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…

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.