Never let it be said that innovation and tradition are mutually exclusive; the altbier style is ammunition enough against that notion. One of the first true “mash-up” examples in brewing, altbier was born out of the proliferation of lagers that began in Bohemia as early as the fourteenth century. As the sparkling, cool-fermented beers made their way up into Germany, they began to encounter slivers of resistance, particularly in the region of North Rhine Westphalia. Here, residents acquiesced to the lagering process, but retained warm fermentation by ale yeast. The result was an earthy, moderately hoppy brew that saw noticeable, but restrained influence from the yeast.
Of course, even back then, brewers couldn’t leave well enough alone, and soon began producing variants on the style: “sticke,” for example, implies a stronger, slightly darker, more assertively hopped take. Dusseldorf, in turn, originated the adambier—an especially strong, occasionally smoky and/or wine-like version of an alt—which today is seeing a small resurgence.
This guide, then, appropriately seeks to recommend a range of beers that cover the broad spectrum comprising the altbier style. It speaks to the flexibility and influence of the beer itself that these examples span half the Earth.
Photo via Uerige
Generally, this is the measuring stick for standard-strength altbiers. Packaged like all other Uerige products in an attractive, distinctive swing-top bottle, this amber-hued beer is floral and nutty, with a suggestion of marmalade and a surprising hop kick in the finish. Uerige products are, thankfully, beginning to see more shelf presence in U.S. bottle shops, and can be acquired for five or six bucks a bottle.
Photo by Hair of the Dog
The beer that helped reignite interest in the adambier style, this was also the first product put out by Adam Sprints at Hair of the Dog. Considered a loose interpretation, this beer—all at once an altbier, a barleywine, and a strong old ale—is one of the most complex and layered beverages ever produced: when fresh, it brings to mind everything from dark chocolate and leather to smoke and winter fruits. It ages gracefully, and Hair of the Dog keeps an updated vintage guide on their website to aid cellar fiends. Sprints also occasionally releases Adam from the Wood and Cherry Adam from the Wood, the latter of which is one of this writer’s favorite beers, regardless of style.
Photo by Alaskan Brewing
You know this beer. You see it everywhere, from your local bottle shop, to Kroger, to BevMo. Like so many pioneering beers, its ubiquity belies the scope of both its influence and heritage. Spend a little time with this one, and its complexities gradually show: hints of peach and toasted bread, orange peel and a distinctly herbal tang. This—this right here—is where most of you are going to start. We’re proud of you.
Photo by The Monarchy
The Monarchy, a decidedly new-school-attitude brewery, is making a habit of cranking out some downright exceptional old-world beers; last year they partnered with Stillwater to release It’s Still Weisse, a 3% ABV Berliner weisse with ginger and red peppers. It was ridiculous on paper, but damned if it didn’t outsell the session IPAs on tap at my bar last summer. But oh yeah, this beer: quite possibly the truest modern take on adambier, it is a full-bodied brew with flavor for days. Red grape, sweet smoke, tart berries, toffee, and dark chocolate all show themselves in some way or another. Assertive and charmingly disjointed when young, it nevertheless exhibits great aging potential.
Photo by Uerige
So, okay, yeah…this is a top five list, featuring two beers from the same brewery. But, holy Ninkasi on a popsicle, what a beer this is. A stronger, darker version of an alt, it is ridiculously rich, with flavors suggesting stewed figs, plum, baking spices, and chocolate. It also ages considerably well; 2008 bottles are showing English barleywine characteristics, with a profile leaning towards fortified wine.