Dusseldorf beers aren’t particularly well known outside of Germany. Curiously, altbier, the deliciously dark and malty local brew, isn’t particularly well known outside of Dusseldorf itself.
But while it might lack widespread recognition, it’s certainly well appreciated within the city. In fact it’s a veritable institution and virtually the only beer sold in many pubs here.
Not only is the altbier completely individual in its own right, but an entire unique culture has developed around it. It’s presented in its own peculiar glass, brewed in a special way, and the service is legendary.
If you’ve arrived in the city looking to try some Dusseldorf beers, you’re in for a treat. This introduction covers their history, the best producers, and our favourite pubs to try them in.
Dusseldorf Beers: An Introduction to Altbier
The most popular Dusseldorf beers are undoubtedly the unique altbiers which are ubiquitous throughout the city. They range from dark brown to copper in colour which means they look a lot like an English pale ale. Despite appearances, altbier is fresher and more delicate in taste, but still bursting with slightly bitter, malty flavours.
Altbier is complex, delicious and surprisingly easy-drinking. It’s a great sup whatever the occasion, be it a refreshing sunny-afternoon bevvy or a full night out. Although at around 5% in strength, beware. It’s slightly stronger than your average session beer.
While this style of beer used to be popular throughout Germany, these days Dusseldorf is the last bastion of production. Sure, there are a few breweries outside the city brewing altbier. But the bulk of the country’s altbier is now both brewed and drunk right here.
The name “alt” literally means old. A nod to the fact that it’s one of the most traditional and historic styles of German beer. It acquired this moniker when trendy new pale lagers began to dominate in the European beer-scene in the 19th century.
Altbier is traditionally served in tiny 200ml glasses which are tall, straight, and thin to the point of being fragile. They’re specifically designed to maintain the head, carbonation and temperature just right until the next one lands in front of you.
In addition to their everyday altbiers, there’s a traditions of breweries knocking up special seasonal versions from time to time. “Sticke’s”, as they’re known, are a fair bit stronger than the usual recipes, coming in at around 7-8%.
They’re maltier, sweeter, hoppier, and darker than the normal altbiers and far more dangerous thanks to their high alcohol content. Curiously, they tend to cost the same price as the usual brew, giving you far more bang for your buck.
The word “sticke” translates to secret and you won’t necessarily be offered these irregular brews straight off. If they’re available then you may have to specifically ask for it.
Another potential reason for the name is that they weren’t originally developed to even be sold. They were created in small quantities by brewers for their own enjoyment rather than for a wider market.
However, it’s also rumoured that the first stickes were actually created by accident. Brewers measuring by hand, who may or may not have been under the influence, used completely the wrong quantities.
Finally, some people suggest that stickes were actually created by monks. The story goes that at the time of lent when they were unable to eat solid food, they’d instead brew a super strength beer. This would help keep them fortified (and no doubt in good spirits) for the period of abstinence.
Whichever version of their inception you choose to believe, if you’re lucky enough to get to try one you’ll notice it’s a completely different proposition to the standard altbiers.
The only other real alternative beer-wise in the more traditional pubs is a glass of pils. Which if you’re into beer is probably more familiar.
It’s a widely known variety of pale lager brewed in the style that largely replaced the methods used for altbier. Again, you won’t have a choice over which brand you’re served, it’s simply whatever one they have on tap.
If you’re desperate for a pils then go right ahead and order one, but otherwise altbier is definitely the one. It’s a large and totally unique element of Dusseldorf’s culture and something not to be missed on a visit here.
Dusseldorf Old Town – Altstadt
The Old Town in Dusseldorf is the epicentre of Dusseldorf beers and undoubtedly the best starting point to sample altbier. This history-packed neighbourhood is a largely pedestrianised rabbit warren of narrow cobbled streets lined with gorgeous old buildings.
