One of the things that drives me nuts living in the states is that it is almost impossible to find that delicious Alt bier that exists in Dusseldorf, Germany; where my family resides. Whenever I get to visit Germany, one of my favorite things to indulge in is a trip to the Altstadt and enjoy a few nice ,2 cl glasses of Alt Bier out by the Rhein. I usually make a point to bring home a few bottles with me (this year; I brought back three liters of Schumacher Alt), but that normally gets drank fairly quickly upon return stateside.
German Altbier or Alt is a top fermenting beer that originated in the German Westphalia region and later grew in popularity around the Rhineland. This week we take a look at brewing Altbier at home. The term “Alt” or “old beer” refers to the old methods of using a top fermenting ale yeast at ale temperatures but then cold aging the beer to form a slightly bitter, malty, well attenuated German ale. The term Altbier first appeared in the 1800′s to differentiate this traditional ale from newer pale lagers getting popular in Germany.
The BJCP recognizes two distinct style of Altbier, the Dusseldorf Alt is primarily produced near the town of Dusseldorf, and is slightly more bitter than the more widely brewed Northern German Altbier. The Northern version generally has a slight caramel flavor and is sweeter and less bitter than the Dusseldorf. Some Altbiers are also produced in small quantities in the Netherlands near the German border as well as Austria, Switzerland and the US microbreweries.
So, since it is very difficult to find here (I think I have only seen Frankenheim Alt once or twice in Connecticut), I decided to try and brew some of my own with a couple friends. It wasn’t quite as good as what I had out in Germany, but it was a fair substitute, and hopefully as I improve my home brewing abilities I can improve and make it more like the Alt Bier I had in Dusseldorf.
Getting the ingredients
If you’ve never brewed beer before; it’s really not that difficult and actually quite enjoyable. I went to a local brew supply store (Blackstone Valley Brewing) with two of my friends in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The place was very small but had everything in stock.
I went in asking about Alt Bier. I didn’t expect anyone would be familiar with it since it is such a localized brew (as far as I know; Dusseldorf is primarily where this beer hails from. I’ve traveled quite a bit over Germany and even in-country it can be difficult to find Alt).
To my surprise the guy who was working there pulled a bottle out of his fridge, popped the top, and gave me a cup with some Alt bier he had just brewed. It was very good; again not quite like what I had in Germany, but still delicious!
For about $120 I purchased everything I needed to brew up the beer, except for the bottles themselves. The starter kit I purchased was identical to this home beer brewing kit on Amazon. All in all I like the kit, I wasn’t sure at first if I should be using plastic pails or glass carboys but the consensus seems to be that for beer, it really doesn’t matter. If you want to make wine at some point, you might be better off getting the glass carboys. I paid about $90 for it locally from the brew shop.
I also purchased the ingredients for the beer, which I found on a home brewing site. The ingredients in this particular Alt include:
- 4 oz. Munich Malt
- 4 oz. Vienna Malt
- 4 oz. Wheat Malt
- 4 oz. Crystal Malt
- Muslin Bag
- 6 lb. light malt extract
- 2 oz. Bitter Hops (Spalt)
- 1 oz. Aroma Hops (Saaz)
- 1 tsp. Irish Moss
- 1 packet Ale Yeast
- 3/4 cup Priming Sugar
I used an Extract recipe for the brew, as opposed to All Grain. I’m still very new at this and don’t fully understand the difference but suffice it to say that Extract is easier and what you want to do for your first time brewing. All the ingredients for the beer itself were around $30 or so. Once I had made my purchase, I loaded up my car and headed home.
Brewing it up
Not being the patient type, I immediately got to work brewing the beer when I walked in the door of my house. I put my 5 gallon lobster pot on the stove and filled it with 2 gallons of cold water from my fridge. Some of the more picky brewers will only use distilled water, but I simply used the filtered water from my tap (which itself comes from a well) and it came out fine in my opinion. The beer kit came with a Muslin bag (almost like a stocking or a nylon) which I filled with the cracked grains that were a part of the ingredient kit I purchased. I placed the grains in the bag and the bag in the water and turned the heat up to high.
I placed a thermometer inside the lobster pot so I could track the temperature of the water (which, when done, is called the “Wort”). The idea is that you want to heat the water to about 170 – 175 but not higher. Again, I’m not a scientist (one of my friends who went to the brew store with me was; and he gave me a very in-depth discussion of why not too heat it too high… something about killing enzymes is what I recall from that conversation). Once the water got to 175 I let it go for about an additional half hour at that temperature, before I removed and discarded the muslin bag with the grains.
After that, it’s time to turn up the heat some more and get the mixture boiling. Once the liquid reaches boiling, I added in the malt extract. I had a 50/50 mixture of powder extract and liquid extract. One of the useful tips on the Liquid extract is to place the container in warm water ahead of time to “soften up” the extract so it pours out easier. It’s very thick, almost like molasses or honey. The extract is the “food” that the yeast will eat during the fermentation process which gives the beer its alcohol content.
The next steps involve adding the hops at predetermined intervals. The entire boiling period is usually about an hour. The bittering hops (in the Alt Bier case, the Spalt hops) are used at the start of the boil. Half of the Aroma or Flavoring hops (Saaz) are put in at the 20 minute mark; and the remainder is used at the 45 minute mark along with a tiny package of “Irish Moss”, (which I’m not sure what that really even does!).
