When I lived in Germany in 1984, I didn’t know how significant it was, from a beer perspective, that I lived in the region surrounding Düsseldorf. I assumed that Altbier (literally, “old beer”) was available and popular all over Germany. But no. Turns out it’s made only within a certain radius of Düsseldorf.
Altbier got its “old” name because it is top-fermented, an older method of brewing than the later bottom-fermented lagers. This brewing method results in an amber or copper color. Pale ales are top-fermented too, but Altbiers ferment at cooler temperatures. It results in a light, hoppy, malty flavor. Some say Altbier has a fruitiness to it, but I don’t experience that.
Altbier was the first kind of beer I ever drank, at the Rhenania brewery that used to exist in Krefeld. Our tour of the brewery ended with extensive sampling.
I was just 16, and a reticent fellow at that. Where many of that age would have dived headfirst into drinking as much Altbier as they could find, I didn’t. I drank it when out with friends, and usually stopped after a couple. Still, Altbier was a strong memory of my time there.
The other style of beer widely available then was pilsener, or “Pils,” as everyone called it. When you’d order a beer, the bartender would reflexively ask, “Alt oder Pils?” I tried the Pils once or twice but went right back to Alt. I thought it tasted better.
On our recent visit to Germany, we found Pils everywhere. In Berlin, it was the default beer, and usually from the Radeberger brewery.
In Cologne, kölsch was king. This ale-lager hybrid is light and crisp with a certain sweetness. I rather preferred it to the straight pilseners.
On our last full day in Germany, we took the train up from Cologne to Krefeld so I could revisit the place of so many beloved memories. I looked forward to an Alt at the Gleumes brewpub, but they wouldn’t open that day until after we would be gone. We found the Weinges brewpub open, however, and there I drank my first Altbier in 39 years.
Wherever I could in Krefeld, I drank Altbier. We were only going to be there for a few hours, and who knows if and when we will ever be back?
I even bought one at the train station to drink on the ride back to Cologne. Public drinking is not illegal in Germany!
Altbier is seldom imported into the United States, which is too bad for me. But I’ll survive. I’m much more likely to drink a cocktail or even straight spirits today than I am to crack open a beer!