Old School

It’s probably common knowledge among the educated beer-drinking and brewing community that Germany is best known for a wide range of lagers. Beers brewed at colder temperatures, using a yeast strain that generally ferments at or near the bottom of the vessel. That’s about the only common characteristic among lagers, though, as they range from light to dark, mild to strong, sweet to bitter… Just like ales, which are, of course, brewed generally at warmer temperatures with a top-feeding yeast strain. Generally. There are, of course, exceptions.

In the world of German beer, too, there are exceptions. There are two classic styles of beer still brewed in Germany which predate the lager revolution of the 19th century and which are considered ales,. Not because of their color, their hop profile, or their strength, but merely because the yeasts used to produce them are top-feeding warm-tolerant strains.

I am referring, of course to the golden Kölsch and the copper Altbier, pride of Köln (Cologne) and Düsseldorf, respectively. Altbier, in particular, is such a traditional and culturally-rooted style that even its name (“Old Beer”) is significant. It’s not “old” as in sitting around for a long time, nor particularly “old-fashioned”, but it is simply an old style, a style that has been brewed in the Düsseldorf area for a long time.

This recipe is pretty close to Horst Dornbusch’s “Altstadt Altbier” in his AHA Style Series book “Altbier”. I have adapted the hops and yeast, and added just a hint of dark malt to enhance the reddish color. Fermented warm initially, it gets almost lagered in the secondary to produce a crisp, clean malt profile with substantial bitterness and hop flavor.

Altschule Altbier
5 gallons, all-grain


  • 6 lbs. 2-row pale malt
  • 1.5 lbs. dark Munich malt
  • 1.5 lbs. Vienna malt
  • 1 lb. 60°L crystal malt
  • 1 oz. black malt
  • 1 oz. Perle hop pellets (@8% aa)
  • 1 oz. Spalt pellets (@5% aa)
  • 1 oz. whole Hallertauer hops (@2.5% aa)
  • White Labs Düsseldorf Altbier yeast (WLP036)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming

Crush grains. Heat 10 quarts water to 130°F. Mash in grain (the mash will be VERY thick) and hold at 124°F for 20 minutes. Heat another 10 quarts water to 165°F, add to mash and mix well. Hold at 154°F for 70 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts of water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 28 – 30 quarts sweet wort. Heat to boiling. Boil 45 minutes with no hops. Add Perle hops, boil 30 minutes. Add Spalt hops, boil another 30 minutes. Add Hallertauer hops, boil 2 minutes (107 minutes total) and remove from heat. Steep covered for 10 minutes. Remove Hallertauer hops, chill wort to 80°F. Take a hydrometer reading, pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment at 65 – 70°F for eight to ten days. Rack to secondary, age cool (45 – 50°F) for two weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition three to four weeks at 50°F.

OG: 1050
IBU’s: 48

Note on mash: The first part of the mash, at a low temperature, is a traditional German technique designed to promote better clarity and fuller body in the beer by enabling proteolytic enzymes to convert large-chain proteins. Or so I’m told. More science than I can wrap my head around…

Note on volume: the wort from this mash is at a higher volume than most of my brews, designed as such with a longer boil in mind  – another piece of the traditional alt brewing process is a long boil, to promote the Maillard reaction which deepens the red/copper color; naturally, the longer the boil the more evaporation, so to end up at the 5.25 gallon mark you need to start with a greater volume…

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