At a favourite craft beer oasis recently I was presented with a prime sampling of what I had been craving for a while. It was a hybrid style not often seen on tap and it hit the spot! It also got me thinking about this whole genre of beers, which do not get the esteem due them nor enough exposure in the local craft brew market. Many ale purists pass these styles by, the same way a mongrel dog is shunned by pedigree fanciers. For my tastes the hybrid beers are wonderful mutts that just need an opportunity to become a best of breed winner.
Hybrids are beers that, unlike Kim Mitchell’s dilemma, don’t make you “choose between lager and ale”. They are both. Some were born out of necessity, some from fine tradition, some the result of brewer innovation. Hybrid beers sometimes have lager character with ale flavour, and sometimes ale character with lager flavour. In any case, they are in a unique niche that straddles the line between the two macrocosms of the beer universe. Hybrid beers can be a good choice for beer drinkers who like the flavour of big ales but not the sharp character, and for ale drinkers who want a smoother alternative which drinks well in a sitting.
Let’s look at what makes hybrids so special, avoiding an eye-rolling microbiology lesson. Simply put, a hybrid is the result of changing either the traditional brewing method for a given style, or the type of yeast used in an ale or lager recipe. Lagers have a process which requires a long cold secondary fermentation and a cold-tolerant yeast. Ale is brewed at warm temperatures and uses yeast which performs best at warm temperatures. It is finished in a warmer environment, and ready sooner than lager. This gives it some wonderful fruity tastes and aromas, but also a sharp and distinctly fresh character. Lager’s cold fermenting and long cold conditioning gives a mellow rounded brew with malty-earthy character and no fruity aroma. So, when a brewer pitches warm fermenting ale yeast at cooler lager temperatures or pitches a cold fermenting lager yeast at warm temperatures, or cold ages an ale or warm conditions a lager, we get hybridization and a beer which displays elements of both types of beers.
Some common hybrids in the lighter end of the genre are Kölsch, cream ale, and American pilsner. Kölsch is a cold lagered German pale ale made with Pilsner malt. Cream ale is a North American innovation —a golden ale is cold fermented or pitched with a hybrid strain of yeast. American pilsner is listed as a hybrid in the style guides but from my perspective it is just a debasement of Czech pilsner that uses gristed corn and/or rice adjuncts. The local craft beer market has a number of examples of these the lighter hybrids but not the darker, more robust hybrids. My preference gravitates to the darker, more substantial side of the hybrid genre. One of these darker hybrids is the copper coloured historic brew from the Dusseldorf region of Germany called Altbier. The other is “California common” aka “steam beer”. Both are among my preferred pub quaffs because they are balanced, flavourful and drink wonderfully alone or paired with a wide variety of foods.
Altbier is a long time favourite and I have written about the style’s origins at length here, so I won’t dwell on that aspect as much as the character of the style, and a wonderful sub-class called sticke alt. The word “alt” means old in German, so altbier refers to an old style of beer that traces its origin to the days before lager brewing in Germany. Alts are amber ales, from the use of Munich malts. They have a bit of rich complexity in their malt profile similar to a Dunkel but with distinct nut-like earthy flavours. Alt is usually dry finishing and has a good amount of bittering hops, with some examples showing relatively potent hopping. This is essentially an amber ale fermented cold (with hybrid yeast) and cold conditioned (aged) like lager – thus the mellow malty flavour, yet dry and hoppy. A first-rate quaff and very easy drinking. Commonly available examples are Duckstein Alt, Beau’s great Festivale Alt, True North Copper Altbier and Creemore’s excellent Collaboration Altbier.
A variation called sticke or “secret alt” is bigger and bolder in flavour and strength. It was historically called a secret beer because it was usually an exceptionally good batch of Altbier the brewer held back for himself and friends. Later it was released to customers (only twice a year) but the recipe was “secret”. Sticke alt is altbier on steroids, originally a brewer’s mistake in using too much malt and hops, sticke alt is a more intense dose of all the traditional alt facets – full-bodied, well-hopped, perfect balance between bitterness and nutty-malty sweetness, strong notes of chocolate and toasted grains, deep copper colour with complexity of an ale, aromatic hop aroma and the heading of a pilsner, yet the clean dry finish and sturdy body of an Oktoberfest marzen. It is to amber ale what bockbier is to lagers. I love this beer style and buy up all I can when it is available. We have only a couple of sticke altbiers made domestically – Beau’s Festivale Plus (which is a superbly balanced malt bomb) and Les Trois Mousquetaires S.S. Sticke Alt from Quebec – a highly-rated beer available in limited quantity once a year.
For even more intense sticke altbier tastes there is a “dopplesticke”. A double altbier brewed to imperial strengths (8% – 9% abv) in small batches (comparable to a Dopplebock lager), this rare hybrid brew usually is not available except through import. Too bad – I think it would give a lot of imperial ales some major competition in this market.
Finally we come to another North American hybrid — “steam beer” or California common. This style was the result of necessity and pioneer brewer innovation, born in the era of the California gold rush when lager was the new rage and the frontier lacked the ice, cold water and cold cellaring to make lager properly. Frontier brewers used large open fermenting pans to cool the beer wort quickly to pitch the heat-intolerant lager yeast. Lots of steam escaped from these pans. They then fermented the lager yeast at warm temperatures and aged it at warmer temperatures. This warm aging made a very effervescent brew with profuse carbonation that gave the beer a large frothy head. It was also well hopped to cover some of the nasty tastes in frontier water. The style was almost defunct until resurrected by modern west coast craft brewers. The new crafted variation of steam beer genre is referred to as “California common” and was pioneered by Anchor Brewing of San Francisco.
Generally, crafted steam beer is light amber to copper in colour, lightly fruity, moderately malty with firm hop bitterness. The malt character is usually toasty and caramelly. Hop qualities feature woody, rustic, minty discernment. Medium bodied, malt pronounced with clean crisp pilsner character which finishes fairly dry with a hop bite. Has both ale fruitiness and lager malty complexity and clean crispness. Steam beer is under-interpreted by local craft brewers and that is our loss, but there are some good examples available. The prime examples are Anchor Steam – the benchmark of the style and my personal go-to session brew, and Flying Dog Old Scratch (sometimes seen on special order), and more recently Northwinds Kingpin steam beer.
Malt Monk’s Taste of the Month
Northwinds Brewing Kingpin Steam Beer
This Collingwood microbrewer has been impressing me with a steady output of solid offerings. The latest is their rendition of the steam beer style called Kingpin. I sampled this recently on tap and was impressed enough to order a couple because it drank well and it filled a craving I have for the style. Believe me, it pairs well with smoky barbeque and sharp cheese. This is a light amber beer with a big frothy white cap – hints of fruit in the aroma, medium bodied, toasty-caramel malt is well balanced with woody hops, mildly complex with a crisp dry finish and hop bite. A very decent representation of the style. I’ll order it any time I see it on tap.