We head back to the northwest today for the amusingly titled Sleigh'r from Ninkasi of Eugene, OR. Who knew Santa was a thrash metal fan? Ninkasi calls it a dark double alt, making it the first German beer style we've featured this year, but there's a tenuous link to the Alaskan Winter Ale we looked at on December 3rd. Alt, you see, is the German word for 'old', but the comparison between the two beers pretty much ends there.
Altbier is a hybrid beer style. Ales (pale ale, stout, IPA, brown ale, etc) are fermented relatively quickly at warmer temperatures and with yeast that floats to the top of the beer during fermentation. Lagers (including dark lagers such as bock and dunkels) are brewed more slowly at colder temperatures and with yeast that sinks to the bottom during fermentation, and then they're stored in conditioning tanks for far longer than most ales, and at colder temperatures. This is what makes lagers so crisp and refreshing.
Altbier is brewed with top-fermenting ale yeast but in the manner of a lager so, to put it simply, you'll get the full-flavoured characteristics of an ale with the dry crispness of a lager, and this is (probably) where the name comes from - alt referring to the old, top-fermenting style of brewing that was prevalent before lager became the most predominant brewing process in Germany. Altbier can be aggressively hopped but is more usually a malt-forward beer with delicate hop flavours and bitterness derived from German or Czech hops.
Alt is mostly associated with the German city of Düsseldorf, and despite being a relatively obscure style these days and one of the few remaining ales indigenous to Germany, there are different kinds of altbier. One in particular has some intrigue about it that's worth investigating. It's called Sticke.
Sticke is darker, maltier and hoppier than normal altbier and has an ABV a few points higher. There's even a more extreme example called doppelsticke (think 'bock' and 'doppelbock'). There is a small handful of Düsseldorf brewpubs which are now most closely associated with the altbier style and which brew sticke as a seasonal beer to be tapped, with German efficiency, on specified days of the year - on the third Tuesday of January and the third Tuesday of October, for instance, at the Uerige Hausbrauerei.
The name of this rare beer is derived from stickum, a local word meaning 'secret' and, as with most things that go back far beyond living memory, there are at least two stories describing how it came to be called by this name. One says that each brewery's recipe is a closely guarded secret. The other is a bit more complicated and far more interesting. It says that at a time when the ingredients for a batch of beer weren't measured as carefully as they are today, a brewer making altbier might put a little too much malt and then have to add more hops to keep the beer balanced, rather than pour it all down the drain and start again. This enhanced batch, which today we might call a double, or imperial alt, was tapped on a day arranged in advance and word would go out on the grapevine amongst a select few aficionados in a secret, or 'stickum', kind of way.
So, since Ninkasi calls Sleigh'r a double dark alt it seems to me that maybe it fits the description of sticke. Pass it on... but only to people you can trust.