(4.7% German make from a 500ml bottle) Since 1862, Uerige has been brewing ‘leckere Dröppke’ in the heart of Düsseldorf. An institution, the brewery is one of several in town which produce the unique Altbier (translated literally to ‘old beer’ or ‘old style beer’) which defies definition as either an ale or a lager. Simply put, Altbier is a unique combination of brewing styles, and a survivor of the Reinheitsgebot which forced many breweries to close if they were found non-compliant to the strict Bavarian Purity Law after it was introduced as a federal measure. Thankfully, Altbier did adhere to the new ‘purity’ laws, and was allowed to continue production.
Düsseldorf is the capital of the German state of North Rhine Westphalia, which is the most heavily populated and one of the most economically productive in terms of GDP. Its capital has a long history of brewing, and a great rivalry with its neighbour Köln, mostly about who’s beer is better. While neighbouring Duisburg chimes in with König Pilsener, you cannot get away in either town drinking that of the rival’s.
Uerige’s Altbier, as described on the bottle, is the ‘leckere Dröppke’, which in German (along with a very strong Düsseldorf dialect) means ‘the delicious droplet’. On the pour, it came out a copper colour looking akin to a brown ale, with an immense head on the pour which slowly dissipates down to a consistent thin head of froth. On the nose there was a light hit of roasted malt while still reminding me of a lager. The taste was well-balanced between the various malts and hops. It was light in taste but not without character: hints of roasted and caramel malt flavours while it finishes with a hoppy taste that was crisp and refreshing.
The ingredients…the malts, the hops, the water but importantly the yeast!
Altbier is a unique combination of brewing styles: part ale and part lager but all Düsseldorf. The name ‘Altbier’ was originally used to differentiate the style from that of the pale lagers which were sweeping across Germany in the 19th c., and a reference to the old style of brewing which used warm, top fermenting yeast.
Malts: The malts used are a mixture of pilsen, caramel, wheat and roasted barely. Pilsen is used as the base malt. The caramel malts are produced through a process of controlled drying where the wet barley which has began to germinate is dried out, and the sugars caramelised. The roasted barley is unmalted (meaning it hasn’t been exposed to water in order to cause it to germinate) and cooked at such a temperature that is won’t contribute to the alcoholic content of the beer, but rather deliver a mild nutty flavour amongst others. The wheat helps contribute to the brilliant head on the pour.
Hops: The hops used in this brew come from the Hallertau and Spalt region of Bavaria and are examples of noble hops. Hallertau is the largest hop growing region in the world with hops usually characterised as being mild but with a little spice. Both regions produce hops which are are more on the aroma side than those used to make the beer bitter.
Yeast: The yeast strains used in the Altbier are part of what makes this beer unique. The top fermenting yeasts used are used for ales mostly, and ferment at a higher temperature (10°C – 25°C) than lager yeast (7°C – 15°C). The yeast is called top fermenting because the yeast rises to the top of the fermentation tanks to create a thick, creamy white foam. Bottom fermenting lager yeast strains go to the bottom of the fermentation tanks, grow slower and deliver that smooth lager taste.
Due to the higher fermentation temperature of these top fermenting yeasts, the outcome is the production of more esters (a chemical compound) than compared to lager yeast. Different yeast strains deliver different tastes, and the esters that these ale yeasts create can leave behind a range of flavours creating a fruity, spicy or flowery taste profile. Those lovable little micro-organisms, yeast is essential to delivering the right taste, and hence brewers will consistently use the same yeast culture in order to ensure the right flavour. Other examples of top fermenting beers besides ales and Altbier are porters, stouts, Kölsch, and wheat beers.
Double fermentation: Uergie’s Altbier goes through 2 fermentation processes during brewing. The first happens with the initial introduction of their unique yeast strain, and then when the time is right the ‘young beer’ is cooled down and allowed to mature. During this maturation process, secondary fermentation takes place. The beer is allowed to mature for at least 3 weeks in cooling tanks until the brew master decides it has become the ‘leckere Dröppke’.
