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…

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.