The Brewer: Dan Matlock
Hi! I'm Dan. I’m a retired professor of Biology at Seattle University. I’ve taught Microbiology once upon a time, so cultivating yeast and fermentation chemistry is not an intimidating mystery.
I grow my own hops, almost exclusively German noble hops, and use barley that is grown locally in the Skagit Valley and malted locally as well. The water I use comes from a 550’ well and is only modified by sediment and carbon filtration. I like the idea of brewing locally and accepting the results rather than trying to duplicate terroir somewhere else on the planet.
Fun Fact: Odd Duck's logo was featured in BYO magazine July-August 2019 for the Editor’s Choice honorable mention.
The Beer: Altbier
I brew mostly European beers, many of which can be a challenge for new brewers. Ales are easier than the lagers, so I’ve chosen a German alt style ale I call the “Pintail Ale”, with the motto “Bottoms Up!”
The logos were designed by a graphic artist with assistance from Cabot, my African Grey parrot. We have three parrots here, but he’s the one who likes to visit the brewery and is the brewery mascot, hence the name/joke about odd ducks.
Generally, with this altbier I try to follow the traditional alt methods, including just the one hop addition and the lower, 60ºF, fermentation temperature.
The Recipe: Pintail Ale
- 6 lbs Two Ros; Pilsner
- 3 lbs Munich
- 1 lbs Caramel 30
- Boil Hops: 1.5 oz European/German hops; Tettnang, Mt. Hood, Hallertau or Saaz: 0:60 min
- German Ale: Wyeast 1007
BATCH SIZE: 5 gal
MASH TEMP: 150ºF
BOIL: 60 min
FERMENTATION: 60ºF - 6 days
Dan Matlock – Odd Duck Brewery
Spike Summarizes: All Things Altbier
What is an Altbier?
Altbier, translating to "old beer" in German, represents one of Germany's traditional beer styles. Rooted in the historical brewing methods of Düsseldorf, Altbier is a unique blend of old and new, retaining its top-fermentation process from the ale brewing tradition while maturing in cooler conditions akin to lagers. This hybrid brewing technique gives Altbier its distinct flavor profile, color, and overall allure.
Altbier uniquely bridges the divide between ales and lagers, providing a delightful complexity in taste and character. Its blend of antiquity and innovation makes it a beer lover's treasure to explore.
What distinguishes Altbier from other beers?
Altbier stands out in a few key areas, particularly brewing process, taste, and color.
Unlike many other beers, Altbier is a top-fermented beer, akin to ales. However, it is then conditioned at cooler temperatures, much like lagers. This duality is what sets it apart.
Taste and Color
Altbier is known for its rich, malt-forward flavor, balanced by a hop bitterness. It sports a deep amber to dark brown color that makes it instantly recognizable.
What's the history of Altbier?
Altbier has a fascinating, centuries-old lineage that intertwines with the evolution of beer brewing itself.
Originating in Düsseldorf, Germany, Altbier evolved from the city's early brewing traditions. When bottom-fermented lagers gained popularity in the 1800s, Düsseldorf brewers held onto their top-fermenting methods, leading to what we now know as Altbier.
Over time, Altbier brewers adapted, blending lager-style cold conditioning into their process, hence the name "old beer". The method might be old, but the beer has kept its relevance.
What does an Altbier taste like?
Altbier boasts a well-balanced, complex flavor profile that remains approachable to beer enthusiasts of all kinds.
Altbier features a robust malt backbone with a hint of caramel sweetness, but this is offset by a sturdy hop bitterness. The balance makes Altbier taste harmoniously complex.
One of the charms of Altbier is its smooth finish. While it has a full-bodied mouthfeel, it ends with a clean and crisp finish akin to lagers.
How is Altbier beer made?
The brewing process for Altbier is a testament to tradition and adaptation.
Altbier uses top-fermentation, where yeast ferments at warmer temperatures (15-20°C). This contributes to the beer's robust flavor profile.
After fermentation, Altbier undergoes a lagering period at lower temperatures. This gives it its smooth, clean finish.
What are the essential ingredients in an Altbier?
Altbier, like other beers, depends on four key ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast.
The water used for brewing can significantly impact a beer's taste. For Altbier, soft water, which is lower in mineral content, is ideal.
Altbier typically uses a blend of Pilsner malt and specialty malts, contributing to its deep color and full-bodied flavor.
German noble hops are preferred for Altbier. They provide a balanced bitterness without overpowering the malt flavor.
Ale yeast is used, fermented at warmer temperatures and then conditioned cool, in line with Altbier's unique brewing process.
What foods go best with an Altbier?
