Food & Drink » Food & Wine

A.M. Alt: The Perils of Day-Drinking



I popped into Buster's to find an interesting growler from their Pegas system. The nice fella behind the counter told me that, through some voodoo or another, the system would keep a growler fresh and zippy for weeks. I told him that I'd need to take his word for it because while I'm usually on top of things, deadline-wise, I didn't have a couple of weeks. I'd waited dangerously close to filing, and I had a previous engagement that night, so drinking it then was ill-advised.

Which is why I woke up Friday morning, sat down at my desk, and pounded 32 ounces of Hutton & Smith Altbier — at 7:15 a.m.

Altbier is German for "old beer," which employs a top-fermentation method similar to English ales, but then is matured at a lower temperature for a cleaner finish. With the advent of "lagering," most German brewers switched to the bottom-fermenting method like the one used in Pilsners. Hence, it's considered an old-style beer — which, in Germany, is pretty old. It's a style popular in Westphalia (Peace of Westphalia, 1648, ended the 30 Years' War; that's probably why the name is familiar) and almost nowhere else (who really cares about the 30 Years' War?).


Of course, this makes it perfect fodder for traditional-minded craft breweries like Hutton & Smith. Based in Chattanooga, H&S is named for a) James Hutton, whose Theory of the Earth explained in 18th-century glory the enormous spans of time over which geological changes occur, and b) William Smith, who produced the first geological map of the Earth. Evidently, the good people at H&S decided these intellectual exercises required a fair bit of mental lubrication and named a brewery after them.

Which is no stranger than my scheme to quaff the growler of ancient Teutonic brew for breakfast, maintain enough focus to write this column, get it off to my long-suffering editor, Mr. V, then meet my father for lunch. There were difficulties with the day's plan. First, that said column would get lost in the increasingly regular dump of lunatic fringe hate mail bombarding Mr. V of late. And second, that after a lifetime of disappointing experience with his fifth child, Dad would likely note that I had had a bellyful of beer before noon on a weekday.

"Big beers" refer to high-gravity or high-alcohol beers, and, at 5 percent ABV, H&S On-Sight Alt beer doesn't qualify. Still, it has a weapons-grade beer taste and feel. This is what beer tasted like when you were 10 and snuck a snort while your dad was berating the lawnmower. Or at least it's what you thought it tasted like, except this time it's pretty damn good. You don't have to put on a cool face for your older brothers and pretend to like it. This beer is like thinking back to some childhood fear and realizing that Dad was, in fact, a pretty mellow monster with interesting thoughts on the Rolling Stones: "Man, it's the imperfection in Gimme Shelter that makes it perfect! Can't you see that?"

That big, malty bloom followed by a clean finish becomes a real pleasure. Yet for all that big German beer flavor, it is remarkably light and crisp. There is a little more to it than a Pilsner and not so much going on as a hoppy IPA, and there is certainly none of that "Is this really a beer?" business you get when brewers get too trendy. I'm not sure I'd drink it with a salad, but it's hard to think of a sandwich or burger this altbier wouldn't complement.

At that aforementioned 5 percent ABV, it takes the edge off but not much else. I might suggest it as a method of coping for some of the people writing all that hate mail. That, and maybe pay a little more attention to your grammar.

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