Tyranena Brewing Company
Craft beer enthusiasts devote a lot of attention to bitterness as they seek out the latest and greatest, so much so that good brews under their noses can be overlooked. The altbier is one such style, with its smooth malty tones and clean balance. Then there's a lack of familiarity with the alt, given that few breweries in Wisconsin produce them. But I find this copper-colored beer to be wonderfully easy to drink -- almost too easy.
One such beer is Headless Man Amber Alt, which is made by Tyranena Brewing. Owner and brewmaster Rob Larson has produced it since he opened the brewery, making it the first and longest continually offered altbier among Wisconsin craft beers.
What is it? Headless Man Amber Alt from Tyranena Brewing Company of Lake Mills, Wisconsin.
Style: The altbier is commonly associated with Düsseldorf, capital of the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen in western Germany. The word "alt" means "old" in German, and signifies that this beer was established before pale lagers from Bavaria became the country's and subsequently the world's dominant style. Altbiers are ales, but they are conditioned in cooler temperatures like a lager. That can create cleaner and crisper dimensions to the flavor. Altbiers range from deep bronze to a hazy ruby brown in color, and have a thick head, with faint fruity tones along with biscuity or toasted malt flavors. The finish is commonly dry and lightly hopped, but these beers are generally clean without any lingering aftertaste.
Background: Headless Man Amber Alt has been offered by Tyranena since it opened in 1999. From the brewery's original portfolio of beers, only this one and its Chief Blackhawk Porter remain part of its year-round lineup.
"When we started, we had this amber ale, a pale, a brown and a porter. That was before IPAs really took off," says Rob Larson with a laugh. "I certainly didn't think IPAs were going to be that big around Lake Mills."
Larson says Headless Man does not have a huge following, but can claim a solid fan base. It is especially liked by regular tasting room visitors looking for a pleasant, easy drinking amber beer that has color, maltiness and clean finish. "Its popularity has grown, but other styles have grown far more," he notes. Two of Tyranena's more recent creations -- Bitter Woman IPA and the bourbon barrel-aged Rocky's Revenge -- have become its two biggest sellers.
Headless Man doesn't get the fanfare of Larson's other brews, but it deserves an "unsung hero" status for its longevity and a recipe that has remained steady for 15 years. It's made with Two-Row Brewers malt, along with Pale, Aromatic, and Munich caramel malts. The hops include Perle and Liberty for bitterness, and Tettnanger for aroma. This is a beer that is supposed to be flavorful yet very easy-drinking.
"It's very clean -- the hops are there, but not as dominate as other U.S. versions of amber beers," explains Larson. While it's made in the traditions of a Düsseldorf-style altbier, the word "amber" is used in its name to let those unfamiliar with the style know what to expect.
Larson says his inspiration for making an alt came early in his brewing career after trying versions from St. Stan's Brewing Company of Modesto, California. That brewery claims to be the first in the U.S. to make an traditional altbier outside of Germany. Larson himself has traveled to Germany to taste examples the style first-hand, and adds that those experiences have encouraged him to keep making his own version.
The beer's name, Headless Man, is a reference to stone effigies that are believed to be located deep in the waters of Rock Lake. The headless man, along with pyramids, a turtle, various circles and other structures are unexplained; however, they are commonly attributed to inhabitants of Aztalan, an ancient Mississippian culture settlement of mound-building Native Americans that was established between the 9th and 13th centuries just east of Lake Mills. A local artist used lake maps and various accounts from fishermen and scuba divers in creating the image of the headless man that is depicted on the beer's label.
Headless Man takes about two weeks to make and finishes around 5.25% ABV. It sells locally in six-packs for around $8-$9. At the brewery it's also available in pints for $4 and growlers for $10 per refill.
- Aroma: A light blend of malty-biscuit tones; and a hint of herbal-spiciness from hops.
- Appearance: Clear, amber-copper color; and a medium, soft, tan head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, soft and bubbly.
- Taste: Smooth maltiness with firm bready-biscuity sweetness. There is a light spicy hoppiness in the background that lends flavor balance.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Clean, with light dry spicy bitterness.
Glassware: The altbier is traditionally served in Germany in 200 ml (7 ounce) glasses called a "stange," which translates to "stick" or "staff" in German. The stange looks very much like a Tom Collins glass. The narrow glass allows the beer's color to stand out and keep the light aromas focused above the beer's head.
Pairs well with: This is a beer with lots of food options. I prefer taking advantage of its caramel-malty flavors and pair it with roasted meats, especially ham. It'll also go with grilled pork and seafood like salmon.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: I really enjoy an altbier, especially this time of year as a nod to the Oktoberfest celebrations in Germany. An alt should be lightly malty, yet clean and balanced. Headless Man certainly meets those standards, and its flavor compares favorably to German standards like Uerige, Schumacher and Schlösser. Tyranena makes a pleasant, mildly malt-forward alt that offers hints of bready-biscuit and caramel flavors, and is lightly hopped with just enough bitterness for balance.
Headless Man deserves a place in the fridge because it's easy to drink. Though it's a little too strong to be a true session beer, it will appeal to a range of friends' tastes and is versatile with food. Given that there just are not that many Wisconsin breweries bottling an alt, Headless Man is all the more special.