Altbier's complex yet balanced flavor makes it a versatile companion for many foods.
Its robust maltiness pairs excellently with grilled meats, sausages, and hearty stews.
Altbier can also complement a variety of cheeses, especially aged varieties like Gouda and Cheddar.
For those with a sweet tooth, the caramel undertones of Altbier can complement desserts like fruit tarts and caramel puddings.
Is Altbier a year-round beer?
Absolutely! While some beers lend themselves to specific seasons, Altbier's balance of hearty maltiness and refreshing finish makes it an enjoyable drink year-round.
How strong is a typical Altbier?
Altbier usually falls within a moderate alcohol content range, making it both flavorful and approachable.
Most Altbiers have an alcohol by volume (ABV) between 4.5% and 5.5%, providing a nice balance between taste and strength.
Are there different types of Altbier beers?
Indeed, there are a few variations of Altbier, each with its own unique characteristics.
The traditional Altbier, featuring a copper color and a balance of malt and hops.
A stronger, richer version typically brewed for special occasions.
A particularly potent Altbier, featuring higher alcohol content and a deeper, more complex flavor profile.
What's the correct temperature for serving Altbier?
Serving Altbier at the right temperature can enhance its taste and aroma.
Altbier is ideally served at cellar temperatures, around 50-55°F (10-13°C). This allows its complex flavors and aromas to shine through.
What are some popular brands of Altbier?
While Altbier may not be as widespread as other beer styles, several breweries produce exceptional versions.
In Düsseldorf, breweries like Uerige, Füchschen, Schumacher, and Schlüssel uphold the Altbier tradition.
In the U.S., breweries such as Alaskan Brewing Co., Widmer Brothers, and Otto's Pub & Brewery also offer their take on Altbier.
Why does Altbier have a golden color?
The rich amber to brown color of Altbier is a result of the specific malts used in its brewing process.
Specialty malts, like Munich or Caramel malt, lend Altbier its deep, rich color. These malts also contribute to the beer's complex flavor profile.
How does the brewing process affect Altbier's flavor?
The unique hybrid brewing process of Altbier has a significant impact on its flavor profile.
Top-fermentation, carried out at warmer temperatures, helps develop robust, complex flavors. The cold conditioning, akin to lagers, imparts a clean, crisp finish. This combination is what gives Altbier its distinctive, balanced taste.
Are Altbiers more bitter than other beers?
Altbier has a notable hop bitterness, but it's well balanced by a strong malt backbone.
While Altbier does present a bitter profile from the use of noble hops, it's harmoniously offset by its malt characteristics. It's this balance that makes Altbier enjoyable and accessible to various palates.
Why is Altbier often served in a specific type of glass?
The traditional serving glass for Altbier is the 'stange,' a tall, narrow glass that showcases the beer's color and helps maintain its head.
The 'stange' aids in highlighting the beer's beautiful color, while its narrow design helps concentrate the beer's aroma, enhancing the overall tasting experience.
Is Altbier beer good for beginners?
Altbier is indeed a great choice for beginners, thanks to its balanced taste profile.
It offers a harmony of flavors that's not too overwhelming. Altbier can provide an excellent introduction to the world of traditional German beers.
How does German Altbier differ from American Altbier?
While the basic brewing methods remain similar, there can be slight differences in taste and presentation between German and American Altbiers.
German Altbiers typically stick to tradition with a balanced, malt-forward flavor. American versions, however, can sometimes be a bit more adventurous, often stronger and more hop-forward.
Where can I buy the best Altbier beers?
Finding Altbier might be a bit of a challenge outside of Düsseldorf, but online craft beer retailers and local specialty beer stores are good places to start. In Düsseldorf, of course, the local breweries offer the most authentic experience.
Online Craft Beer Retailers
Check out websites specializing in craft beer sales, as they often stock a range of international styles, including Altbier.
Local Specialty Beer Stores
These stores often carry a broad selection of beer styles from around the world. If you're lucky, you might find Altbier on their shelves.
When in Düsseldorf
If you're visiting Düsseldorf, don't miss the chance to try Altbier directly from the source at local breweries.
Can I brew Altbier at home?
Yes, with some knowledge of home brewing and the right ingredients, you can certainly try brewing Altbier at home.
You will need brewing equipment and specific ingredients like Pilsner malt, specialty malts, German noble hops, and ale yeast. Remember to ferment at warmer temperatures and condition at cooler temperatures, in line with Altbier's brewing tradition.
Remember, brewing Altbier requires time, particularly for the cold conditioning process. But the wait will be worth it when you taste your own homemade Altbier.
What kind of glassware is best for Altbier?