To bring it full circle: The beer is first fermented with the warm top fermenting yeasts strains which deliver the near ale, mild, malt flavour. However, then the beer is cooled allowing the secondary fermentation process to deliver the smooth crisp mouthfeel of a lager, and hence why the beer differs from an ale.
According to the brewer’s website, they still adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, or what is commonly known as the German Beer Purity Law which was first passed in Bavaria in 1516.
It goes without saying that the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, dating from 1516 is still adhered to – it has a positive and long-lasting effect, precisely because it lays so much importance on natural ingredients.
What exactly is the Reinheitsgebot? Well, translated ‘Reinheit’ means ‘purity’ while ‘Gebot‘ means ‘commandment’.
Q1: So what exactly is this? Is it an assurance of quality that the beer is free from adjuncts and made from the best most pure ingredients? Well, in short, no. Its intention was to protect the supply of the more suitable malts like wheat and rye for baking (bread being more important to some people evidently). In this way it is more a bread law than a beer law. Specifically, it allowed for only 3 ingredients, “We wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops and water’. Forgetting something? Yup, yeast. These fruitful little micro-organisms were not known at the time of writing in 1516, and hence left out until later amendments.
Q2: So this was a law covering all of Germany? Well, again, no. First off, ‘Germany’ as we currently understand it is a modern nation state which has evolved over the course of a long history. The Germanic tribes were not bound to any notion of statehood. Historically, they were the ones who defended the Rhine from the Romans, and managed to deliver one of the worst defeats the Empire ever experienced in what is known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, or Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald. This decisive battle brought the complete destruction of 3 Roman legions and approximately 20k casualties. These legions, numbered XVII, XVIII, and XIX, never had their numbers used again within the Roman military. This was a unique feat which pays homage to unparalleled destruction which caused the Romans never to attempt another conquering of of the lands beyond the Rhine.
Q3: So if not the whole of Germany first, than just Bavaria? How did it become a German law then? The law was originally passed in Bavaria in 1516, which was considerably smaller than it is now. It has grown in size through land acquisitions resulting from a number of historic events including the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars where it saw its land mass double in the early 19th century. Currently, Bavaria is the largest German state by land (20% of the overall country is Bavarian) and second only to North Rhine Westphalia (the western state where Düsseldorf is situated) in population. The law was not applied outside of Bavaria until German Unification in 1871, and it wasn’t until 1919 that it became part of the tax law when Bavaria refused to join the Weimar Republic. They insisted on this law being made a federal provision or else they would not join. Düsseldorf (home of Altbier) and its neighbour Köln (home of another top fermenting beer, Kölsch) were some of the few traditional beer styles to survive as many local beers could not be produced any longer under the law which forbade their sale if they did not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot. However, thankfully Altbier did by chance adhere, and the ‘leckere Dröppke’ was allowed to keep being brewed.
The truth of the matter is that many German beers are delicious and arguably the best in class, but this is not because of any ancient law. It comes down to one thing: they have a long rich history of brewing and know exactly what they are doing. Simply put, they make good beer because they are good at it. No Bavarian law proves that, the taste does.
Altbier, the pride of Düsseldorf, does deliver something to brag about. The unique combination of malts, noble hops and top fermenting yeasts which are then cooled and lagered to produce an outstanding beer style, should indeed create envy within Köln (though they may disagree). Düsseldorf is a charming city with the Altstadt (historic city centre) being known as the ‘longest bar in the world’ filled with brilliant breweries and medieval buildings. If the Altbier wasn’t enough, then try some of the Killepitsch liqueur which is said to contain 98 different herbs, berries and fruit. They even have a window where you can walk up and order it off the street – oh German ingenuity. So the next time in Germany be sure to visit the home of Altbier, stroll the Altstadt, and pop into Uerige’s brewery, where you can sip the ‘leckere Dröppke’ and appreciate the art brewing.