Virtually every single pub and bar you happen across in this district peddles altbier as its primary beverage. Each establishment is affiliated with a single brewery and serves only their altbier meaning you don’t really choose your beer. Instead you pretty much just tell the barman, or “köbe” as they’re called here, how many you want.
While you obviously can get other drinks in the altstadt, altbier is definitely tipple of choice. And it’s a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years.
The altstadt is nicknamed “the longest bar in the world”, but don’t expect to find a single, impossibly lengthy countertop. It refers to all of the 300 or so bars and pubs that are packed into the district, combined together. Considering the altstadt covers an area of less than 0.2 miles squared, it’s some concentration of pubs.
Breweries That Brew Altbier Onsite in Dusseldorf
One of the great things about altbier is that it’s actually brewed onsite in many of Dusseldorf’s local pubs. Many of them even pour it directly from the barrel. Thanks to this, it’s as fresh as you can possibly get.
While at one time there were lots of pubs producing their own brews onsite, today there are just four. Most of the other pubs in the altstadt sell one of these varieties.
All of the breweries also offer traditional German food to accompany the altbier. Dishes like Himmel und Äd (black pudding, apples and mashed potato), Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle) and of course Bratwurst (sausages) make up the bulk of the menus.
However, you can also sample various smaller beer-snack sized delicacies. Finger foods like soleier (pickled eggs eaten with oil, vinegar and mustard), or open sandwiches topped with cheese or sausage and onion are popular.
Here are some of the best onsite breweries making Dusseldorf beers in the city:
Translated as “Little Fox”, Füchschen can trace its history back to around 1640. It’s little wonder that it’s a place deeply rooted in tradition.
The pub is housed in a large, old building near to some of the city’s most famous art galleries. Just around the corner you’ll find Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and many more.
Füchschen’s interior is large and open with dark wooden beams up above the standout feature. Outside there’s a long section of high tables for punters to stand at in good weather.
Füchschen also produce a weizen or wheat beer and a pils in addition to their standard altbier.
Address: Ratinger Str. 28, 40213
This is the new kid on the block when it comes to breweries in the Altstadt. Unlike the other brewhouses in the old town, Kürzer only opened its doors in 2010.
Tucked away down a narrow street in a part of the Altstadt nicknamed “Little Italy”, Kürzer instantly stands out. The sign on the outside is bright pink lettering on a white background, providing an inkling that it’s different.
Inside it’s a modern, bright, and uber-trendy, decked out in light wood with exposed brick walls – even a little hipster. It’s also pretty small giving it a nicely intimate feeling with the bar running through the centre of the space.
The food menu reflects Kürzer’s modern outlook, largely eschewing traditional German fare in favour of more up-to-date pub grub. Dishes like burgers, wraps and pulled pork make up the bulk of the menu.
Kurzer’s altbier also has a modern feel to it with a creamier head and slightly more bitter profile than the more traditional examples.
This bar has a young feel to it and is deliberately unconventional. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it’s certainly popular with the locals and is usually packed inside and out.
Address: Kurze Str. 20, 40213
Brewery Schumacher is considered one of the old bastions of Dusseldorf beer production. However, unlike the other traditional altbier brewpubs, it no longer brews in the Altstadt area.
Instead, Brewery Schumacher is located in Oststraße, better known as the Japanese quarter or even “Little Tokyo on the Rhine”. It’s surrounded by dozens of cracking Japanese restaurants serving up steaming bowls of noodles and more.
That said, they do still operate the brewpub in the Altstadt where they used to make the beer. It’s called “Zum Goldenen Kessel” which translates as “The Golden Kettle”. So if a visit to Oststraße isn’t on your itinerary, you can still taste the freshest Schumacher alt in its original setting.
Brewery Schumacher also produces three other beers, though they’re not as widely available as its original altbier. These are Latzenbier, Schumacher’s Sticke, and 1838s which was created to commemorate Schumacher’s 175th anniversary in 2013.
