Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Help Me Figure Out Alts

My first exposure to Alt beers occurred in 1995 during a dash through Germany. I don't recall the brand or brands we had, but I do remember thinking, "This isn't so great". The dark color belied the bland taste. There are plenty of German beers that I love, like a good Hefeweizen, or that pinnacle of sweet beers, Paulaner Salvator, but the couple of Alts I tried didn't impress me.

I didn't give it much thought until ten years later when I was living in SE Portland, and discovered that one of my favorite beers at my local, the Lucky Labrador, was Crazy Ludwig's Alt. It was rich and very hoppy, much more flavorful than my recollection of German Alts, but with a lighter color, as seen in the picture here. I was able to reconcile these conflicting pieces of information, thinking that the Oregon Alt was an inauthentic version -- and better for it.

Then Corey brought his Evolution Amber to the Green Dragon for Meet-the-Brewer night. He said it was really an Alt, but that -- who knows why -- calling it Amber sells more beer. He pointed to Alaskan Amber, saying it's really an Alt. Sure enough, take a look at the Alaskan Amber label, it says "Alt Style Beer". All of this contradicted my earlier impressions. Evolution was flavorful, in contrast to my German Alt experience, but not as hoppy as Crazy Ludwig's. None of them seemed to have much in common with Alaskan Amber, which is clear and pleasant -- it got me from Juneau to Bellingham on the ferry last year -- but not as interesting as Ludwig's or Evolution.

Clearly this style is not as easy to pin down as, say, an IPA or Barleywine. So what is an Alt? Michael Jackson described it as "brewed with dark malts, and very well hopped... an aromatic, slightly fruity, bitter-sweet taste". So far, my experience tells me that only Ludwig's is very well hopped; only Evolution is remotely fruity; and the German Alts of my recollection only had the dark malt going for them. Technically, an Alt is a top-fermented beer -- like ales -- but aged for a while at cool temperatures, like a lager. Corey has more technical details in his article about the Alt style.

Authenticity is not a big deal for me; it's fun to talk about how close something adheres to a certain style, but at the end of the day it's the taste that matters. On the other hand, I don't want to write off a whole style of beer based on a mistaken impression.

My curiosity led me over to Belmont Station to try and recalibrate with some German Alts. Unfortunately, the only one Belmont had in stock was a Pinkus Alt, from Munster instead of Dusseldorf, the traditional Alt capital. As if I needed more confusion, Pinkus Alt was another curve ball: light in color (see the picture), highly carbonated, but with little hop character. It was very much like a Czech pilsner, like a Pilsner Urquell that hadn't been skunked on the way over to America -- rich and malty with a little bit of clean hops on top. Tasty -- and USDA-certified organic -- but it seems like a different kind of thing than the dark Alts.

There was another Northwest Alt on tap at Belmont Station when I was there, the Collaborator Alt, but it didn't really clarify anything for me. It was dark and smooth, but wasn't hoppy, wasn't particularly malty. Nice drinking, but didn't help me figure out Alts at all. Corey's article mentions finding Diebels Alt at Whole Foods, but they no longer have it. Higgins has Diebels on their antique online beer menu -- I'll have to go down there and see if they still have it.

At some point I will venture into the wilds of Southwest Portland to see what Alts John's Market has for sale. In the meantime, if you have an opinion, tell me what it's about: help me figure out Alts.


  1. I believe that Laurelwood's Amber (formerly known as Ettinger Amber) is an Alt, but again, may differ in style from the ones you mentioned.

    It's been awhile since I've had one (it's only at the 40th & Sandy location.), but I remember it being really, really smooth, medium-low bitterness, dark amber color.

    Maybe I'll just have to do some more research.

  2. Zak, Laurelwood's web site says Ettinger Amber won a medal in the Alt category a few years ago. Not sure I've ever had it.

    The Horsebrass has a Walking Man Alt listed as on deck.

    But what I really want is to try a German Alt and see if I like it as well as these ones from around here.

  3. The word "alt" means "old," and the chief thing there is the yeast strain, which is an ale that exhibits lager qualities. That is, clean palate, no esters or typical ale sweetness. Alts, like other German lagers, have clear malt profiles.

    They should also be relatively assertive in hop character. I'll put a link below for style guidelines so you can see, but that's the secondary feature--clean hopping and nice, clean nutty malt.

    Most of the "ambers" are not alts, and Crazy Ludwigs is ridiculously not an alt (but a good beer). On rare occasions, the Widmers have their alt on tap at the Gasthaus, and that's the best example in the city. It was the first beer they brewed, and the one they admire the most.

    Style link here.

  4. Jeff, the Widmer website says the Alt is on at the Gasthaus right now... I'll try to check it out.

    Also, thanks for the link to the style sheet. It lists Hannen Alt and Alaskan Amber as North German Alts (as opposed to the Dusseldorf Alts). That unclogged my memory, pretty sure Hannen was the unremarkable Alt I had years ago.

    Still, I hope to find the real German stuff somewhere in town, just to have a reference point. Anyone have any pointers to German Alts in Portland?