In 2006, a buddy and I got to visit the northwestern German town of Düsseldorf. I would recommend this trip to anyone, beer aficionado or not. The city to make you abandon the "humorless Teuton" stereotype once and for all, Düsseldorf is laid-back and friendly but still manages to preserve and celebrate its traditions.
I found myself overusing the word "cosmopolitan" on this trip, so surprised was I at the diversity of the population. For example, Düsseldorf has the highest concentration of Japanese expats in the world. There are parts of downtown where you won't hear German spoken for blocks.
Our favorite non-traditional pub was called Auberge (French for "inn"). This place was so dark that you almost had to light a match to see that the walls (and windows, fixtures, floor) were indeed painted uniformly black. The island that was the bar glowed brightly enough that, when seated there, the rest of the bar disappeared from view. Seems that the people there enjoy their privacy, and from the looks of some of them, I was more then happy to give it to them. It was like a hard-rock Prancing Pony
. The owner was an English guy who'd lived in Germany for eight years and never bothered to learn the language. "Ahhh, yeah, but me bird speaks it just fine."
We went back every night.
Düsseldorf is just down the Rhine from Köln
(Cologne). The two cities have a (now) friendly rivalry that, among other things, pits their local beers against each another. I made the mistake of ordering a bottle of Sünner Kölsch at another Düsseldorf rock club -- I'm pretty sure the bartender called me a girl.
Altbier is what they brew here, and it inspires fierce loyalty among the citizenry. One of the few remaining ale styles in the country that introduced the world to lagers, alt (simply the German word for old) hearkens back to a pre-lager past. Before there was Pilsner in the North and Helles in the south, there was this, well, Old Style beer. Altbier is a brown ale that has been put through an extended conditioning period, mellowing out its yeasty fruitiness and producing a delicate, balanced ale that goes great with hearty food.
The city's Altstadt (which, if you've been paying attention, you know means Old Town) is the center of the city's altbier drinking culture. Something like downtown St. Charles if it were a few hundred years older, Düsseldorf's Altstadt has been nicknamed "Germany's Longest Bar" because of its concentration of libationally-minded businesses. Most alt brewpubs are located here, the most famous of which is the Uerige
brewery and distillery. Stroll up to one of its tall outside tables, take a lean and within seconds you'll be enjoying some of Germany's tastiest ale. Add a shot of housemade schnapps and something porky from the menu and you've got an unforgettable afternoon on the Rhine. Then mosey around the Altstadt and take in a few other altbier houses, from Schlüssel and Schlösser to Füchschen and Frankenheim. (Fun to say, right?)
Uerige is one of the few Düsseldorf breweries that exports to the US. You may come across something from Schwelmer and Frankenheim, in addition to the occasional alt brewed in nearby Münster, Germany, but in St. Louis, the easiest altbier to find is actually an Uerige seasonal: the Sticke ("secret") Alt, a beefed-up version of Uerige's flagship ale brewed only twice a year. Its malty, nutty smoothness is, for many people, the final word on altbier.Matt Thenhaus is a Saint Louis bartender who believes there is a time and place for every beer. He blogs about beer every Wednesday.