Alt, Kobes, and Sticke: Inside Düsseldorf’s unique beer culture

By December 12, 2016 No Comments

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There’s a commotion at Füchschen, one of Düsseldorf’s traditional breweries. It’s lunchtime, and the dining-room is full, but one of the brewery staff is merrily rolling a barrel over the tiled floor. Head brewer Frank Driewer watches from a nearby table. “He’s not supposed to do that,” he says. Is he angry? Not at all. “That’s the Rhineland,” he adds with a shrug.

If Carnival-loving Rhineland is a bit different from the rest of Germany, then Düsseldorf is doubly so. The city has a reputation for arrogance, but it might be better described as confidence. It’s a place that refuses to do things in quite the same way as other German cities: the mustard is spicier, the shops are pricier, and—most significantly of all—the beer is darker.

“This is a place with different cultures and nationalities, where you’ll find several contradictions,” says Driewer. “Luxury and extravagance is a part of Düsseldorf, but there’s also the strong bond to tradition, as you can see in our brewhouse. People here are full of joy and love to celebrate.”

Altbier is the pride of Düsseldorf. This dark beer is a survivor of an age before pale lager conquered Germany and then the world. In some ways it’s more like an English ale; it’s fermented like one, and, with its characteristic bitter-toffee flavour, it tastes like one too. But not exactly: a period of conditioning gives it a cleaner, more unified character.

 

Füchschen is one of Düsseldorf’s finest breweries, and it’s conveniently close to Hotel Indigo Düsseldorf, on the edge of the Old Town. It’s a large, charismatic place, with a corridor-like bar, a dark-wood panelled dining room, and a multi-floor brewery at the back. The beers are served in stubby, cylindrical 25cl glasses, and when you’ve finished one, you’ll be served another by one of the blue-shirted Kobes (waiters), unless you say otherwise. Drinkers congregate in the bar but also outside—even when it’s very cold.

This time of year is particularly special at Füchschen. Available in bottle from mid-November, Füchschen’s Weihnachtsbier (Christmas beer) is on tap for one day only: Christmas Eve. It’s Füchschen’s version of a Sticke: a stronger beer made just once or twice a year by Düsseldorf breweries. “The beer is extremely popular,” says Driewer. “It’s a red ale, which is a little bit stronger than our Alt, and it’s dry-hopped, which give it a fantastic aroma. Christmas Eve, when we serve it out of wooden barrels, is an annual highlight.”

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Füchschen is one of five Alt brewers close to the city’s historic centre. The others are each excellent in their own way. There’s Uerige, with its maze of rooms, grumpy Kobes and bracingly bitter Alt; Kürzer, the new boy, where the beer is served from a glass keg on the bar; Zum Schlüssel, where the servers are female, and the beer has a delightful lemony hop character; and Schumacher, just outside the city centre, with its spicy, fruity Alt. Schumacher also owns Im Goldenen Kessel in the city centre.

Photo by: Will Hawkes

These breweries share Düsseldorf with a dizzying variety of restaurants and cafés, offering food and drink from around the world: Thai, Italian, French, and particularly Japanese—Düsseldorf boasts Europe’s largest Japanese community. There are also plentiful art galleries, museums, and theatres. This is a city that likes the good stuff, no matter where it comes from. So how has Alt remained so popular in Düsseldorf and its vicinity when it has died out elsewhere?

“Because Alt embodies a traditional style, which, in contrast to industrial style lagers, is associated with character, traditional craftsmanship, and a familiar atmosphere,” says Driewer. In other words: Düsseldorfers are not about to drink someone else’s beer when theirs is this good.

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