Address: Oststraße 123, 40210
Located on one of the Altstadt’s busiest streets is the Schlüssel brewpub. It’s another old establishment with a history dating back a couple of centuries. But Schlüssel is the smallest of the four traditional breweries in the Old Town.
One of the best features of Schlüssel is the beer garden. Not the small number of tables directly outside the pub, but the large beer garden in the churchyard opposite. It sits directly under the gorgeous yellow tower of Neanderkirche making it a quirky place to enjoy a refreshing altbier.
Schlüssel creates two stickes at different times of year on top of its normal altbier.
Address: Bolkerstraße 41-47
One of the old, uber-traditional Dusseldorf beers, Uerige’s altbier is extremely distinctive. It’s the most bitter of all the alt varieties produced in Dusseldorf giving it a really individual flavour.
Like the original owner whose nickname “Uerige” or “grouch” it bears, it’s a divisive, love it or hate it brew. This means depending on your tastes it will probably either be your favourite or most despised Dusseldorf beer. Uerige also makes a weissbier, two seasonal stickes and a Fassbrause in addition to its standard alt.
The Altstadt pub itself is vast and far bigger than it first appears. Its maze of rooms stretches across multiple floors taking up virtually the entire block it sits on.
Inside it’s full of dark wood panelling and old-school decor in keeping with its history. Outside on the street and opposite the pub there’s also a huge outdoor area for when the weather is fine.
Uerige has also added a distillery to its stable. Here they produce a number of beer schnapps – basically a beer that’s distilled until it’s seriously alcoholic – around 42%.
Named Stickum, its taste compares to something like a single malt whisky or a great cognac with beer-like notes. There are 8 different varieties, each aged in different barrels for a varying number of years. They range from a basic Stickum through to a ten year old aged in an ex bourbon barrel.
Unfortunately due to licencing laws, Stickum only available to drink on a Friday and Saturday in the pub. On top of that you can only drink it in the dedicated Stickum room.
Address: Berger Str. 1, 40213
Alter Bahnhof Oberkassel (Gulasch Alt)
On the other side of the banks to the Altstadt is the upmarket area of Oberkassel. It’s here that Alter Bahnhof has been making a name for itself since opening in 2007.
Housed in a huge, spectacular building that used to be a railway station is one of Dusseldorf’s newest breweries. The interior is just as polished and eye-catching as its exterior, all copper and wood. In fact the copper brew kettles used to produce the altbier are right in the centre of the pub.
Despite the unusual name, fortunately there’s no meat stew used in the production of Gulasch Alt. Apparently goulash is the brewer’s favourite food, and his nickname which is where the brewery’s signature beer’s name comes from.
The beer is excellent and bursting with flavour and well worth the trip across the bridge. There’s also a popular kitchen, with many people coming here to enjoy the modern takes on traditional German dishes.
Address: Belsenplatz 2, 40545
Brauhaus Joh Albrecht
Also across the river, tucked away in the quiet residential area of Niederkassel is where you’ll find Brauhaus Joh Albrecht. It looks like a large detached house from the outside with a big conservatory on the side.
On the inside it’s modern and bright and decked out with contemporary furniture and fittings. It’s in quite sharp contrast to the ultra traditional interiors of the Altstadt breweries.
There’s a large focus on the food here which consistently gets great ratings – the conservatory is a dedicated restaurant section. However, the real selling point of Brauhaus Joh Albrecht is definitely their in-house brews.
Unlike most Dusseldorf breweries they produce four different varieties. The first’s a traditional altbier, the others are a helle, a dunkel and finally what they call a craft beer.
Address: Niederkasseler Str. 104, 40547
How the Altbier Breweries Work in Dusseldorf
Depending on where you’re from, the system for drinking Dusseldorf beers is probably completely different to what you’re used to. We’d never come across it before and were a little confused initially as to how it worked.
We arrived in the Altstadt excited to sample some of the legendary altbiers we’d heard about. The weather was fine so the party was outside with what seemed like thousands of drinkers lining the cobbled streets.
