Brewing a Special

In the Altbier brewpubs in Düsseldorf and Münster, brewers occasionally surprise their regular patrons with a “special” version of their usual fare. The brewer gets a chance to experiment a little, change up the recipe from the everyday, and the customers get a taste of something a little different. These small-batch specials, known as “Sticke”, or “secret”, are not generally advertised outside of the pub itself, relying on word of mouth to bring in the crowds. Often a little stronger or a little hoppier, they might also contain an ingredient not usually found in the standard Altbiers.

Altbiers, along with Kölsch, are rare German ales. “Alt” , “old” in German, refers to “old-style” or even “old-fashioned” – beers brewed in a traditional manner since well before the new-fangled lagers came into popularity. Most are a deep copper color, with some intensly bitter hops in the finish, although the bitterness levels vary from brewery to brewery. They are fermented relatively warm and then cold-conditioned, making them smooth and clean-tasting.

For more information on Altbiers, their history and how to brew them, I highly recommend Horst Dornbusch’s book “Altbier” in the AHA Style Series.

Stickelbract Altbier

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 5 lbs. lager malt
  • 3 lbs. dark Munich malt
  • 3 lbs. 60°L crystal malt
  • 1/2 lb. Vienna malt
  • 1/2 lb. cara-pils malt
  • 1/4 lb. melanoidin malt
  • 1/8 lb. Carafa I malt
  • 1 oz. Spalter hop pellets (5% aa)
  • 1 oz. New Zealand Stickelbract hop pellets (14.1% aa)
  • 1 oz Tettnanger hop pellets (5% aa)
  • White Labs German Ale/Kölsch yeast (WLP029)
  • 2/3 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure: Crush grains. Heat 16 quarts water to 166°F. Mash in grains and hold 90 minutes at 155°F. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collect 32 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, boil 30 minutes before adding any hops. Add Spalter hops, boil 30 minutes. Add Stickelbract hops, boil another 25 minutes. Add Tettnanger hops, boil 5 more minutes (60 total with hops, 90 total overall), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment warm (65°F) for eight to ten days. Rack to secondary, age cool (40 – 45°F) for two to three weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition three to four weeks at 40 – 45°F.

OG: 1072

IBU’s: 58.6

Notes on style: Since this is a Sticke Alt, it is a bit darker than the usual Alt – it still has a gorgeous reddish-copper glow. Its OG and IBU levels are a fair bit higher than the average Altbier, too

Notes on hops: The Spalter and Tettnanger hops are typical German Noble hops and are perfectly at home in an Altbier. The Sticklebract hops, however, are an anomoly, added in part because of the name and in part as a memorial to the victims of the tragic earthquake in Christchurch these last couple days. My soon-to-be daughter-in-law spent a semester in New Zealand a couple years ago and has many friends affected by the disaster.

Notes on procedure: The long boil, partly without any hops, serves to caramelize and really deepen the copper color of the beer. Since this not a highly bitter beer, in general, it’s good to add the hops after some of the boil has occurred. I started with a larger volume of wort than usual and needed to boil off a fair amount.

Quick Turnaround

Last week’s Cream Ale and the ensuing discussion with a few friends led me to decide to brew a Kölsch this week, thinking that they’d be ready at more or less the same time, for ease of comparison. Furthermore, I decided to use the same yeast, just to prove a point. Very subtle difference in the grain bill, completely different hops, same yeast, it will really come down to the conditioning. And to simplify even further, I added the new Kölsch wort to the “dregs” in the Cream Ale fermenter, no need to clean out the bucket, save the yeast, reculture it, etc. I know of some commercial breweries and even whole styles where this is a regular practice, but for me, it’s a first. Makes me feel sort of old school, even medieval – back in the pre-Pasteur days, when yeast as a micro-organism had not been identified, brewers trusted to luck, to ambient wild flora and fauna, or reused the same equipment without cleaning it. They knew there was something in it that made the beer work, they just didn’t know what it was. I’ve read of brewers who kept a special wooden spoon, encrusted with old beer, with which they stirred the cooled wort, unknowingly adding the dried-out yeast. Some called it magic, some superstition, but it worked. Generally.

The problem, of course, is that yeast mutates over time. Modern brewers have access to clean, true yeast strains, varieties tailored to specific brewing styles, known and reliable entities that produce virtually the same results every time. Imagine what medieval and ancient beers must have been like, potentially completely different each time… and no one knew why.


5 gallons, all-grain


  • 7 lbs. lager malt
  • 1 lb. cara-pils malt
  • 2 oz. Strisselspalt hop pellets (2.6% aa)
  • White Labs European Ale yeast (WLP 011)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)


Crush grains. Heat 14 quarts of water to 164°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 152°F. Heat another 14 quarts of water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge. Collect 25 quarts of sweet wort. Bring to boiling. Add 1 oz. Strisselspalt hops, boil 45 minutes. Add rest of Strisselspalt hops, boil 15 minutes. Remove from heat, chill to 80°F. Take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast, seal and ferment 8 – 10 days at 60°F. Rack to secondary and condition cool (50°F) for two weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition cool (45 – 50°F) for two weeks.

