Many beer lovers will have heard of Altbier, and many will know that the style is largely confined to the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf and its immediate surroundings.
I had tried Altbier on a number of previous occasions; mainly in bottled form or at the foreign beer bar of a home-grown beer festival. Last week’s trip to Düsseldorf allowed me to sample the beer on its home ground.
The name Altbier, literally means “Old Beer”, and the description is apt as the beer is produced by top-fermentation; a much older method of production than bottom fermentation, which is used to produce lager-style beers.
Altbier is usually a dark copper coloured beer, with some fruitiness present in the flavour. This is derived from fermentation, at a moderate temperature, using a top-fermenting yeast. The primary fermentation is followed by a period of maturation at a cooler temperature. This gives the beer a cleaner and crisper taste, more akin to lager-type beers, than is the norm for top-fermented beers.
The first producer to use the name Alt to distinguish its top fermenting beer from bottom fermenting kinds, was the Schumacher Brewery, which opened in Düsseldorf in 1838. We visited the brewery on the last morning of our trip, and discovered that it still employed many traditional methods.
The most common Altbier, in terms of volume sold, is Diebels, a brand which forms part of the Anheuser-Busch-Inbev brewing empire. Schlösser Alt, is another commonly seen Altbier, and this brand is owned by the Radeberger Gruppe. We came across the latter in a number of Düsseldorf pubs, and with regards to the former, I brought back a couple of cans of Diebels to try at home.
Zum Schlüssel in Bolkerstrasse, provided a welcome respite from the crowds jostling in the streets outside. This was late on Saturday afternoon, and the Alstadt was packed with people out for a good time. It also happened to coincide with the finale of the Bundesliga, which saw Bayern München crowned as champions (again). Many pubs were showing the game live, with large TV screens erected outside to draw the punters in.
As I said, we were glad to escape the throngs of people, and although most of the tables inside Zum Schlüssel were fully occupied, we managed to find space at one of the “stand-up-to-drink” tables in a corner, right at the front of the pub. I was particularly impressed with the Schlüssel Altbier, finding it refreshing and with a nice bitter “bite”. We stayed for several glasses, and had a Gouda roll each to go with the beer. This snack is known locally as a "Halve Hahn".
Zum Schlüssel can trace its history back to 1632, but like much of the Altstadt, the pub was destroyed in one of the heavy bombing raids carried out by RAF Bomber Command in 1943. Not exactly the air force’s “finest hour”! The pub was rebuilt after the war, and whilst the exterior looks relatively modern and functional, the interior has been fitted out in a traditional style.
The same can be said of Zum Uerige, which we visited the following morning. This pub looks even more modern than Zum Schlüssel, but a look inside is like stepping back in time, with a maze of different inter-connecting rooms. Uerige’s Altbier was, if anything, even more bitter than Schlüssel’s, but provided a good “pick-me-up” on Sunday morning. Matt and I sat outside, enjoying the warmth from the sun, whilst watching the people strolling by.
The following evening, we visited Zum Uerige for the second time; this time in the company of our
tour group. A trip to the Gents, and then trying to memorise your way back, led to several members of our party, including me, ending up in the wrong place, but with the weather set fair, it was nice to sit outside.
Brauerei im Füchschen, was our last port of call on Tuesday night. This was housed in a square and rather functional-looking 1950’s building, but like other Altstadt pubs had a traditional interior, with plenty of dark wood and beams on the ceiling. “Füchschen” translates as “little fox”, and a picture of a small fox looking up lovingly at a large foaming jug of beer, is the brewery logo.
This short insight into Düsseldorf Altbier gives a taster of the delights which await lovers of traditional should they choose to visit this vibrant city, but the beer itself is available all over town, and you will not need to look far in order to enjoy a glass or two.