Beer and wine

The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: Altbier

When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.

Style

Altbier

History Lesson

Remember our history lesson on kölsch? Well Dusseldorf, located 30 miles from Cologne, has the same tradition of brewing cold-conditioned ales (or ale-lager hybrids, depending on whom you ask). While kölsch, however, is pale-colored and subtly hopped, altbier is copper-colored with robust, earthy hop bitterness.

Altbier emerged as a style over time, but has a definitive birthday (or at least birthyear) when it comes to branding. In 1838, Matthias Schumacher, founder of Brauerie Ferdinand Schumacher, branded Dusseldorf’s previously nameless local style alt (old). This name was a reference to traditional ale brewing techniques, and caught on with Dusseldorf’s other breweries.

BJCP Description

“A well-balanced, well-attenuated, bitter yet malty, clean, and smooth, amber-to-copper-colored German beer. The bitterness is balanced by the malt richness, but the malt intensity and character can range from moderate to high (the bitterness increases with the malt richness).”

Fun Fact

Dusseldorf’s beer culture is similar to Cologne’s: beer halls staffed by köbessen, carrying trays of stanges, all filled with altbier. The only real difference between the two cities? Dusseldorf’s glasses are slightly larger. From an outsider’s perspective, the beer rivalry between these cities is much like the Army-Navy football rivalry, with fierce competition between two entities who are a lot more alike than different.

Third Coast Review’s Take

Altbier is the perfect encapsulation of my preferences: Rich caramel malt flavor is balanced by firm hop bitterness, all within a relatively light-bodied, low-abv. beer.

I Tried

  1. Alaskan Amber
  2. Maplewood What’s Old is New
  3. Kinslahger Altbier
  4. Dovetail Altbier
  5. Pollyanna Roselare 3rd Anniversary Altbier Sticke

First brewed in 1988, Alaskan Amber is a hybrid that utilizes American and European hops while keeping altbier’s traditional cold fermentation. In that way, it’s much like what Great Lakes’ Elliot Ness is to Vienna Lager: an American reinterpretation, instead of a faithful recreation.

This rich, malty and smooth beer has hung around for more than three decades for a reason. It has won medals in categories ranging from “Alt” or “Dusseldorf-style” to “Amber Lager” and “Irish-Style Red Ale.” Seeing it on a menu is something of a personal litmus test, telling me that a bar or restaurant was thoughtful about its beer list.

Maplewood What’s Old is New is very light-bodied, but with rich, toasty flavors emerging nonetheless. I thought it got more complex (in a good way) as I drank, with slightly tart subtleties emerging over time.

Like Maplewood, Kinslahger’s altbier has a really nice mix of rich malt and bitter hops, all contained in a relatively light body. The deep copper color was noticeably darker than its peers, but it’s an otherwise standard take on the style.

Dovetail’s pithy descriptions tend to do my job for me. The side of Dovetail Altbier reads “old word, bitter, sessionable.” It’s as advertised: this brew provides pronounced earthy hop bitterness alongside an inviting 4.2% abv. Keep an eye out for this seasonal release the next time it’s available.

Altbier sticke is an amped-up version of the style that’s typically darker, more bitter, and higher alcohol. Pollyanna’s version is named in honor of its Roselle brewery (one of three suburban locations). It has a noticeably heavier mouthfeel than a typical altbier, with rich earthy hop bitterness.

Interested in trying this limited release? While Pollyanna’s website does not currently list it among its available beers, you can still snag a can from Beermiscous‘ Lakeview location.

Up Next

We wrap up cold fermentation with cream ale.

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