SLIDING INTO THE BOOTH at the Zum Schlüssel Brauerie in Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, my German companion asks the waiter “Was für Bier habt ihr?” Unblinkingly, he replies, “Unser eigenes.” ‘Our own.’ Saucy Köbe. Of the classic Altbier breweries in Düsseldorf’s compact central old town (called “the longest bar in the world” for its critical pass of pubs), Schlüssel’s is by far the least impressive—right on the main drag, often overcrowded outside, the inner lighting too bright and bland, floor plan too open and square, and altogether more apropos of a Münchener tourist cafeteria—but only relative to its competitors. And they deliver where it counts with an impressive Alt that earns all their medal-boasting coasters.
An enduring, fat, and finely laced head sits atop a pecan brown brew. Still a light aroma, but touched with red berries atop a bit of caramel and grain. Its flavor is exceptionally balanced and layered: restrained malt sweetness, a small crest of hops (approaching ‘herb’, the German word with positive connotations for bitterness in beer), then a kiss of mineral before a pure and balanced finish. One hesitates to call it watery or neutral, but it is so fundamentally replenishing that it is difficult to isolate any overriding flavor and demands another taste.
The senf (mustard in a ceramic pot on every table) here is also highly complementary, a bit spicy up front but smoother and a little fuller in texture than, say Uerige’s, and with a slightly sweeter and lingering finish. We order a pommes (“Ein Pommes? Für vier Jungs?” “Nein, für eine Frau.”) but the kitchen is closed and somehow he upsells us to a round of Killepitsch, a Düsseldorf herbal spirit halfway between Jäger and amaretto. Then one half-round before leaving: “Zwei Bier,” to which he responds, “Also vier. Das entscheide ich, nicht du.” To be fair, we drank that extra pair, and gladly. And upon leaving he chirps: “Bis morgen zehn.” Charismatic gall. They’ve earned it.
Served: On gravity tap (Zum Schlüssel, Düsseldorf)