OG: 1052

IBU’s: 13.6

Notes on style: Just to review, Kölsch is one of basically only two styles of ale brewed in Germany, originating in the city of Köln (Cologne). Like it’s darker counterpart Altbier (primarily from Düsseldorf and Münster), Kölsch is brewed with an ale yeast but fermented and conditioned relatively cool, sometimes even lagered cold. It is bright gold, crystal clear, never hazy, malty but with a distinctive Noble hop bite. The BJCP style guidelines describe it as “a clean, crisp, delicately balanced beer usually with very subtle fruit flavors and aromas. Subdued maltiness throughout leads to a pleasantly refreshing tang in the finish.” Best served cold in a tall thin cylindrical glass (Köln natives refer to their classic glass as a “test tube”…)

Alt and Kölsch glasses

Notes on yeast and hops: The yeast used here is usually best suited to Altbiers, but as noted in the Cream Ale recipe last week, it is pretty versatile. Mainly I wanted a yeast with a clean profile and that could handle temperature fluctuations. I deliberately went mild on the hops, hoping for a somewhat sweeter version of the beer. Strisselspalt is the French/Alsatian equivalent of the more common German Spalt (one of the three German Noble Hops, along with Tettnang and Hallertau, the fourth being Czech Saaz). It is used primarily in Alsatian lagers and in Bière de Garde. I really like its restrained spicy notes.

It’s About The Beer

When my friend Walter won the Brewmaster’s Cup at the Greg Noonan Memorial Homebrew Competition in May (see my early May post), earning the right to have his Vienna Lager brewed at the Vermont Pub & Brewery, it set off a chain of memories both personal and beer-related. In the eight years or so that I worked with Greg at the Seven Barrel Brewery, I shed many of my beer prejudices and learned to appreciate a variety of styles and a number of variations on those styles. As Greg frequently said, “It’s about the beer”, which meant a couple different things to Greg – it’s about appreciating the beer, for what it is, in light of how it was brewed, and how it fits in traditions. But also how it moves the idea of beer forward – a new version of a classic style, while it may “offend” a purist, may also open a door to a really interesting new beer. There has been a lot of talk lately about “Black IPA” or Cascadian Dark Ales, including on this blog. In the back of my mind, I knew this, but it took a friendly email from Patrick Dakin, a brewer who also is somewhat of a Greg Noonan disciple, to remind me that in fact, the first “black IPA” many of us ever heard of was brewed by Greg, at the VPB and at the 7BB. The first of its kind, anywhere? I can’t say for sure, but it was certainly my first.

I often ask myself, what would Greg brew? Last week I looked through the Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers’ Handbook, trying to decide what to brew next, and realized that I had never brewed a Cream Ale, at least not since moving to all-grain brewing. I flipped the 7BBBH open to Greg’s recipe for the Ottaqueechie Cream Ale, and another memory came up, that of sitting with Greg and head brewer Paul White at the bar at Seven Barrel, comparing Kölsch, Steam Beers and Cream Ales. Greg said, over and over, that you could basically brew all three with the same yeast and change the fermentation temperatures, or you could brew all three with the same grain bill and vary only the yeast, or you could brew them all as completely different beers. That was what was great about working with Greg – he would frequently throw the rules and expectations out the window and start over, inventing a new beer style, just for fun; but he could also nail a classic traditional beer style, devising a recipe on the back of a beer coaster, and could quote the Lovibond ratings for the grains and SRM values of the wort, the AAU’s and IBU’s of the hops, the attenuation and flocculation rates of the yeast, time and temperature limits, etc. etc. etc. For Greg, it was always about the beer. There are many of us who are grateful for that.

First Branch Cream Ale

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann lager malt
  • 14 oz. carapils malt
  • 1 lb. flaked maize
  • 2.35 HBU’s Mt. Hood hop pellets (1/2 oz. @ 4.7% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • White Labs European Ale Yeast (WLP011)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming

Procedure: Crush lager and carapils malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 164°F. Mash in crushed grains and maize, hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort. Heat to boiling, add Mt. Hood hops. Boil 30 minutes, add first Perle hops. Boil 30 more minutes, add second Perle hops. Boil 15 more minutes (75 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast. Seal and ferment cool (65 – 68°F) for ten days or so, rack to secondary. Age cooler (50 – 55°F) or cold (38 – 40°F) if you can, for ten to fourteen days. Prime and bottle, condition very cool (40 – 45°F) for two weeks.

OG: 1055

IBU’s: 21.6

Notes on style: I have always thought of Cream Ale as the opposite of a Steam Beer. Steam Beers are lagers, brewed at more of an ale temperature. Cream Ales are, as the name implies, ales, but generally fermented cool like a lager. I’ve also heard of brewers who blended batches of light lager and light ale. As I mentioned above, Greg Noonan believed, and rightly so, that you could brew this beer in a number of different ways, with a number of different yeasts. See the note below on yeast. The BJCP guidelines describe Cream Ale as “a clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American lawnmower beer.” This one is a bit bigger than the standard recipe, and ever-so-slightly more bitter.

Notes on yeast: I considered several different yeasts for this brew, but in the end chose the European Ale yeast (basically an Altbier strain). I wanted a clean yeast, one that would deal well with potential temperature fluctuations – it is late summer, and we are bouncing back and forth between 40’s at night and 80’s during the day. Other possibilities were the San Francisco Lager yeast (Steam Beer), German Kölsch, and American Lager.