The alt. It's a simple style for simple people. Take, more or less, any red beer – some pale base malts, some caramel specialty malts – add to it some innocuous noble hops, add some ale yeast, let it ferment at basement temperatures for two weeks and you're done. Really. It's that simple. So, what differentiates the "alt" from, say, an amber ale? An alt is fermented at lower temperatures. So, what differentiates an "alt" from, say, a marzen (aka "oktoberfest", or "amber lager")? The alt actually uses ale yeasts. That's it. Three types of amber beer: amber ale, amber lager, and the hybrid alt.
The amber is an exceptionally drinkable beer and one that can absorb just about anything. That's why there's so many different variations. Very warm fermentation? Mexican steam beer. Lots of hops? American Amber. Add some roasted malts? Light porter. Add some Munich and Vienna malts (both specialty malts with a very distinct biscuity/caramel/dry profile)? Vienna Lager. Just about every brewery on the planet makes an amber beer (or two or three) of some sort. In the grand scheme of things, we really have 3 general classifications of beer: light, amber, dark. If you don't like the wimpiness of classic light beers, but don't want to be weighed down by the classic darks? Easy. Amber.
It's a style that is made for Wisconsin. Wisconsin-ites have been drinking amber beers forever. Indeed, one could say that we are defined by our amber beers. Leinie's Red. Capital's Autumnal Fire. Lakefront Stein. Point Amber. The scores of Oktoberfests that litter our festival grounds. It is a beer for those who love beer and love to drink a lot of it. And we Wisconsin-ites love our beer, and we love to drink a lot of it. Heck, Capital alone makes five: Oktoberfest, Autumnal Fire (an Oktoberfest doppelbock), the Rustic Ale, the Wisconsin Amber (an amber lager), and the Winter Skal (a Vienna lager, which is an amber that uses specific types of malts).
As for alts. This specific style itself is a little rarer. But, Tyranena makes an excellent alt. The enigmatic BluCreek makes one. JT Whitneys make 2 or 3.
New Glarus has an amber ale (the Snowshoe) and an amber lager (Staghorn). But this time Dan Carey, head brewer at New Glarus, sat down and made a beer that speaks straight to Wisconsin-ites. He said, "Wisconsin, I have heard your call. I love you. I will make a beer just for you. One that will speak to your love of beer. One that will speak to your worker's love for the craft of beer making. One that will open its arms to you. One that will knock you on your ass if want to have a party." So Dan took some pale malt, some caramel specialty malts, a little bit of the noble hop, some oak chips for a little woody classiness, did his own special New Glarus thing (an extra-long kettle boil and a brief open fermentation), and made a 9% ABV altbier that oozes Wisconsin. Mr. Carey unleashed this on the world in early November, and it is now a permanent year-round beer for New Glarus. Call it an altbier, call it a Triple Alt, call it a DoppelAlt, call it whatever you want; but it will answer your call.
I have reserved my drool for New Glarus for a long time. I've always thought New Glarus was over-rated. And in many respects I still think that; Spotted Cow is fine, if unspectacular; Hop Hearty, Fat Squirrel and Road Slush is "eh" to middling for me. The Snowshoe is OK. Dancing Man Wheat is good. Edel Pils is great. Etc. New Glarus was fine, but nothing special. But this year, Dan has seemingly kicked it into high gear. Imperial Weizen. Berliner Weiss. The unbelievable Bohemian Lager. This year's Staghorn was a standout. And the continued solid output for the year-rounds. And now this. Combine the Alt and the other year-rounds with the unparalleled Unplugged series, and New Glarus' new R&D line that is coming, and it is hard to fathom a better all-around brewery in the United States.
New Glarus Alt
Appearance: bronze and hazy with a nice, stable foamy white head that forms on top
Aroma: caramel, bready, a hint of lemongrass and a slight booziness
Flavor: a smooth, clean, caramel malt attack with a brightness and finish that leave me wanting more; the hops are virtually undetectable until the finish where they meld perfectly with the yeasty booziness that comes through; although it doesn't start dry, it finishes cleanly
Body: a medium lean build; think Roy Jones, Jr. – a 170 pound lean, mean light heavyweight.
Drinkability: Thank you, sir, may I have another. After 3 or 4 though you may not be able to order another.
Summary: You can go through the dictionary and find every superlative and all of them would be accurate. Dan Carey is an evil man to dress up this nasty of a beer in such a diminutive package (9% ABV? an altbier? How coy.)
It is a beer that will challenge Capital's Autumnal Fire, Lake Louie's Louie's Reserve, Central Waters' Bourbon Barrel Stout, Lakefront's Bridge Burner, and Rowland's Oktoberfest (or Dark or Pils) as the best that Wisconsin has to offer (as an alternate, in case the other states want to keep it to 12ozers or beer that is only available in bottle, you can add Ale Asylum's new Mercy Grand Cru, which we will review on Friday). Put those six beers in a six pack against any other state's and Wisconsin will have a strong argument as the best brewing state in the United States. We don't brag much here (California, I'm looking at you) and we don't get the glory (Colorado), but these are some of the best beers available in the world, so you should count yourself lucky that they are available to you because none of these are available outside of our borders.
One other thing you should note about those beers that represent the best that Wisconsin has to offer. Only two of them are lagers, the others are ales. This bucks the conventional wisdom regarding Wisconsin beers; that all we make are boring German lagers. Classified under the "boring" lager are of course Rowland's Fest (dark or pils), all made to high degree of competence - perhaps even better than many of the German masters themselves - but also a unique take on the doppelbock. The hybrid, lagered ale is unique variation of the altbier. Of course, the true ales are a scotch ale, a stout, a strong ale, and a Belgian Grand Cru, respectively.