David Brockington's Tasting 

Zum Schlüssel Alt

Initial Impressions:

This is my third review of Altbier.  In July of 2000, I posted a review of Zum Uerige, generally considered the standard of the style.  As discussed in that review, and the subsequent review of Im Füchschen posted in February of 2001, Alt is a style that demands consideration on its home turf.  It does not travel well, and translations in the U.S. are typically well wide of the mark.  Meaning, Alt is a style that one can not adequately understand without a visit to Düsseldorf.  I do not make this argument to establish any sort of snobbish credentials, but rather as a simple statement of fact.  While one can "travel the world by bottle" in many cases, Alt ain't one of them.  One who tells you otherwise is daft.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Düsseldorf four or five times in the past two years, and have sat in the Schlüssel brewpub on several occasions.  These notes are from a visit in July of 2000 as well as April 14, 2001, the latter with Steve Jackson, now of Los Angeles, and my partner Michelle.  At the time, Steve was based in Munich, which made for several successful joint trips of various continental beer sites.

Zum Schlüssel is located in the Altstadt, about a five minute walk from Zum Uerige, and about a ten minute walk from Im Füchschen.  Conveniently located across the street from Zum Schlüssel is an outlet for Schumacher, allowing one to hit all four of the essential Altbiers in a single pub crawl.  For any aficionados finding themselves on the continent, a night spent in Düsseldorf is simply a must.  Altbier is simply outstanding, and Cologne is a thirty minute train ride to the south.

Alt is a beer that is insanely drinkable, and delivered with an efficiency that would be illegal in many U.S. States.  It is served in attractive, narrow 25cl glasses.  An althouse will typically only serve the one beer (Uerige is an exception, with two), allowing glasses to be filled in mass, placed on the waiter's tray, who then cruises through his region of the pub in search of empties.  Once an empty is spotted, without question he assumes you want a fresh glass.  This creates unanticipated consequences, such as the "last glass" turning into the last four glasses.  Or, treating the sticke version of the Alt as the normal version, as I did at Uerige in October of 2001.

This day spent at Zum Schlüssel was not a stickenacht, so the beer was of ordinary strength.  At this strength, around 4.5% ABV (the original gravity is generally 1.048), Alt makes an excellent session beer.  In the glass, the beer is a shade darker than its cousins across the street at Schumacher, call it a dark amber.  It is crystal clear, with a very light, foamy tan head.  As these beers are natually carbonated and served from wooden casks by gravity, the carbonation is modest, resulting in a gentle glass of beer.  Furthermore, the yeast burns fairly clean, and while Alt is an ale, it is lagered following primary fermentation.  This results in a clean beer where the focus is plainly on the malt and hops.


A light sweet maltiness mingles with a subtle floral hoppiness.


Zum Schlüssel opens immediately with a resiny hoppiness that grows, but oddly does not linger on the palate.  A clean maltiness serves as a foundation to the bitterness; you will find no fruitiness or butteriness in this beer.  Zum Schlüssel finishes dry.

Final Analysis:

I would be happy with any of the four primary Alts, but each have their distinguishing characteristics.  In my mind, the Schlüssel boasts the largest, and most resiny, hop flavor of the bunch, although I would not argue that it has the largest hop character.  In terms of isolated hop character, Im Füchschen gets the nod, but my criticism of Im Füchschen is that the hop and malt do not blend as well as Uerige or Schlüssel.  While these are debatable points, it is not debatable that a trip to Düsseldorf is time well spent.


(Excellent on my 5-star scale)

Copyright 2002 by David Brockington,
all rights reserved.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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