What does the autumnal equinox inspire in the beer person? An altbier comes to my mind -- an indicator of the halfway point between summer and winter, a benchmark for the change of season.
These beautiful deep copper-colored brews remind me of the colors of changing leaves. Their firm clean maltiness is slightly sweet and comforting, setting them apart from the crisp, sharp, hoppy brews of summer or the big full-bodied robust winter beers. So to pay tribute to the beer and the season, I made a special trip to the Great Dane Downtown for a pint of locally brewed altbier.
What is it? Altbier from the Great Dane Pub and Brewery.
Style: The traditional altbier is a brown ale, originating in Düsseldorf. "Alt" is German for "old," and these beers are somewhat of a hybrid between ales and lagers. Altbiers are fermented with ale yeast at warm ale temperatures but conditioned in cooler confines and for long periods, creating an ale that shares characteristics with a lager. These brews range in color from deep bronze to a hazy ruby brown. They can have a thick head, faint fruity tones, with an underlying maltiness that is biscuity or toasted, but not overwhelming. The finish is commonly dry and lightly hopped, yet overall the taste should be clean and balanced. Altbiers commonly range from 4.3% to 5.5% ABV.
Background: The Great Dane Altbier went on tap at the downtown location about a week ago. There aren't many locally-made altbiers around, so I consider this a special treat, especially since it's done so well. Other local notable alts are from Tyranena Brewing, which makes Headless Man Amber Alt, and the simply named "Alt" offered last fall by New Glarus Brewing.
Making a good altbier requires a special yeast and extended conditioning time. In the case of the Great Dane, a special German yeast strain is used. Then, more time in the conditioning tank gives the beer a smooth maltiness, which some say mellows its character. That's a technique brewers developed as the alt style emerged, before modern mechanical refrigeration further shaped current lager characteristics, and even the process of lagering (to store) beer.
The Great Dane Altbier finishes at 5% ABV. It sells for $5/pint and $10/growler (refill).
- Aroma: A light, yet firm maltiness.
- Appearance: Clear deep copper with a bubbly, tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, round and very carbonated.
- Taste: A solid caramel maltiness, clean and crisp.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A nutty maltiness, accompanied by dryness.
Glassware: The Great Dane serves its altbier in an English or nonik pint. Traditionally, the alt is served in a straight and narrow seven-ounce glass called a "Stange," which translates to "stick" or "staff" in German. However, a Tom Collins glass will substitute nicely, showing off the beer's deep bronze color and thick tan bubbly head.
Pairs well with: This beer makes a great match for one of the brewpub's many burgers. In particular, the firm caramel maltiness of the alt pairs nicely with the Sustain-A-Burger, with its toasted multigrain bun, mushroom gravy, and choice of an organic, locally raised beef patty or buffalo patty. The leaner and slightly sweeter buffalo is my pick.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Consensus: The current Great Dane Altbier has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at Beer Advocate or Rate Beer. (While there are ratings of this beer on Beer Advocate, they were provided for previous batches prior to 2006.)
The Verdict: The Great Dane Altbier is a very nice session beer -- that is, you can have more than one during a meal and not feel overly full. I enjoy this beer a great deal for its round mouth feel, and the firm malty body that's still balanced and clean. Noble hops add to a light dry finish that brings a crispness to the beer. You might think of it as a transition beer that offers great flavor and just the right color for easing into the brews of autumn and beyond.