We had no idea where to go so settled on the most packed pub thinking it must have a good thing going on. Wondering whether we had to go inside to order, we watched as waiters marched purposefully around with trays full of comically small beers.
It seemed almost as though they were giving them away for free as they swiftly hoyed down full glasses while whipping away empties without so much as a word to the recipients.
We gave a nod to one of the waiters and asked him exactly how it worked. He pleasantly explained to us the unusual system for ordering Dusseldorf beers. A kindness we were later to find out is a little uncharacteristic of the waiters in this district – more on that later.
How to Order Dusseldorf Beers in the Altstadt
When you arrive at a bar you can simply nod to one of the Köbes’ (waiters) to let them know you’re in the game. When free, they’ll saunter over, more than likely with a full tray of altbier in their hand.
They may or may not ask you what you want, more than likely they’ll just ask how many. You’ll then get a beer mat laid out in front of each person and a beer promptly placed on it.
The Köbes’ will potentially ask you whether you want to pay upfront or if you’re staying for more than one. If you’re staying for a few, he’ll mark a line on a beer mat for each beer you’ve ordered.
You don’t really have to do anything else from there because these guys really work the room. As soon as your glass is approaching empty, a Köbes will magically appear to swap it for a full one. Be careful because the lines can quickly build up.
Once you’re ready to leave and don’t want your beer to be replenished, the etiquette is to cover your glass with your beermat. This signals to the Köbes’ that you want to pay.
In reality though, you can simply ask the Köbes’ for the bill when he comes over. That’s if you’re quick enough.
He’ll do the sum on the spot and write the total on your beer mat. You can pay him there and then – Köbes carry leather bum-bags stuffed with change – and be on your way.
It’s a monstrously efficient (stereotypically German) system designed to minimise waiting and maximise drinking. And it works perfectly.
Braumeesters, Zappes and Köbes
There’s a very distinct hierarchy in Dusseldorf’s pubs, an ancient tradition that’s still in place today. There are essentially three key positions with very distinct duties.
This is the head of the clan, the person responsible for producing the amber nectar that keeps punters coming back. The brewmaster guards the secrets of his recipe closely and sticks to age old traditions in creating their unique altbier.
This is the name given to the keg master, the person who actually keeps the beers flowing. While it may seem like a simple job, in reality it’s more complicated than just pouring a few sherberts.
The Zappes is responsible for making sure that each beer has the perfect head on it. They’re also the person who looks after the kegs to ensure they’re in top condition at all times.
Many of the pubs in Dusseldorf pour their altbier directly from the keg. The name Zappes is derived from the old word for tap.
As mentioned earlier, Köbes is the name for the waiter who serves the Dusseldorf beers. They’re exclusively male, as per tradition, and their mission is to serve as many beers as possible.
But the role is far more than that of a traditional server. Originally they would be hired based as much on their storytelling abilities as their efficiency as a waiter.
They were the life and soul of the party, entertaining guests with amusing tales, humorous wisecracks and jovial banter. Something probably helped by the fact that they would join in the drinking with their patrons.
Over recent years they’ve become known for having a more gruff manner about them. These days they’re known for employing their caustic wit to cut down annoying customers with sardonic one liners.
But don’t be offended, it’s all part of the act and even a little bit of the attraction. I mean don’t set out to deliberately piss them off, but don’t be too concerned if you’re not fawned over.
Other Things to Know About Dusseldorf Beers
The price of an altbier in the Altstadt will set you back anywhere from €2-3 depending on where you are. They tend to be slightly cheaper the further out of town you go.
The toilets in most of the pubs in the Altstadt have toilet attendants. Unfortunately they expect you to pay every time you use the bog. 50 cents is sufficient but it does mean you’ll need change.
Along similar lines, if you get caught short in the Altstadt, don’t worry, it’s pretty well stocked with public toilets. For gents, keep an eye out for a booth called a “Pissoir”. Ladies just look out for the standard public toilets.
Don’t Forget Your Insurance
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