The beer calendar is a-changin’. If your local liquor store is worth its salt, it’s already stocked up on the new seasonal brews: Oktoberfests / Märzens, heady brown ales, and pumpkin porters.
But what if your beer tastes tend toward hops over malt? What if you like that rich, comforting toastiness those autumn styles deliver, but you’d like a little kick on the finish? What would a hop-head’s Oktoberfest look like?
We’d suggest keeping Altbier in mind. You’ve probably already tried one or two – maybe Schell’s Schmaltz’s Alt or Alaskan Amber. It’s a style that usually comes across hearty, bittersweet, and perfectly in tune with the flavors of fall.
So what makes these beers ‘Alt’? No, the brewers don’t wear thick-rimmed non-prescription glasses and listen to Yeasayer. The BJCP classifies them among “hybrid amber” beers. Let’s allow an expert to explain.
“‘Alt’ means ‘old’ in German, so it’s a beer brewed in the old style,” Michael Agnew tells us. “They call it a hybrid because it is fermented with a top-fermenting yeast strain (aka ale yeast), but it’s fermented at low temperatures closer to the lager range. It also is cold-conditioned for a long period of time like a lager beer.”
That extended conditioning time gives the beers spectacular clarity and smooth profiles. “It’s a rich, malty beer, but has a higher hop presence both in terms of bitterness and flavor than Märzen,” Agnew continues. “Altbiers always surprise me in their hop kick. Spicy / herbal European hops are the flavor.”
We decided to take a quick sip of two local Alts and see how they compare to the real stuff from Düsseldorf.
Tyranena Brewing Company Headless Man Amber Alt
This Alt from the Eastern Wisconsin brewers Tyranena sports a rusty ochre color with a head that dies down quickly to a wispy ring. It’s heavily perfumed – a truckload of sweet, bready malt dominates the nose and the same character follows through to the sip.
The hops really take a backseat here – lots of nutty, sweet malt and toffee with just a tiny touch of citrus. It’s a lighter-medium bodied sip with a clean finish. The profile is markedly sweeter than the other Alts in our survey, so if your tastes run bitter, this may not be the amber for you. That said, it’s simple, crisp, malty, and enjoyable.
Mankato Brewery Stickum
Pronounced “schtyk-oom,” it’s one of the two flagship beers for the newly established Mankato Brewery. It falls into the Sticke sub-style: a stronger and richer variant of a traditional Altbier. Stickum is a deep auburn brew with a thick foam cap. It’s not as aromatic as Headless Man, but what’s there is more than agreeable – nutty and toasty malt with some baking spice in the mix.
The sip is quite endearing – rich and deep, earthy yet smooth. It carries a medium body with the hoppy, spicy kick coming on late and clinging to the palate long after the finish. It’s a wonderfully balanced sip on which Mankato Brewery should be proud to begin staking a reputation.
Uerige Altbier and Uerige Sticke
ABV: 4.5% and 6.0%
In general, these German Alts have a less pronounced sweetness than the locals. We found them perfectly balanced and quite complex – that’s what 150 years of extra brewing experience will get you, apparently. As you might suspect, they come at a small premium ($5-6 for an 11.5-oz bottle), but they’re certainly worth it.
Uerige’s standard Altbier has a mild aroma, with a nuanced, light caramel and toast notes throughout the sip. The finish kept us coming back, with intriguing spice and a distinct mineral note that lingered before the finish fell away. Their Sticke is nuttier, with lots of carbonation keeping the mouthfeel lively. A pronounced hop bitterness anchors the Sticke, and it was deemed the best of the four tasted.
They produce an even more intense version (a Doppelsticke) that we’re going to have to rush back out and try. What say you, readers? Any fans of the Altbier style out there? Any more domestic examples worth exploring?