Once the wort has been boiling for about an hour, the next thing to do is cool it down as quickly as possible. They sell cooling kits at the brew supply store (basically a pipe loop with a hose connection for your faucet) but I was going cheap. Again, I’m not a pro so I don’t know if I did this right, but I figured the quickest way to cool the beer down would be to just dump my (hot) Wort directly into my Fermenting bucket that was filled with 3 gallons of cold water. I did that and the temperature immediately dropped down to about 120 – 125 degrees.
Not bad, but the idea is to get the temp down to around 75 – 80 (you can’t add in the yeast any earlier; or it could die and your beer would not ferment). So I took my 5 gallon fermenting bucket and dropped in the sink and put ice all around it. It still took almost 3 hours for the temperature to drop down to 77 degrees. I actually watched two movies (and had a few more beers!) while waiting. I was nervous that this was too long and was having second thoughts about having dumped the Wort directly into the fermenting bucket water before cooling it down, but like I said above at the end of the day it all came out pretty good, so I guess I didn’t screw it up too bad.
Once the 5 gallons of brew is down to room temp, the only next things to do are add the yeast, seal it up, and wait. One thing I didn’t do was take a hydrometer reading before bottling the beer. The hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the beer. Water has a specific gravity of 1.0. Adding the grains, malt, hops, etc. to the beer increases the specific gravity. What happens is that during the fermenting process the yeast eats up the malt and the specific gravity will drop. The difference between the starting and ending specific gravity can be used to calculate the alcohol percentage of your brew.
In any event, I neglected to do that step so I simply put the yeast in, put the lid on it (along with the airlock my starter kit came with), and stuck the whole thing in the basement.
Waiting and Bottling
Next, I had to wait for the beer to ferment in the basement. In the morning on the way out the door I would look at the airlock to see bubbles coming through (which means successful fermentation is taking place). While fermentation was ongoing, I visited another brew supply store called Strange Brew in Marlboro, Massachusetts. This was actually a much larger place with much more selection than the one I had visited earlier in Woonsocket.
I went in and talked to the guy about the brew and how things were going, adn then I proceeded to buy my bottles. To my surprise the bottles were one of the most expensive parts of the entire process – I think enough bottles for 5 gallons of beer ran close to the $70 or $80 mark. Tip: if you plan on brewing beer, start saving the bottles you are using as you can recap them!
I bought a dozen 1-liter bottles and another 18 or so 500ml bottles. I also bought the Grolsch-style (flip-cap) bottles. I did this because A) I figured it would be easier to fill less bottles and B) flip cap means I don’t have to struggle with the capper. In the end I was very happy with that decision.
About a week and half after brewing, I went downstairs and brought up my fermenting bucket of beer and placed it on the counter top. It was time to fill up the bottles! The first thing I had to do was boil up about 16oz of water with priming sugar. I actually bought priming sugar from the brew supply store; I’m not sure if you could just use table sugar or some other substitute. The priming sugar is mixed into the brew in your bottling bucket (NOT the fermenting bucket). Once you bottle the beer, this is actually the “Secondary Fermentation” process that carbonates the beer and lets it have a nice head. I used the siphon in the kit I bought to drain the beer from the fermenting bucket to the bottling bucket,, and slowly mixed in my priming sugar / water combination at the same time. The bottling bucket has a spigot on the bottom that makes it easier to fill up your bottles, and leaves all the fermentation residue in the fermenting bucket.
Before bottling, I did a really quick rinse with a sanitizing agent of the bottles (also bought at the brew store). I was told one of the worst things you can do is not properly sanitize your equipment – that goes for earlier as well. Everything that touches the beer has to be sanitized or else you risk destroying your batch of brew.
After getting all the beer out of the fermenting bucket and into the bottling bucket, it was time to actually bottle. The kit I bought came with a nice bottling hose which has a spring loaded head on it that lets you fill bottles simply by pushing the wand to the bottom of the bottle. when you are done filling the bottle, the flow stops, which helps prevent any messes in your kitchen or wherever you bottle.
Once all the beer was bottled, I had a nice case of beer that looked like this:
The cases went back into the basement for two more weeks to finish up the secondary fermentation and get their carbonation.
Time to Drink!
I was supposed to wait 2 weeks, but I only gave it about a week and a half again before I couldn’t wait any longer. I threw a beer in the fridge for about an hour to chill it just enough (no, beer is not supposed to be ice cold, just cool!) and then drank my first home brewed Alt bier. It was very good! Again, I can’t compare it to what I had in Dusseldorf, but I was very happy with a first time effort.
There are other beers in the United States that come from Alt Bier roots (Long Trail Ale is a supposed Alt Bier), but they have never tasted the same to me. I went to Salem, Massachusetts with some friends around Halloween time and the Salem Beer Works had their own Alt Bier brewed; but it still wasn’t as good as what I had in Germany.
All in all, brewing my own was a fun experience and will certainly help fill the void before I can head back to Bolkerstrasse in the Alt Stadt and enjoy another Uerige, Frankenheim, Schlosser, or Schumacher Alt!
Have you had success brewing an Alt Bier, or any other kind of German Beer? Visit our forum post with this topic where you can discuss it with other ImGerman members!