In Search Of Altbier, Researching, and Brewing Düsseldorf Style Altbier

This one is for you Doc.

This tale takes us back to the summer of 2005. Our hero was 25 years old, and brewing on a clapped out old 15 bbl, 2 vessel brew house. The hero, and his partner Diamond Dave were working 60-70 hours a week, all summer long. We were brewing 3 batches a day, and bottling, and delivering beer in a box truck. I was saving a lot of cash. I was paid by the hour, and I was working to damned much to spend any of the money I was making. One Saturday I had finished working, and was sitting at the bar of the old pub. A cute little blond haired hippy girl was working. Her name was Erin Kaiser. She was telling me about all the traveling she had done. We were just shootn’ the shit. Then she said something that changed my life. “Isn’t there anywhere you want to go?” I got a sad feeling. Here I was in what is supposed to be the prime of my life and all I could think about is what I had to get done. (Work) I said, “I want to go to Germany. My old boss Rudy Wagner from the bakery used to talk about Germany. I want to go there.” I realized I was at a place in life that I could make this happen. I had planned on going that fall, but for whatever reason I could not make it happen. I put another year behind me, and made it happen in 2006.

This was my first trip overseas. We (My ole sweetie, and I) flew in, and out of Munich. I don’t remember the exact itinerary. I think we spent 3 days in Munich, hopped a train to Köln for 4 days then back to Munich for 3 more days, and Oktoberfest. We fought more in those 10 days than we had the entire 4 years that we had been together. (We spent 12 years together) I thought I knew where we should go, and Star actually knew. I remembered the words of Don Salter, an older fella working for us at the brewery, “you can be right or you can be happy.” I let her lead the way and things got better.

Drinking a Liter in Munchen
Drinking a Liter in Munchen

After a few days in Köln I figured out that we did not have time to stay in Düsseldorf. We decided to make a day trip out of it. Early one morning we grabbed a train and headed up the Rhine to Düsseldorf. We some how got our hands on a map, and started making our way to the Altstodt. (this is German for Old Town. It is the old part of town in the middle. I would call it down town.) On our way to the altstodt I spotted a place that had a beer garten out front with umbrellas that said “Frankenheim Alt” Holy Shit! This is it! It has taken me 5 years of beer-geek-dom, but I am going to taste real Alt. The beer geek books had told me that Altbier was hoppy, and amber colored. The German answer to pale ale! Frankenheim Alt was the color of dunkel (both the wheat beer we brewed at Fish, and the lager in München) It tasted roasty, and nutty. Nothing like I thought it was supposed to taste. This first Alt was served in ½ liter mugs not the traditional 0.25L glass. I took some notes, and we moved on.

Some how, we finally found the Altstodt. I was getting hungry, so we found a promising looking place, and walked in. We found seats, and a dude came over. I asked “Habben zee Altbier?” This is when Dude figured out that we were dumb-shit tourist from America. He started speaking English to us. Asking if they have Alt in Düsseldorf is like asking the Pope if he is Catholic. The Ober (that is what they call waiters in Köln, and Düsseldorf) brought us a couple of cute lil’ glasses of copper colored beer, along with menus. I looked at the menu and spotted Nachos. I thought, “I wander what nachos are like in Germany?!?” That was dumb move #2. I got some strange chips, and a sauce that I think was suppose to be salsa. It was like ketchup with a lot of corn starch in it. The beer on the other hand was nice. It was a medium bodied beer of copper color, and had some roasty chocolate notes. All of the beer I drank in Germany was pretty light bodied for my pallet. Back in these days 90% of our beers at Fish Brewing had a mash rest temperature of 158º and 160ºF. (blonde, amber, pale ale, hefeweizen and dunkel) giving them a heavy mouth feel. Our blonde had a gravity of 13-14 Plato. I did not know what a light bodied beer was. I can say with out a doubt that my euro travels have changed the way I brew 4.5-5.5% ABV beers. In Germany a standard gravity beer is 11.5º-12.5° Plato and well attenuated (brewer’s speak for not having a lot of complex sugars left after fermentation) Wine folks would call this “dry”.

fuchshen duesseldorf_schumacher_alt schumacher-alt alt

We spent all day just walking around from bier hall to beer hall. Drinking beer, and taking notes. I noted that some of the alts had a hop presence very much like Sam Adam’s Boston lager, and some where more malt accented. Zum Uerige was so bitter it lingered on your tongue like some American IPAs. I even had an Alt that was similar to Alaskan Amber (I think a talented pallet could finger Alaskan Amber as not being a true Alt. If it was in a line up of real Alts.)

