NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Northern German Altbier no longer exists as a separate style. Both Altbiers, Northern German and Dusseldorf have been combined into one Style 7B in Category 7 Amber Bitter European Beer which groups amber-colored, evenly balanced to bitter balanced beers of German or Austrian origin.
Use the information below as reference only and when studying for the current BJCP exam, be sure to study the current
Northern German Altbiers are a bit of an enigma. The term “altbier” implies that the beer is an ale, brewed with new ingredients such as pale malts, but still an ale brewed in the “old” style of warm fermented beers. They did adopt the method of cool lagering which mellows the flavor considerably. Most of these altbiers brewed outside the city of Düsseldorf are actually brown lagers. The brewers in Düsseldorf are the only ones that can call their beers Düsseldorf Altbiers, but the word “altbier” itself is available for any brewery to use.
Altbiers are brewed all over Germany and in several neighboring countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and as far away as the United States. These beers are generally less bitter and have less fruity esters than the altbiers brewed in the city of Düsseldorf. Although the naming convention is inaccurate, we are stuck with it as long as the brewers in Germany continue to label their brown lagers as Altbiers.
One way to get your Northern German Altbier to be more authentic is to use an altbier yeast instead of a lager yeast. The altbier yeasts are unusual in that they attenuate very well at cool temperatures, yet still leave a slight amount of the typical ale fruity esters. This will produce a beer which tastes more like an altbier than a brown lager. Design the malt bill with a small amount of caramunich and mash at an “all around” temp of 152°F (67°C) which will leave more residual caramel and bready notes than the Dusseldorf Altbier but still have a very fermentable wort. Ferment at around 60°F (16°C), and give the beer at least a month of cold lagering to allow the yeast to consume the unwanted byproducts of fermentation and mellow the sharp edges of the beer.
Northern German Altbier Description
- Aroma: Northern German Altbiers have a light, malty, sometimes grainy aroma. The hop aroma is low to none and noble in character when present. It is usually brewed as a lager so it will have the clean, lager character with very restrained ester profile and no diacetyl.
- Appearance: These beers, brewed all over Germany, are usually light copper to light brown color, and the clarity is brilliant from extended cold conditioning. They have a low to moderate off-white to white head with good retention.
- Flavor: Northern German Altbiers have a moderate bitterness but are always balanced by a smooth and sometimes sweet malt character that may have a rich, biscuity and/or lightly caramelly flavor. The finish is dry, often with lingering bitterness in the aftertaste. You will notice a clean, lager character sometimes with slight sulfury notes and very low to no esters (very different from the Düsseldorf Altbier, which is fruity and bitter). These beers should have very low to medium noble hop flavor and no diacetyl at all.
- Mouthfeel: Altbiers brewed outside Düsseldorf as lagers should have a medium-light to medium body with moderate to moderately high carbonation. The mouthfeel should be very smooth.
- Overall Impression: The Northern German Altbiers are a very clean and relatively bitter beer, balanced by some malt character. Generally darker, sometimes more caramelly, and usually sweeter and less bitter than Düsseldorf Altbier.
- Comments: Most Altbiers produced outside of Düsseldorf are of the Northern German style (sometimes called Dortmand Altbiers). Most are simply moderately bitter brown lagers. Ironically “alt” refers to the old style of brewing (i.e., making ales), which makes the term “Altbier” somewhat inaccurate and inappropriate. Those that are made as ales are fermented at cool ale temperatures and lagered at cold temperatures (as with Düsseldorf Alt).
- Ingredients: Northern German Altbiers are normally made with a pilsner base and colored with roasted malt or dark crystal. They may include small amounts of Munich or Vienna malt for depth and character. Noble hops are appropriate. These beers are usually made with an attenuative lager yeast leaving a nice dry finish and clean character.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.046 – 1.054 FG: 1.010 – 1.015 IBUs: 25 – 40 SRM: 13 – 19 ABV: 4.5 – 5.2%.
- Commercial Examples: DAB Traditional, Hannen Alt, Schwelmer Alt, Grolsch Amber, Alaskan Amber, Long Trail Ale, Otter Creek Copper Ale, Schmaltz’ Alt.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, the Absolute Astronomy.com page about Altbier, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.