Beer sales

Ale Mary! Traditional Brewer Turns to Lager

beer brewers concerned about barley patents
Füchschen has been turning water into beer for decades. Source: Picture Alliance

If in 1848 anyone had told the master brewer of Füchschen Alt that his company would one day produce a pils beer, there would have been a mutiny in the vat room. The very mention of lighter pils beers has been sacrilegious to Füchschen, established that year, and the many other Altbier breweries in and around Düsseldorf, a city synonymous with the production of dark, hoppy Altbier (old beer), for hundreds of years.

But now the brewer is doing the unthinkable, and following the crowd to gold. It has become the first ale brewery in the world’s Altbier capital to add lager to its production, in a move seen by many as a response to changing tastes. And one that is causing plenty of chatter.

Füchschen is one of five remaining Hausbrauereien, or pub-breweries, in Düsseldorf’s old city center where unpasteurized Alt is poured directly from big wooden barrels. Others specializing in the city’s signature drink include Schumacher, Schlüssel, Uerige and Kürzer. While dozens more brew a similar ale in the region, all of them have one thing in common – they’re losing customers. The ranks of older ardent Altbier drinkers are thinning, and many younger consumers are turning to lagers.

The numbers speak for themselves. Of the nearly 162,000 hectoliters of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and mixed beers sold in Düsseldorf’s home state of North Rhine-Westphalia in May, lager accounted for the lion’s share with 118,000 hectoliters, or 73 percent. This compared with Alt’s 9,650 hectoliters, or 6 percent, according to the NRW brewers association.

Düsseldorf is the heart and soul of Altbier.

Füchschen wants to drink in lager’s success. “Our goal was to brew a full-bodied, tangy and hoppy lager and we’ve done just that,” said Peter König, the owner and head of family-owned Füchschen, at a launch event in Düsseldorf. “We’re now happy to serve a tasty Alt together with a fine pils.”

Füchschen fans, however, may need some time to acquire a taste for the new brew. “It tastes very malty and bitter,” Bernd Carstens told Handelsblatt Global. “I thought it would be much milder because of the 5.2 percent alcohol content.” Some don’t see a big difference. “The first few sips actually taste a lot like Alt,” said Janni Mpaltatzis.

But there are significant differences. Alts are copper to brownish-amber in color and medium- to full-bodied in taste, low in carbonation with a firm malt character. They have a medium to high bitterness level, with a minimal hop aroma and an alcohol content of 4.5 to 5 percent.

Traditionsgaststätte FÜCHSCHEN in der Düsseldorfer Altstadt
The Alt ones are the best. Source: Picture Alliance

The brewing techniques are fundamentally different, too: Alts use so-called “top-fermenting” yeast strains, which ferment at the top of the fermentation container, while lagers have “bottom-fermenting” yeasts. And their different types of yeast also call for different temperatures: Alts are fermented warm and then given a period of cold-conditioning at low temperatures for four to six weeks.

Many think Füchschen, which translates “Little Fox,” shouldn’t dilute its Alt tradition. “People come to Füchschen for one reason – to drink Füchschen,” said fan Christoph Gohr. “All I can say is, stick to what you do best.”

Some beer experts agree. “There’s a real risk of the new lager cannibalizing Altbier,” Hermann-Josef Walschebauer, an independent beer consultant, told Handelsblatt Global.  “And there are already plenty of lagers on the market.”

Mr. Walschebauer cited Diebels as example of what can go wrong. The large ale brewer in nearby Issum introduced a pils in 2005 but pulled it off the market five years later. The company, which has been struggling with declining sales for years, is now up for sale by its owner, AnheuserBusch InBev.

Yet some Alt fans applaud Füchschens’ embrace of variety. “Thumbs up for the courage to try something new,” said Heinz Helten.

 

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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