I don’t think there’s a beer I brew more often than German Altbier. I nearly always have one on tap at home. I’ve made trips to the homebrew shop to buy ingredients for three different altbiers. When in doubt about what to brew next, I brew an altbier. And I suppose it’s about time that I finally get around to writing about them here at Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® because this, in my mind, is the perfect beer. Not “the best beer you’ll ever have” kind of perfect, but the “lets you taste and enjoy every aspect of what beer is” kind of perfect.
Altbier hits the perfect chord of all the flavors and impressions of beer. There are lighter and darker and crystal malts, bitterness, hops flavor, and aroma, a noticeable amount of alcohol, a touch of ester but the cleanliness of a lager, and all in a format that you can drink by the liter. The name itself translates to “old beer” and refers to the more traditional use of ale yeasts—a retronym that became necessary when lager yeasts stormed onto the scene in the nineteenth century. Ale yeasts they might be, but this is still, well, Germany. It’s cold. So altbier is generally referred to as a “hybrid”—a beer that is neither ale nor lager, but has elements of both. It is either a beer that uses ale yeast fermented at colder temperatures or lager yeast fermented at warmer temperatures. The style features (or can feature) significant flavors of almost all types (except fermentation characteristics, obviously!). They’re definitely malt-oriented…except that they’re not. There’s plenty of malt flavors on display but also lots of hops flavors and bitterness.
Simply put, when referring to an altbier, if you’re asked the question of “does it have any…?” and fill in the blank with any flavor, the answer should probably be, “Yeah, a bit.” I don’t recommend it, but I’ve even made one with a touch of acidulated malt, and it was surprisingly good—zippy. You’re pressing down on lots of the keys on the piano—and if you’ve got your fingers spaced out properly, you get a huge harmonic note, not a discordant mess.
Some will tell me this recipe is no good for an altbier. Too much roast, too much bitterness, not enough of this, too much of that. I’ll say this for the first and only time: I don’t care. This is a terrific beer. I’m not a braggart when it comes to my beers, but this one is a homerun. It’s won more medals than any other recipe I’ve made—lots of golds—advanced to the finals at NHC (and made it to mini-BOS on that table), and has won Best of Show at one large homebrew competition. You can criticize it, but you can’t say it doesn’t work. It’s the beer equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite.
Start with 5 lb (2.3 kg) of Maris Otter and 4 lb (1.8 kg) of German Pilsner malt. I’m usually not a fan of Pils because of the touch of honey in the flavor, but it works here. On top of that you’ll layer 1 lb (454 g) of Munich malt and 4 oz (113 g) each of Carafa II, Caramunich, and pale chocolate malt (you can also go for chocolate rye here if you don’t have access to any noble hops, and it will help mimic the spicy flavor). You should have an OG of about 1.055.
Hopping is pretty straightforward. Use any clean high-alpha bittering hops to yield 35 IBUs from a 60-minute addition and then use a German noble hops (Tettnang is my go-to here, but any Hallertau will work well, too) for a 15-minute flavor addition. I find that 0.5 oz (14 g) is sufficient for me, but if you’re not getting much hops flavor and/or you want to age this one a while, you can increase that to 0.75 oz (21 g). I wouldn’t go much higher than that.
And for yeast, it’s the good old Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) yeast. There are “Altbier” yeasts on offer from the major yeast companies, but I’ve never found that they work better.
What this recipe produces is a semi-firm bitter beer with a rich (but paradoxically dry—like eating autumn leaves) maltiness and a reasonable level of noble hops flavor with a bit of berry ester.
Mash at 152°F (67°C) and boil as usual. Fermentation is the trickier part. How cold do you go? I have my answer, but you’re going to need to work this one out for yourself. I say that because you want a low level of ester formation, but that’s it. The yeast will help—1007 is pretty restrained and clean, and I’ve even treated it like a lager yeast with good results—but you’ll still need to find that sweet spot for your pitch rate, oxygen levels, and thermometer quirks. Start at 60°F (16°C) and adjust from there. Too much fruit? Reduce temperature. No ester at all? Increase temperature. But 60°F (16°C) will get you in the ballpark. Once you know your temperature, give it lots of time to ferment off completely—I leave mine for 3 weeks. The yeast cells will work a bit more slowly at that temperature, and you don’t want to rush them.
Being lager-ish, this is also a beer you can age. Altbier has a pretty wide style range, so if you brew this on the high side for bitterness, you can hang onto it for a while and still have a style-accurate beer even as the IBUs fall off and the malt comes forward. The pale chocolate should keep it from becoming overly sweet or toffee-like, even if it’s not as bitter as it once was.
I love this beer. There’s nothing more to say.