Make Your Best Light Altbier | Craft Beer & Brewing

Make Your Best Light Altbier

Some specialty categories seem frivolous or unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find uses for them in particular circumstances. So it was with my Light Altbier, and the resulting beer is a fun year-round lighter-bodied but fully-flavored option.

Josh Weikert a month ago

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When the 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines were first released, like many home brewers and judges I flipped through to see what was added, deleted, adjusted, or renamed. A lot jumped out at me (did we really need to list every Experimental IPA by color?), but two of those things are especially relevant today. The first was that my venerable Altbiers had been reduced to a single style category. I wept.

I ripped my clothing. I pulled my hair out (that actually might have just been normal hair loss, now that I think about it). But then I noticed that the guidelines had actually given me a new place to enter Altbier, which brings us to the second relevant revelation in the new guidelines: a new sub-category in Specialty beers titled “Mixed-Style Beer.”

I might not have seen it but for a note in the German Leichtbier style description that noted that “Leicht-style” beers (light versions of standard versions) would best be entered in Mixed-Style. Voíla. In an instant I had not only a new category to play with, but also a variety of Altbier I hadn’t previously brewed: a Light Altbier.

STYLE

Altbier, as regular readers already know, is my “home” style. I brew more of these than anything else, and what I love about the style is how it shows off almost every feature of beer ingredients and processes. Malty, hoppy, paler in color but darker in flavor, a bit of fermentation character in a lager-ish process – it’s just wondrously versatile. Thinking about a light (Leicht) version, I wanted to steer away from the usual approach taken when making a session-strength example of a standard style.

When I brew that way, I’m trying to mimic a stronger beer (same mouthfeel, same impressions of alcohol, etc.) but keep the ABV low.

That wasn’t the target here: I wanted a genuinely highly-attenuated, light-bodied-but still flavor-forward Altbier. My inspiration was Yards Brewing Company’s Brawler, an English Mild that is so drinkable and refreshing (yet flavorful) I think of it as “malt Gatorade.” If I could bring out the same impression but with the flavor profile of my Alt, I figured I’d be well on my way. Three versions of this recipe later, I had it.

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RECIPE

This was a bigger challenge than the Leichtbier, because I wanted to keep the same overall Altbier malt profile. The problem that introduces is that my Alt recipes include malts that add a lower percentage of fermentable sugars than does the grist for the Leichtbier, which would make it harder to yield the light body/high-attenuation the version calls for.

I accommodated by making relatively few changes in grist composition, but tweaked the amounts while also leaning on some process adjustments. That’s against my usual approach – I tend to advise turning the knobs on recipe rather than process for a more-predictable result – but it worked here, and the process changes are easy to incorporate.

Three pounds (1.4kg) of Maris Otter and two pounds (0.9kg) of Pilsner malt get us started, and I actually ended up upping the amount of Munich malt in the beer to 1.5 pounds (0.7kg). Need that German melanoidin character. To that we add a quarter-pound (0.1kg) each of Carafa Special II, Caramunich, and Briess Extra Special Roast. The bread, biscuit, toast, and marshmallow flavor (with just a touch of coffee) is a great blend. You should end up with a potential ABV of about 3.6 percent and a beautiful coppery shade at 17 SRM.

The hopping regimen is basically unchanged, except for amounts, and still works well to generate that floral, woodsy bouquet we want. 20 IBUs from a 60-minute addition plus the same half-ounce of Tettnang (or Mittelfrüh), though I did move it back to a five-minute addition to preserve a little more hops flavor.

Yeast remains the Wyeast 1007. Whenever I trot out a new Alt recipe I usually take a run at it with one of the special Altbier yeasts, but I don’t think they work as well (or maybe I’m just no good at fermenting them). In any case, the 1007 is commonly-available and a great house yeast.

PROCESS

I’m leaning more on process than ingredients here to lighten things up and thin them out. A straight linear conversion downward on the standard Altbier recipe might get the same effect, but it would also dilute the flavor. Instead, we keep the same basic recipe but give a boost to attenuation-supporting process steps.

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Mash at 152F/67C for 90 minutes. Why not lower in temp? Because I’ve seen good experimental data out of a major yeast firm that shows 152F actually yields better attenuation (even as it produces a different sugar mixture that seems like it should attenuate less). The same research shows that a longer mash does boost attenuation, hence the long wait here.

Boil and chill as usual, then pitch your yeast. You might use a starter, despite the low gravity. We want to make sure we get a good start and finish on attenuation. Don’t misread this, though: we’re not shooting for an overpitch, we just want to be sure we avoid an underpitch, which can reduce total attenuation. “Enough yeast” and “even more yeast,” though, should yield about the same rate of attenuation, so one pack grown into a 1-1.5L starter should be fine.

Ferment a little warm, again, to bump up total attenuation. 68F/20C is warm for an Alt, but the 1007 doesn’t produce much of an ester profile and a larger-than-strictly-necessary pitch will keep the esters away, so you can get away with it. Leave it go for about two weeks at that temperature, and then cold-crash and lager for another two weeks. Package, carbonate to 2 volumes of CO2 (why are you thinking of going higher? We want it to seem lighter/thinner, remember?), and enjoy.

IN CLOSING

Some specialty categories seem frivolous or unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find uses for them in particular circumstances. So it was with my Light Altbier, and the resulting beer is a great year-round lighter-bodied but fully-flavored option.

Prost!

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