The name Altbier, which literally means old beer, refers to the pre-lager brewing method of using a warm top-fermenting yeast like British pale ales. Over time the Alt yeast adjusted to lower temperatures, and the Alt brewers would store or lager the beer after fermentation, leading to a cleaner, crisper beer than is the norm for an ale.
The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516, was drawn up to ensure the production of decent-quality beer; however, this decree did not affect brewers of the Rhineland. As such, the brewing traditions in this region developed slightly differently. For example, brewing during the summer was illegal in Bavaria, but the cooler climate of the Rhineland allowed Alt brewers to brew all year long and to experiment with storing fermented beer in cool caves and cellars.
The name "altbier" first appeared in the 1800s to differentiate the beers of Düsseldorf from the new pale lager that was gaining a hold on Germany. Brewers in Düsseldorf used the pale malts that were used for the modern pale lagers, but retained the old ("alt") method of using warm fermenting yeasts.
The first brewery to use the name Alt was Schumacher which opened in 1838. The founder, Mathias Schumacher, allowed the pale ale to mature in cool conditions in wooden casks for longer than normal, and laid the foundation for the modern alt beer - an amber colored, lagered ale. The result is a pale ale that has some of the lean, dryness of a lager, with the fruity notes of an ale.
Up to the 1950s, Alt was also called Düssel (from Düsseldorf), but since the term is not a Protected Designation of Origin, Altbier may also be produced outside of the Düsseldorf region. Venlo, a city in the Netherlands on the German border near Düsseldorf, produced the first Dutch Altbier. Similar varieties, also called altbiers, are associated with some other cities in Germany, particularly Hannover. Altbier is also brewed in small quantities in Austria, Switzerland and the United States.
Düsseldorf and Cologne are long-time rivals, though today it mostly comes down to whose beer is better, Düsseldorf's Altbier or Cologne's Kölsch, another top-fermented beer.
Some alt breweries have a tradition of producing a strong ale known as Sticke Alt, coming from a local dialect word meaning "secret". It is generally a seasonal or special occasion brew, and is stronger and sometimes darker than the brewery's standard output.
At present, there are four brewpubs in Düsseldorf which brew Altbier on premises. These beers have greater character than those brewed by larger breweries, and are worthwhile seeking out during a visit to Düsseldorf. The brewpubs are (alphabetically):
Three of the four are located in the Old Town (Altstadt); the other (Schumacher) is located between the Altstadt and the main rail station (Hauptbahnhof), and also maintains an establishment in the Altstadt, Goldener Kessel, directly across the street from Schlüssel.
Each produces a special, secret, seasonal "Sticke" version in small quantities, though the names vary: Schlüssel spells it "Stike", without the "c", while Schumacher calls its special beer "Latzenbier", meaning "slat beer", possibly because the kegs from which it was poured had been stored on raised shelves. Füchschen's seasonal is its Weinachtsbier (Christmas beer), available in bottles starting mid-November, and served in the brewpub on Christmas Eve.
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