“They traveled in a motor-diligence out toward the Brocken. The brushland grew hilly and witchlike, clouds came from directions indeterminate and covered the sun. ‘An older sort of Germany,’ commented Günther, with a less-than-reassuring smile. ‘Deeper.’” —Thomas Pynchon, “Against the Day”
Alt is a relic of a bygone era when Saxons hallucinated witches and devils on mountaintops and everything was fermented by S. cerevisiae and not S. pastorianus. Long after pale lagers conquered pretty much the whole world, beers brewed the “old” way with ale yeast still held out in pockets of northern Germany. But while Kölsch became a bit of a darling for craft brew revivalists, altbier apparently proved a bit tougher for Americans to grok—Summit retired their year-round alt long ago. But they’re not impossible to love, as Summit has brought alts back as part of the Unchained series, and other locals like Bauhaus and Rush River keep us supplied with their interpretations.
To brew an alt is to walk a tightrope between everything that’s wonderful about German malts and the Geschmack of bitter hops, all unobfuscated by yeast aromatics. It’s also a balance between ale and lager processes, with a specialized strain of S. cerevisiae put through its paces at a cool temperature, and then lagered prior to packaging and serving.
What makes it tick
Last things first: yeast selection. You can use your preferred clean ale strain in this recipe and have it turn out great. But for my money Wy1007—a true alt strain from Düsseldorf—brings a wonderful bready character (think rising whole wheat dough) that makes it an unbelievable match with a Munich malt–rich grist. The one caveat for this—and most other north German alt or Kölsch strains—is that it’s quite powdery. This means it will attenuate very well, which is great; it also means the yeast will take its Gottverdammt time to settle out, which will require patience and perhaps finings and/or filtration.
And since we’re all about the older, deeper sort of Germany this month, we’ll use an ancient grain to stand in for the wheat that can appear in an altbier grist. Spelt (Triticum spelta) is a hard-kernel heirloom wheat variety that has been cultivated in Europe since the Bronze Age—a thank you here to Teutonic traditionalists for continuing to grow, mash, and drink it for all these centuries. Spelt is quite high in protein compared to modern wheat varieties (roughly 17 percent versus 12 to 14 percent), and, as you’d expect, will do great things for the mouthfeel and foam of our beer.
The remainder of the grist will be a roster of usual suspects for altbiers: Munich malt will do the heavy lifting, giving a wonderful toasty-malt foundation. It will be supplemented by Pils and rounded out with a bit of dark caramel and roasted malts for color.
Czech Kazbek hops are not what we could call traditional for a north German altbier, but with a lot of Saaz DNA they’re not totally out of place either; plus, Kazbek’s remaining parentage from a wild Caucasus landrace hop really fits with our theme of old and weird—with maybe even a suggestion of the pagan.
Let’s get it on like Wotan.
A recipe to try
Target OG: 1.050, Target IBU: 35–65
- 4.5 pounds Weyermann Munich
- 3 pounds Weyermann Pilsner
- 1 pound Weyermann Spelt Malt
- 6 ounces Weyermann CaraAroma
- 4 ounces Weyermann Carafa I
- 1.75 ounces Czech Kazbek
- Wyeast 1007, or your choice of clean German ale strain (WLP029, K-97, etc.)
To the homebrewery
Note: These steps are general guidelines and assume you’re already familiar with the all-grain brewing process. Refer to the instructions for your brew system and adjust as needed based on experience with your own particular equipment.
1. Make a yeast starter prior to brew day—a large, vital population will help the ale yeast cope with the cool temperature at which we’re going to ask it to work.
2. On brew day, collect strike water (I use 1.3 quarts per pound, YMMV) and heat to approximately 165°F.
3. Mill the grains, or have it done for you at the shop.
Mash & sparge
1. Add all grains to strike water and mix to achieve a uniform temperature of 151–153°F. Rest the mash at this temperature for 60 to 90 minutes.
2. While the mash rests, collect and heat sparge water.
3. When the mash rest is complete, heat it to 170°F for mashout.
4. Sparge and collect the wort in the boil kettle.
1. Bring the wort to a boil and hallucinate some witches and devils of your choosing. Add 1.25 ounces of Kazbek hops when the wort begins to boil, and boil for 60 minutes.
2. Add another 0.5 ounce of Kazbek 15 minutes before the end of the boil.
3. Cool it!
Fermentation & beyond
1. Transfer the cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, aerate well, and pitch yeast.
2. Aim for a maximum fermentation temp in the low to mid 60s°F.
3. Once fermentation has stopped and gravity is stable, rack to a secondary fermenter and crash cool to lagering temps. Lager for 3 to 4 weeks (or longer, if time allows) and use a fining like gelatin or Biofine as needed prior to packaging.
4. Once clarified with a bit of lagering under its belt, our spelted Altbier will drink great as soon as carbonated, and keep reasonably well for a few months in a cool, dark spot.
Until next time: Drink it like you brewed it.
Correction: A previous version of this recipe included an extraneous Key Points for Key Pints section.