Altbier – the taste of Düsseldorf

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. Altbier is to Düsseldorf what Kölsch is to Cologne (Köln), Both are survivors from the pre-lager brewing tradition of Northern Germany. The name Altbier, literally means “Old Beer”, and the description is particularly 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.

As well as being the dominant beer style in Düsseldorf, Altbier can be found in other parts of the Lower Rhine region, particularly in the towns of, Krefeld and Mönchengladbach. 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 (see below) and discovered that it still employed many traditional methods.  

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. The account is based on a four-day trip I made to the city back in 2017, with a small party of beer enthusiasts. It was my first and, so far only visit to Düsseldorf, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the city and its famous beer. Son Matthew and I arrived a day ahead of the rest of the party, which gave us the opportunity of getting to know the city a little better.

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.

Eight pubs are listed in Düsseldorf as brewing Altbier on the premises, and we visited five of them. I won’t describe them all but will pick out the three which particularly took my fancy. 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 1943, during one of the infamous heavy bombing raids carried out by RAF Bomber Command. Not exactly the Royal 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. With the weather set fair, Matthew and I sat outside, enjoying the warmth from the sun, whilst watching the people strolling by. Uerige’s Altbier was, if anything, even more bitter than Schlüssel’s, but provided a good “pick-me-up” on Sunday morning.

The following evening, we visited Zum Uerige for the second time; this time in the company of our tour group. This time we sat inside, enjoying the beer ans the ambience of this lovely old pub. The aforementioned jumble of inter-connecting rooms did lead cause a little confusion, and led led to several members of our party, including me, ending up in the wrong place following a trip to the Gents!

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.

Although we based ourselves in Düsseldorf we had a day out in Cologne, and also a day exploring the area around Wuppertal; a day which included a ride on the 110 year old Suspension Railway, which operates at a height of around 40 feet above the River Wupper, and runs for a distance of just over 8 miles. We also visited two fine old breweries; one producing Kölsch (Sünner) and the other Altbier (Schumacher). Both were old established, family firms, still employing traditional methods, but both were also companies which had not been afraid to invest for the future.

Although not quite as well-known as neighbouring Cologne, Düsseldorf is still well worth a visit. The city is home to the fashion industry, and has a large and thriving Japanese ex-pat community; in fact it is often referred to as “Tokyo-on-the-Rhine.” Like most major cities in Germany, it is easy to get around, with a well-connected, integrated and readily accessible public transport system. Its bustling international airport, the third largest in Germany, which is just 10 kilometres from the city centre, is far larger than that of Cologne, and offers a wider choice of inbound options and onward destinations.

For lovers of traditional beer and unspoiled local pubs, Düsseldorf is highly recommended, as well as making the ideal base for exploring the Rhineland area of Germany.

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