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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.
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.”
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.