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Copper-bottom ales halt lager tide in Germany

For Diebels, an "old" style means new business

The ales of Britain and Belgium (where they are sometimes known as speciales) and the top-fermenting, copper coloured Altbier of DŸsseldorf and nearby towns have a shared history as Western European hold-outs against the tide of lager that has spent a century and a half rolling in from Central Europe.

These styles are very similar: the British cask ale perhaps the most delicate, often low in gravity and accented toward hop bitterness; the speia1es Beige (sometimes bottle-conditioned) yeastier and spicier; the German Altbier usually cleaner (thanks to a period of cold maturation) and slightly malt-accented.

All are technically ales, and the English term is also sometimes used in Belgium. Though it sounds similar, Alt actually means "old", indicating "the style that existed before bottom-fermenting lagers".

We British, and to some extent the Belgians, feel a requirement to protect traditional ales, but this is less apparent in Germany. The need is there in Germany, too, but not truly appreciated.

Like some regional British and Belgian ales, Germany's Altbiers have attracted new attention in recent years, but perhaps at the cost of ceasing to be everyday local brews and becoming nationally-available specialities.

I was reminded of this the other day when, just across the Dutch border from the town of Venlo, I found myself in the neat, red-brick village of Issum, Germany.

The farmlands of this region have over the centuries been exchanged between the Netherlands and Prussia. It may well have been the Dutch name Theobalds that gave rise to the family Diebels, proprietors of the brewery on the main street of Issum.

Already a second-generation brewer, Josef Diebels worked at someone else's kettle before starting this establishment in 1878. Now, his great-grandson Paul, aged 35, is managing director, with his cousin Petra as chairperson of the board.

I was told that the brewery already made a Pils, as well as an Export and a Bock, in its first decade, but I think that is unlikely. When I pressed the point, Mr Diebels said that the company had kept little historical material.

Certainly, it produced these styles in the early 20th century, and I saw the labels. At the turn of the century, it was making around 11,000 hectolitres a year. After World War II, output increased to 50,000. By the 1960s, that total had increased to 200,000.

In 1984, the Alt was improved, when caramel colour (permitted in top-fermenting beers under the Germany Beer Purity Law) was replaced with a dark malt.

In the mid 1960s, Diebels decided to concentrate on its Altbier, and over the next 10 years phased out the other styles. In 1984, the Alt was improved, when caramel colour (permitted in top-fermenting beers under the Germany Beer Purity Law) was replaced with a dark malt. The grain is de-husked and ground before being roasted, to minimise burnt flavours.

The original gravity of Diebels Alt is 1046-7. A double decoction mash is employed, and the beer is hopped with Perle and Hallertau Mitttelfru in the form of both extract and pellets. The brewery has had its own yeast since at least World War II, and has used cylindroconicals since 1968. Primary fermentation takes one week exactly, and cold conditioning three to four weeks. Like most of the Alts, Diebels emerges with around 4.8 per cent ABV. All of the beer is flash-pasteurised.

Today Diebels makes 1.7 million hectolitres a year, all Altbier, and is sixth biggest among Germany's 1,200-odd breweries. All the larger ones are Pils breweries.

Diebels' 1960s copper kettles, visible from the street, gave way during the 1980s and 1990s to stainless steel vessels, in a brewhouse whose tiled walls are decorated with scenes from the company's history. The odd corner of the original structure survives, but most of the imposing, red-brick buildings, despite a touch of 1930s in the architecture, date from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Part of a bar-restaurant area is open to the public. The bar-restaurant has a Founder's Room, with pictures from the early days, a small museum and a cinema showing cartoons for children. Upstairs is a sports bar. There is also a beer garden.

Despite its out-of-the-way location, Diebels' restaurant is busy at weekends, but local sales hardly account for the company's huge volume. Increasingly, it is selling its product in other parts of Germany, as a speciality in the tied houses of Pils brewers.

How many large Altbier brewers can compete on this basis? The big six are, in descending order, Schlosser (part of the national group Brau und Brunnen), Gatzweiler, Hannen (owned by Carlsberg), Frankenheimer and Rhenania.

I enjoyed them all, but any of them would have been improved by a little more hop.

I tasted their beers side by side. Diebels Alt is very smooth, with a biscuity malt accent; Schlosser's has a slightly syrupy maltiness; Gatzweiler's is the fruitiest; Hannen spritzy and sharp (this beer has declined in character, and sales, in recent years); Frankenheim light, dry, yeasty and slightly sulphury; and Rhenania slightly thick-tasting. I enjoyed them all, but any of them would have been improved by a little more hop.

Visitors to Duseldorf itself may be more familiar with the city's famous brew pubs, where the beer are unpasteurised.

The one in the modern modern part of the city, Ferdinand Schumacher (123 Ost Strasse) has the lightest and maltiest Alt, though still a well-balanced brew.

The other three are in walking distance, in the Old Town (the Altstadt): Zum Schlusel (The Key), in Bolker Strasse, has the Alt that reminds me most of a British ale; Im Fuhschen (The Fox), 28 Ratinger Strasse, has a complex beer with plenty of hop bitterness; the biggest and most pubby, at 1 Berger Strasse, is Zum Uerige (an epithet referring to a cranky proprietor), with an assertive and hoppy brew.

The hungry are advised to head for Im Fuhschen, with endless variations of knuckle of pork, but no one should miss the rambling, picaresque Zum Uerige or its wonderful beer.

Boost for Berlin wheat beer style

Another Northern city boasting its own style is Berlin, with its local interpretation of a "white" wheat beer.

Berliner Weisse is very low in gravity (1030-2) and alcohol content (around 3.0 per cent) and has the intense tartness of a lactic fermentation.

This light, summer refresher, is usually sweetened with raspberry syrup or the herbal essence of woodruff. It is typically sold in the city's beer gardens and lakeside terraces in warm weather.

Both of the city's big breweries make an example. Schultheiss Berliner Weisse is bottle-conditioned but almost hidden by the brewery. Berliner Kindl Weisse is filtered, and less complex, but better promoted. Kindi's product is offered in beer cocktails at the Weissbier Stube, 51 Kinkel Strasse, in the historic centre of Spandau.

There may shortly be something more exciting in the Weissbier department from the smaller Berliner Burgerbrau in the former East. This enterprise is now owned by the Das Feine Hofmark brewery, on the borders of Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

Under its new proprietors, Burgerbrau has meanwhile made a very dark, chocolatey, rummy, creamy, black beer, called Bernauer Schwarzbier, at 5.2 per cent. This is a robust new competitor to the famous Kšstritzer Schwarzbier of the old East.

Published Online: MAY 5, 2000
Published in Print: APR 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Beer Styles - Brewery Review

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