the owner that his business plan seemed ill advised. Altbier is kind of an obscure style here in the US. And American consumers expect that breweries will make beers in a range of styles, unless the style that they make is overloaded with hops. In which case they can make as many variations of the same style as they want.
The notion of an all-altbier brewery did indeed seem strange in my dream. Yet, if you go to Düsseldorf, Germany, you will find not just one, but many breweries making nothing but altbier. It’s a whole city of altbier brewers.
“Altbier” in German means “old beer.” The term refers not to the age of the beer, but to the mode of production. Germans started making lager beers as early as the 1400s. Bottom fermenting yeast strains adapted for cold temperatures developed accidentally in the country’s south as a result of winter brewing and cave aging. Cold fermentation inhibited the growth of bacteria and other spoiling agents. Lager beers tasted cleaner than their top-fermenting counterparts. They had a longer shelf life and were therefore suited to wider distribution.
Over the period of a few hundred years, lager brewing gradually took over in the Garman-speaking realm. But a few cities clung tenaciously to their old (read “alt”) ale brewing traditions. One of those was Cologne or Köln, home of Kölsch, where in 1603 city leaders outlawed the making of bottom-fermented beer.
A little further downstream along the Rhine River was another holdout town, Düsseldorf. There are at least five altbier brewpubs located in the old city center (altstadt) of Düsseldorf. A number of other breweries making the style are located in and around the city outside the altstadt. They all brew beer that falls into a fairly narrow profile – amber to almost brown colored with assertive bitterness and complex, balancing maltiness reflecting kilned malt types. But each brewers imbues the beer with their own unique stamp. Some are bitterer, others lean more toward malt. Some are lighter, others more rich and filling. But these differences aside, when you are in Düsseldorf, altbier is what you drink.
Sticke (“secret”) Alt is a special variant on the altbier style that is brewed for special occasions, usually only twice a year. It is stronger, richer, and fuller-bodied than the typical altbier. Hopping rates are higher. 60 IBU is not unheard of for the style. But the malt profile is bolder as well. Sticke alt gushes with the nutty and toasty notes of kilned malt, occasionally overlaid with hints of bitter chocolate.
Summit brewer Mike Lundell has veered from his IPA track to create a Sticke altbier as the 20th installment in the brewery’s popular Unchained Series. The new beer hits the streets on draft and in bottles starting the week of October 12th. You can party with Lundell and the Summit crew at the Muddy Pig on October 14th from 5 – 7 PM.
Here’s my notes:
Aroma: Malty with low supporting hops. Malt is bread crust with low nutty and toasty background notes. Hops are low – spicy/herbal, a touch of licorice. Clean fermentation.
Appearance: Dark mahogany and brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory to beige head with excellent retention.
Flavor: Malt forward but with ample hop balance. Bread crust, toast, caramel-like melanoidin, and a hint of dark chocolate and coffee. Medium-low sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-high, but sharp and firm. Low spicy/herbal hop flavor – again with the hint of licorice, even mint. Clean fermentation. Finish is very dry with lingering malt – melanoidin and roast – and spicy hop flavor.
Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Some creaminess.
Overall Impression: Typically I’ll drink a first sample of a beer to form an impression and then write notes on the second. I’m writing these on the fourth sample. I like the first so much that it demanded another and another (not all on the same night). This beer hits all of my buzzers; lager-like fermentation, toasted malt flavors, malt-forward with ample supporting hops that are spicy, not fruity, in character. In short, it’s my kind of beer.