urrige

At the Zum Uerige Bier hall we ran into an older fella that saw me taking photographs of my beer, and writing notes. We started chatting; he spoke as much English as I did German. (I have no fucking idea how we communicated, hell for all I know I told him I was a famous porn star) He told me that Uerige was the best Alt in Düsseldorf; it was less filling and good for your prostate. (Good to know) The ole fella told me that there was good bier in Bamberg, (That was a good tip!) I told old fella that I was an American brewer, and that I used to be a baker before that. At some point someone came out from the brewery (or kitchen?) to talk to me. I was having trouble understanding him, and said, “Spreken zee English?” he said, “I am trying.” (woops!). Brewer dude gave me a book on Düsseldorf. I hope some day to be able to read it. It is all in German. Mid way through our adventurous day, we stopped in at the Düsseldorf Starbucks for a re-fuel. This was about the time Star stopped ordering her own bier, and just tasted mine. At the end of the day we stopped at a grocery for some water and a couple of bottles of Alt to take home. I had a book full of scribbly notes, and was ready to go home to try to home brew a real Altbier.

Back in the states I continued to store up info on Alt.. I found a magazine article in The New Brewer that was written by the brew master from Zum Uerige. I listened to The Jamil Show Altbier episode. I took notes, and wrote home brew recipes. I never actually got around to brewing alt at home. Time passed, and I moved up to the head brewer position at Fish.

The marketing folks always wanted another beer for the Leavenworth brand. Our GM was against tying up tanks for lager, but thought we could crank out alt like our other ales. I thought Alt needed 30 days of cold conditioning just like they do in Germany. We met somewhere in the middle. These days our Alt gets 14 days of tank time before it is filtered, and sent to a packaging tank. (These days I no longer work at Fish Brewing. They no longer make an Altbier.) Out of the gate, the Alt was a challenge. It was one of the first recipes I formulated professionally. I wanted to put an Alt in the hands of American beer drinkers that tasted like an imported beer, only fresh. I used German malt, and German hops to get a German taste (pretty simple shit). Our Leavenworth house yeast just happened to be Wyeast 1007 German Ale (the Altbier strain). It took me a wile to dial in the fermentation of the alt. I was not confident in my ability to smell diacetyl, and the confident person on the team would have me chill beer with diacetyl in it. Once Al Triplett showed up at Fish. I became much more confident in my ability to smell diacetyl, and got our Alt fermentation dialed in.

The Alt was one of my biggest successes as a brewer. It was featured on the Brewing Network’s Can You Brew It? Show. The brewing network’s founder Justin Crossly tasted our alt, and felt it was very true to style. http://www.thebrewingnetwork.com/post1610/ We won metals for it at the LA international commercial beer competition, and the North American Beer Awards. For 2010, and part of 2011 the beer coming out of Olympia was second to none in the world. Commercially the Alt was a little lack-luster. I liked it as well as a few other beer dorks. We would brew a bunch of it, and then it will sit in our ware house for 3 months until it is past its sell date. Then the next month it would fly out the door. We talked about replacing it, and then we got more orders for it. It refused to die. It seems most folks here in the northwest just want to drink IPA.

PS These days my former employer no longer brews the Leavenworth 8 mile Alt

8-mile-alt

Recipe for 33 bbls of AltBier:

This recipe assumes you are brewing on a typical American single step infusion mash brew house with a steam fired kettle.

31 IBUs, 4.6% ABV, 11.5˚ Plato 23 SRM

Wyeast 1007 yeast. Pitch at 1 mil. cells/mL/P˚ and ferment at 60˚ F. Terminal gravity should be 3.2˚ Plato.

Mash at 154˚ F for 90 min. (note: with water in Bellevue WA USA I do not need to adjust my water chemistry for the mash. I add Ca, and Mg to the boil for yeast nutrition)

Boil for 120 min.

Malt Bill in US pounds:

Best Malz Pilsner Malt; 1017.5# 60.9%

Best Malz Munich Malt; 440# 26%

Great Western White Wheat Malt; 100# 6.2%

Briess Carapils Malt; 50# 3.1%

Weyermann CaraMunich 2; 55# 3.1%

Weyermann Carafa Spl 2; 12# 0.7%

Hop Bill;

German Hallertau Tradition 6.9% AA .081#/BBL for 60 min.

German Tettnanger 3% AA  0.35#/BBL in the whirl pool

German Hallertau Tradition 6.9% AA 0.58#/BBL in the whirl pool

Water Chemistry adjustment added to boil kettle at the same time as the 60 min. hops:

MgSO4 9.3 grams/BBL

CaCl2 21.7 grams/BBL

 

 

 

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