A beer may not make a city great, but certainly it can enhance its identity. In the Rhineland of Northwest Germany, this is especially true, as many such cities are known for the specific beers they produce. Dusseldorf (albtbier), Dortmund (Dortmunder), and Köln (Kölsch) all have a style they call their own.
In Köln, the brewers of Kölsch bier are uniquely protected by bierdom’s equivalent of France’s appellation contrôlée: Only beer brewed within a specified area around Köln can be called Kölsch.
It is a remarkable beer: golden-hued, both top-fermented and cold-conditioned, unassuming yet complex. Elegant and well-balanced, it melds the traditional and relatively nouveau and manages hybridization without compromise.
Köln, or Cologne in English, was established as a colonial Roman trade outpost in 33 B.C. in what was then the frontier of the empire. Köln’s proximity to England and location on the Rhine River made it an important and busy town. There is evidence that fermented beverages were produced even then and no doubt they contained an odd assortment of ingredients such as honey, barley, and wheat and were flavored with gruit, a mixture of herbs.
During the first millennium, monasteries became important in the brewing trade (their artisanal touch and dedication endure to this day). Monastic brewing however, was not done on a commercial level, but for subsistence. The monks honed their brews and increasingly used hops rather than gruit. They gained a reputation for their skills and eventually were able to sell their beer to help pay the cost of operating a monastery. The six monasteries in and around Köln helped establish the area as a respectable brewing region during the Middle Ages.
Over the next few hundred years, secular brewing interests increased and thrived alongside the monastic breweries. In order to protect their local brewing trade and organization, the brewers and monks of Köln established the Köln Guild of Brewers in 1396, which established standards and guidelines within the city of Köln. It also protected them from the influence of the burgeoning European brewing scene. Though the beers produced at the time didn’t resemble today’s Kölsch bier in the least, it nevertheless established a mindset that exists today.
Gradually, gruit beers lost favor to the more stable hop and barley beers, a sign that beers made with hops were considered superior to earlier beers. It would be a while though, before the clear, golden, refreshing beer known as Kölsch would be realized, as many advances in brewing science and technology were yet to come.
Up until the early part of the 19th century, beers were dark, turbid, and unstable. A fuller understanding of yeast and its fermenting properties and characteristics, led to the lager revolution. This aided the stability and reproducibility of the brew. Perhaps more importantly to Köln brewers was the development of the hot-air kiln, which dries malt with a stream of hot air, and produces a malt light in color and delicate in flavor. This contrasts with previous methods, which employed open fires or direct heat. The innovation was remarkable and over the next few decades: pilsners, pale ales, Munich helles, and Kölsch replaced their brown or amber ancestors. Styles took shape and many breweries expanded their selection. One could now walk into a tavern in Munich and get helles or dunkel, or even a seasonal märzen.
Historical sources describe the forerunners of Kölsch as being highly hopped, of low strength, and golden in color. These beers have been in existence in Köln since the 1830’s and at times employed bottom fermentation, in vogue at the time. The brewers of Köln enjoyed great prosperity until the years preceding World War II. The poor economic conditions in the 1930s and the devastating bombing raids during the war severely crippled the brewing industry. Many breweries were badly damaged or destroyed, but slowly emerged and flourished anew.
The resolve of the brewers led to further definition and refining of its product, and the city became known for a single, identifiable and strictly defined type of beer. This led to the Kölsch Konvention of 1986, which established the parameters under which the appellation “Kölsch” can be used. About two dozen breweries participate. If you have ever had a real Kölsch, then you can appreciate the reason for the commitment to the style.
Kölsch bier is the top-fermented counterpart to the pale lagers that are so pervasive in Germany. It owes its color to a simple grain bill of pilsner malt, and in some cases, a small measure of wheat (less than 15 percent). By using this most delicate of malts, Kölsch is given a soft, lightly malty character. Highly attenuative yeasts are used, leaving the beer with little or no residual character. The use of pale malts and yeast leaves a dry, quenching palate. As the yeast is a top fermenting one (a holdover from earlier times and a diversion from lager-loving Germany), a light fruitiness may also develop during fermentation.
Kšlsch is often considered a hybridized beer because post-fermentation it is cold-conditioned for several weeks. Fermentation temperatures may also be tempered a bit to reduce any extraneous flavors that might obstruct its delicacy. German noble hops, Halletau, Hersbrucker, and Tettnang varieties are used to bitter and aromatize traditional German lagers. Hop rates provide a balance to the beer, as they are dosed neither too aggressively nor too timidly. The synergistic art of Köln braumeisters gives us a beer that is bright gold, dry in palate, well-balanced, softly aromatic, and amazingly drinkable at about 4.8% ABV.
To get the real Kölsch experience, it is necessary to travel to Köln itself. There are more than 20 breweries/brewpubs in the area, each producing its own interpretation of the style. Each is subtly distinct even though they emerge from strict brewing guidelines. Slight variations in body, bitterness, and aromatics are easily detectable. Eric Warner’s book, Kölsch, in the Classic Beer Style series has a section that describes in detail 20 breweries. It’s worth a look.
A visit to the pubs in Köln is a unique experience. The beer is served in small (20 cl), cylindrical glasses delivered by waiters, known as Kobes, who tirelessly zip around the tavern dispensing these golden liquid gems until you ask them to stop.
Regrettably, German Kölsch beer is not very easy to find in North America. Only Reissdorf Kölsch is available here. It is an excellent beer and seems to travel well. American breweries are increasingly making German ales, though Kölsch made anywhere outside the Konvention-defined area would be known as “Kölsch-style.”
I have had versions from Flying Dog of Denver, Goose Island of Chicago, and The Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill, NC. It is a challenging brew to make, but most do a pretty decent job. This year’s medal winners at the Great American Beer Festival were Pete’s Wicked Helles Lager, Capitol Kölsch of Capitol City Brewing in Arlington, VA, and Skinny Atlas Light of Empire Brewing in Rochester, NY.
Kölsch is a unique experience: enigmatic, elusive, and, to most Americans, somewhat mysterious. The recent interest in German ales may indeed result in more of them making it to our market. Until then, savor those available. Better yet, beat the summer heat with a sojourn to the Rhineland and experience all things Kölsch firsthand.
Reissdorf KölschABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: The only true Kölsch imported to North America. Delightfully dry, refreshing, and light. The house yeast gives the brew a subtle spicy and winey undertone. The Reissdorf brewery has been in existence since 1894 and was instrumental in the post-World War II brewing renaissance in Köln.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning beer writer and brewer who draws a paycheck from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC.