On Wednesday, a colleague had volunteered to take me on a tour of good places for Altbier in Dusseldorf. Since you can't get Altbier in Cologne (more on that later), the trip went into the city of arts and high society.
Our planned route was simple, given that this was a school night, but what a trip it would turn out to be!
First stop was Brauerei Schumacher
, a great place for both types of needed substance, food and fluids.
The Altbier, brewed very similar to it's neighbor to the south, is slightly darker with distinctly more flavor.
It is served the same way, in 0.2-0.4l glasses, and the waiters constantly ambulate to make sure no one has a glass in danger of being empty. It's swiftly replaced, and a mark is made on your coaster to tally your consumption.
The beer is freshly tapped from old wooden casks which are sent up from the basement to the bar with a nifty elevator.
Along with the delicious, surprisingly bitter beer, we needed food. Since I was lucky enough to have a native "tour guide", we tore into a selection of black bread with cooked lard and "Happen" - bread rolls with various toppings such as liver wurst, raw ground beef, and raw pork. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper, and you have a real treat.
It is considered an art and a skill to serve raw meat, and the restaurant must have specifically trained and licensed butchers and cooks to prepare the Happen. Anything not sold within two hours of preparation is discarded.
Schumacher is one of a dwindling number of traditional breweries still operating, and traces its origins back to 1838.
After a delicious meal and more glasses of Altbier than I could count, we headed off to our next stop, Hausbrauerei "Zum Schlüssel"
We had now moved into the old city - Altstadt - a charming district which fills up with tourists and locals in search of a hopping nightlife.
Not dwelling too long, I still had a chance to sample their variant of the Altbier. This one was markedly sweeter and without the bitter "sting" that the last one had. But it was still good!
Onwards again, we now set our sights on UERIGE Obergärige Hausbrauerei
Uerige (a slang for "ancient, old"), is a large place with a couple of serving rooms and high ceilings. As with the others, fairly basic, wooden furniture inside, and standing-room tables and/or a biergarten on the outside. We sat inside, used some wooden barrels as a table and began sampling
Man, was this beer good. A perfect balance between the malt and hops - to my surprise, I was soon about to learn that it comes in at around 50 IBUs. Would never have guessed. The beer is served in these glasses to prevent it from going dead before the customer can finish it. Carbonation is natural and light, so drinking fast is considered culture.
On my way to making room for more, I noticed a brewer who was scraping spent hops out of the equipment. As I stopped to smell, I sighed a loud "Look at that", to which the guy responded - "are you American?". At first I didn't think it possible, but as we began talking, it turned out that it was John from North Carolina, with parents living in Philadelphia! John was a home brewer for 12 years before going to a brewing academy in Chicago and through his professor getting an apprenticeship at Uerige. He had been there for several months, now producing roughly a third of their annual 20,000 hectoliter (almost 17,000 barrells) output. Half of the production is consumed on premises, the rest elsewhere. In the US, Uerige is distributed by B United, and they have outlets a-plenty in PA
John was the nicest guy, and he proceeded to give me a tour and history of the brewery!
The brewing takes place over 4 floors, with the cool ship, a sort of a pre-chiller, at the very top
From there, the wort goes down and is run over this, an open-air heat exchanger that cools the wort to pitching temp. This is a shtick bier, by the way, which is only available the 3rd weeks of October and January.
I asked John if the room we were in was a "clean room", which it turned out it wasn't. He could see I was puzzled, as homebrewers are so often concerned with wild yeast infection, but he told me it was a pretty much non-existent problem. Perhaps the rapid chilling and large volume kept the beer safe, but it was nothing to worry about over 147 years of operation.
Next, on to the fermentation tanks
They cultivate and reuse their own yeast, and have of course their own strain hidden away in a safe place.
Finally, John took me to the distillery where he explained how they make their schnapps from specially brewed beer. Many breweries take the returned, unsold, expired beer and use it for schnapps, but at Uerige they use a dedicated beer.
John doesn't quite know what will happen next when his apprenticeship ends in September, so we exchanged contact information and I invited him to come speak at a club meeting should he find himself back in Philly upon his return.
Back at the barrel table with my colleague, it was time for a last Metthappen (raw pork), another altbier and then time to head home after a wonderful evening.
PS: Oh, and the rivalry between Altbier and Kolsch, Dusseldorft and Cologne? It goes back a long time and is at times a little "interesting", but it means you cannot, absolutely not, get the other city's beer when your in the wrong town. I'll have another little tidbit on this later from my trip around Cologne.