While you can enjoy Altbier in any beer glass, the traditional 'stange' is the preferred choice for this German beer.
A 'stange' is a tall, narrow glass that's perfect for serving Altbier. Not only does it showcase the beer's color, but its design also concentrates the beer's aroma, providing an enhanced sensory experience.
Are there any annual events or festivals for Altbier?
While there isn't a specific festival dedicated to Altbier, it plays a key role in beer festivals across Germany, particularly in its home city of Düsseldorf.
Altbier can be found in many German beer festivals, including Oktoberfest. In Düsseldorf, Altbier is a staple at every local event and gathering.
Why is Altbier not as popular as Lager or IPA?
Altbier's less widespread popularity can be attributed to historical and geographical factors.
When lager brewing techniques were popularized in the 19th century, many traditional top-fermented beers like Altbier were overshadowed. Additionally, Altbier is a specialty of Düsseldorf, and its local nature contributes to its lesser-known status internationally.
How can I recognize a good Altbier?
A good Altbier should be well-balanced, providing a harmonious interplay between malt and hops.
It should have a deep amber to brown color and be clear, not cloudy.
In terms of flavor, expect a robust, malt-forward taste balanced by a good level of bitterness. The aroma should be clean, with malt and subtle fruit or hop notes.
What’s the best way to store Altbier?
Like most beers, Altbier should be stored upright in a cool, dark place to preserve its quality.
Exposure to heat can accelerate aging, and light can cause 'skunking', an unpleasant flavor change. So always keep your Altbier in a dark, cool environment.
Is Altbier vegan-friendly?
Most beers, including Altbier, can be considered vegan, as they primarily contain water, grains, hops, and yeast. However, some breweries might use animal-derived products in the brewing process.
Watch Out for Finings
Some breweries use 'finings' (like isinglass, derived from fish) to clarify their beers. If vegan-friendly beer is a priority, it's best to check with the individual brewery.
What are some craft breweries that make Altbier?
There are a number of craft breweries worldwide that have taken up the mantle of producing Altbier, each bringing their own unique twist to this traditional German style.
In the U.S., craft breweries like Long Trail Brewing Co. (with their "Double Bag") and Rogue Ales (with their "Dead Guy Ale") produce variations of Altbier. In the UK, you can find breweries like Marble Brewery experimenting with the style.
These craft breweries sometimes tweak the traditional Altbier formula, experimenting with ingredients and brewing methods. It's a testament to Altbier's versatile and timeless appeal.
Is Altbier considered a craft beer?
The term "craft beer" refers to a brewing philosophy focused on quality, flavor, and traditional brewing methods, rather than a specific beer style.
Given that Altbier originates from a long-standing brewing tradition and emphasizes quality and flavor, it aligns well with the craft beer ethos. So while Altbier is a beer style, it can certainly be considered a part of the craft beer family.
What's the difference between Altbier and Kölsch?
While both Altbier and Kölsch are traditional German beers that use a similar hybrid brewing process, they have distinct differences in flavor, color, and regional tradition.
Altbier originates from Düsseldorf, while Kölsch is native to Cologne. These neighboring cities each proudly uphold their distinct beer styles.
Altbier has a maltier flavor and a darker, amber color, while Kölsch is lighter in both color and flavor, leaning towards a delicate fruitiness and soft malt character.
What awards have Altbiers won?
Altbiers have won recognition in numerous beer competitions worldwide. In events like the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, Altbiers often feature in the "German-Style Altbier" category.
American craft breweries have done particularly well in these competitions. For instance, Long Trail Brewing Co.'s "Double Bag" and Bend Brewing Company's "Doppelbock" have both won awards for their interpretation of the Altbier style.
Are there gluten-free Altbiers?
While traditional Altbier is made with barley malt and is not gluten-free, some breweries may offer gluten-free or gluten-reduced versions using alternative grains.
To make gluten-free Altbier, breweries may use grains like buckwheat, sorghum, or millet. It's always worth checking with individual breweries if you're looking for a gluten-free option.
Can Altbier be aged?
Unlike some strong ales, Altbier is not typically aged. Its moderate alcohol content and balanced flavor profile are best enjoyed fresh.
While aging can improve some beers, it's generally best to enjoy Altbier fresh to appreciate its harmonious balance of malt and hops and its crisp finish.
How has Altbier evolved over the years?
While Altbier stays true to its traditional roots, there has been some evolution, particularly as it has been adopted by breweries outside of Germany.
Craft breweries, especially in the U.S., have experimented with the Altbier style, sometimes increasing the hop profile or the alcohol content, adding a touch of American craft beer ethos to this German classic.