In search of Altbier

19 comments on In search of Altbier
2 minutes

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.

Krefeld - Weinges

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?

Krefeld - Burg Linn

I even bought one at the train station to drink on the ride back to Cologne. Public drinking is not illegal in Germany!

At Krefeld Hbf

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!

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


19 responses to “In search of Altbier”

  1. DougD Avatar

    Yum, I’d like to try one of them. Looks like it’s not imported here either, but there’s a few craft breweries that make altbier in Canada. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for some.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I found a few craft breweries in the US that make it too, but none anywhere near me.

  2. tbm3fan Avatar

    Seems I have actually had some beer of that type here in Northern California. Amber Ale by Alaskan Brewing can be found on shelves now and then. Below Amber one sees in black type Alt Style Beer.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Excellent! Maybe I can convince one of the Indiana breweries to brew an altbier.

      1. Joe from the Resurrected Camera Avatar

        Why not? I think some of the Colorado breweries do it from time to time, though I haven’t been too impressed. Then again it seems I’ve not had a REAL Altbier yet so that’s probably the problem!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Not particularly a beer fan, and don’t really drink it as a “go to” beverage, but absolutely amazed at how many small craft beer brewers there are everywhere now, and amazed at the pricing! My local hipster coffee roaster and beer brewer rolls out odd ball brews they are making that range from 18 dollars a 4 pack, to 20 bucks for a single oversized bottle! As a champagne aficionado, there are delightful 750 ml bottles of champagne for 12 bucks, so…? They are also roasting obscure coffee beans and selling them for 20 bucks for a 10 ounce bag! Seems like there’s a lot of financial wiggle room to brew some of these beers in the U.S.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I like beer, but I don’t love it, and I especially don’t love all the wacky beers that the so-called craft breweries are making. Sour beers? Hazy beers? Beers infused with fruit flavors or peanut butter? Bah. Give me well-made traditional beers, ales and lagers and ambers and porters and stouts.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Ditto Jim. You said it! So many of those things described to me, with my comment being: “…that’s not beer…”. Especially the juice based beers…why not just put vodka in orange juice?

  4. adventurepdx Avatar

    If you ever make it up to Portland, local brewery Occidental specializes in German-style beer. Looks like they still have an Alt:

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  5. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Many more beers available now, nice to find an old favorite! I brew my own, must see if there is a recipe or kit out there!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sure there is!

    2. DougD Avatar

      I used to brew beer with a friend. I found it’s great fun, but it’s a big commitment to make 20 liters of beer and have to drink it within a month.

      1. Steve Mitchell Avatar

        Why would you need to drink within a month – it gets better with time, by six months it is a much nicer brew!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Oh really? I didn’t know that!

  6. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    I don’t drink a lot of beer any more, but I did spend several years in Germany back in the last century when I was in the USAF. Stationed not far from Koblenz, the city at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle, the best local beer was Konigsbacher Pils. I don’t remember a Konigsbacher Alt beer. They made an excellent Octoberfest beer, and something called “Triumphater”, a dark rich beer that I thought was excellent. IIRC, that one was available during “Fasching”, the pre-Lenten revelry that begins on November 11th at 11:00am. I never made the connection before, but that is the date and time that WWI ended. Probably a good reason to celebrate for any German.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, Koblenz is just a little too far south to be in altbier country. I’ve seen that many German breweries make special beers at certain times of the year. Oktoberfest beers are increasingly being imported here; I bought some at Meijer last fall.

  7. J P Avatar

    I have never tried one, though I tend to avoid beers with lots of hops.

    I’m like you and don’t drink a lot of beer, and also join you in disdain for trendy stuff from microbreweries. Like the current infatuation with “sours”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Altbiers are not overly hoppy. Not in the modern idiom anyway. Definitely worth a try.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: