The Creation of an Altbier

(Ben) I brew a lot of Düsseldorf Altbier; it’s one of the first two styles of beer I made. Most people go for a pale, a stout and/or an Irish red; all great styles, don’t get me wrong, and I love them very much. But I decided I wanted an Alt. Altbier is a German style that predates lagering†, so one would think it’s a perfect match for a beginner with no lagering ability, but it’s a real beast to make a good one.

About 4-5 years of alts later, I’m pretty good at it. I have my own opinions about how it should be brewed which differ from others; I like mine. I’ve tasted some poor examples and some great ones.

I’ll explain what happened from my notes. First, I ran out of Gypsum and Calcium Chloride. Annoying. But then my mash-in hit the perfect pre-decoction rest temp of 122.3 that I typically aim for, so I was hopeful. Then I decocted; but that first decoction step only hit 140F, when it was supposed to hit 144.5. That didn’t make any sense. Simple math said it should hit the right decoction temp. As the decoction went on, I experienced more and more errors. I broke my thermometer, or it broke somehow. Either way; we aren’t really sure what the temps were because the backup thermometer wasn’t calibrated. Five decoctions later, I’d finally hit all of the steps for what was supposed to be a double decoction, but I was worried about too much tannin in the batch from boiling the grains. I achieved a brewhouse efficiency of 72.4% despite all of that.

duss-25.5%, what it finished at, is 1% too alcoholic for the style, but we bottle carbed with dextrose and after about a month the slight alcoholic heat faded away. Initially, I tasted raisin, caramel and a light mineral finish, with Munich flavor and hop bitter, paired up with an unexpected fruitiness. In short, this was the worst batch of Altbier I brewed in years (or so I thought).

Full of disappointment, I brought some to a UNYHA meeting just for laughs, not intending to enter it into the competition that I brewed it for. The feedback was disappointing.

“I’m not sure what this style is supposed to taste like,” one person said. “It tastes like balsamic vinegar,” said another.

“What were you trying for?” followed by “It’s ok.”

I went home with my head hung low. At the very last possible minute, however, I entered it into the competition, expecting some feedback along the lines of “Just quit brewing and save our taste buds.”

(Meagan) The UNYHA competition was last Saturday. In addition to the alt, we entered a couple of Belgian-style beers, and we also got to help with the judging (for other categories, of course).

duss-3Due to the nature of the 2008 BJCP guidelines, Düsseldorf Altbier falls into the Amber Hybrid category, which includes the Northern German Alt, Düsseldorf Alt, and California Common styles. These three are grouped together (most likely) because California Common is (reportedly) descended from Dampfbier, another old German style.

Having nothing to do for a while between the afternoon judging session and the awards banquet, we decided to observe the Best of Show judges. They had an Altbier on the table, and from the judges’ description of the aroma and flavor, I thought it was probably ours. But before I could get too excited at the possibility that our alt was in the BOS round, I reminded myself that there could have been any number of Altbier entries, and there was no reason to assume we’d brewed the one in question. Until it got kicked off the BOS table, at which point we had a chance to taste it.

“This is ours,” I whispered to Ben. The particular combination of tannins, hop bitterness, and fruity notes in that batch were unique and recognizable. The fact that it was in the Best of Show round meant that the Dsseldorf Altbier had placed in its category, but just like everyone else, we had to wait until after the banquet, when the awards were announced, to find out exactly how our entries did. When the contest organizer (thanks for all your hard work, Tom) announced that our alt had placed first in the Hybrid Beer category—a somewhat ‘collapsed’ flight of Kölsch, American Wheat or Rye, California Common and Düsseldorf Altbier—I could hardly contain my goofy grin.

duss

The blue-and-gold ribbon is for the Alt

A ridiculously frustrating brew day, our first competition, and the danged thing won a first-place ribbon. Go figure.

Sample Düsseldorf Altbier recipe:

This recipe occurred in a November 2004 article in BYO, courtesy of Hurst Dornbusch.

10.66 lbs. Munich Type I malt
10.75 AAU Spalt hops
1.2 oz. (33 g) Spalt hops (aroma)
Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) or
White Labs WLP029
(German Ale) yeast

Resources:

†”Altbier.” German Beer Institute: The German Beer Portal for North America. German Beer Institute. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

‡”Category 7 — Amber Hybrid Beer.” BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines. Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

 

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Meagan loves words, and frequently combines them into stories and articles, very often involving tasty libations. She enjoys writing about the intersection of beer (or spirits) and life. This is her blog. You can find her on Twitter @meagwil, or shoot a regular ol' email to meaganwilson@burntgraphite.net.

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