Two north German cities on opposite banks of the Rhine River are home to two distinct styles of beer: kölsch from Cologne and altbier from Düsseldorf. These are beers that predate the lager revolution of the mid-1800s. Breweries in Cologne and Düsseldorf stubbornly continue to produce top-fermented ales, while almost every other brewery in Germany turns out lagers.
The operative idea is that kölsch and altbier are meant to be drunk fast and fresh.
Why brewers in these two cities have done so in the face of overwhelming public love of and demand for lagers during the past 150-plus years is not an easy question to answer. Perhaps it’s the two cities’ sense of independence and a collective mindset that goes back to the beginnings of German history. Possibly it’s because brewers and beer drinkers here have a deeply ingrained need to be different from the rest of Germany. There’s a chance it’s the obstinate answer to the Bavarians’ Pure Beer Law of 1516. Maybe it’s simply because kölsch and altbier taste so good.
Kölsch takes its name from the Cologne (Köln in German) dialect, which is known as Kölsch. The beer is a pale yellow, soft, refreshing ale, sometimes brewed with a touch of wheat malt and usually lightly hopped. It can be quite sweet from the malt or perhaps a bit more bitter from the hops, depending on the brewer. At a glance, a glass of kölsch can easily be mistaken for a standard pilsner, and perhaps that’s done on purpose in these modern times. Much like a pilsner, a typical kölsch is about 5 percent alcohol by volume in strength.
The only beer protected by the European Union, kölsch lays claim to an “appellation controllée.” At the Kölsch Convention in 1986, 24 breweries in Cologne and nearby towns agreed that a beer could only be called a “kölsch” if it met the following criteria:
1) Brewed in Cologne or the immediate area
2) Top fermented
3) Pale in color and clear
5) Brewed between 11 and 14 degrees Plato (a brewer’s measuring unit)
6) Served in a 20-centiliter stange (a tall, narrow, straight-sided glass)
Düsseldorf, located 24 miles north of Cologne, brews a different style of ale. The city’s altbier is a beautiful copper-colored, soft, malty, often wonderfully hoppy and bitter ale that finishes dry and crisp. These beers are called “alt”—the German word for old—because they represent the old way of brewing beers before lagers became the standard. Altbiers, usually about 5 percent alcohol by volume, are much hoppier than kölsch beers, utilizing traditional German hops such as Spalt, Hallertau, Tettnang and Perle varieties. The flavor and aroma qualities of these hops are kept low in altbiers, but the brewers allow the bittering qualities of their hops to come through, creating some of the hoppiest of German beers at up to 50 International Bittering Units.
Although both kölsch and altbiers are top-fermented beers using ale yeasts, their brewers bend the traditional definition of ale production by cold conditioning—lagering, to be precise—their beers after an initial period of warm fermentation. This mix of ale and lager techniques is what makes kölsch and altbiers unique. Although related to the pale ales of England, kölsch and altbiers are not as fruity and estery in aroma and taste as their English cousins. The several weeks of cold conditioning they undergo softens these ale characteristics. In Düsseldorf, it’s not uncommon to see altbiers described as Obergärige Lagerbier (top-fermented lager beer).
Eine Kleine History
Cologne was originally settled on the west bank of the Rhine River by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. The city takes its name from the Roman word for “colony.” This Roman outpost was the boundary of the Roman Empire; the last bastion of civilization separating all that was orderly in the world from the barbarian Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Today, Cologne spans both sides of the Rhine, although residents on the west side say their neighbors to the east live on the “cross-eyed” side of the Rhine.
The dominant feature of the Cologne skyline is the Dom, a majestic 515-foot-high cathedral built in the French Gothic style, which took 632 years to complete. The 7,000-square-meter cathedral lays claim to having the largest façade in the world and to housing relics from the Three Wise Men of the Bible. Because of these relics, Cologne’s Dom became one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage destinations in the Middle Ages.
There were at least six monastery breweries in Cologne in the 1300s, and in 1396 a Guild of Brewers was formed. This guild is the oldest trade organization in Germany.
Today, Cologne is a city of just under 1 million people. Predominately working-class, Cologne is a center of German industry. Rebuilt after World War II, the city’s Altstadt (Old City) has been preserved, and this is where many of the current kölsch house-breweries are located, most within an easy walking distance of the Dom. This original part of the city is also where one finds most of Cologne’s monuments and tourist attractions.
Cologne is sometimes referred to as the most northerly Italian city in Europe because of the casual, laid-back lifestyle of the residents. It’s a city of people who enjoy their free time and their drinking, especially their Kölsch. Cologne has an estimated 3,000 cafés and the largest number of breweries of any German city—24 at last count.
Founded on the east bank of the Rhine River in the 13th century, Düsseldorf is named after the small Düssel River, which flows into the Rhine. It was due to a power struggle with Cologne, ruled by a Roman Catholic bishop, that Düsseldorf was established as a non-church-dominated city. Today Düsseldorf, with about half the population of Cologne, is the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and a powerful financial city. Modern office buildings, some of them cutting-edge architectural wonders in the Media Harbor, dominate Düsseldorf’s skyline.
One of Düsseldorf’s prime attractions is the Königsallee—a posh shopping district known affectionately as the Kö. Along this street, separated in the middle by a canal, are the finest shops and the biggest banks in Düsseldorf. Closer to the Rhine is the Altstadt. With approximately 260 restaurants and bars in a one-half-kilometer-square area, the Altstadt is known as the “longest bar in the world.” At the edge of the Altstadt, closest to the Rhine, is the Rhine Embankment, a mile-long pedestrian promenade that brings the beauty of the Rhine right to the edge of the city.
Before World War II there were about 90 altbier breweries in Düsseldorf. Today, there are only eight. Four of these are the small, classic house-breweries that define the style in the best way possible.
House-breweries and most pubs in Cologne and Düsseldorf employ a wonderful system for serving kölsch and altbier. All beer is tapped from wooden barrels and the method of dispensing is by gravity; no carbon dioxide is used. It’s a thing of beauty to watch a Köbe (the term used for waiters in Cologne and Düsseldorf pubs) roll a barrel out of the cold room, on the floor by foot, to the serving area, sometimes called the Schwemme (watering hole). In this busy area, two or more köbes hoist the full, heavy barrel up onto a platform, where a tap is banged into it by the Zappes (tapper).
Just as kölsch must be served in a 20-cl stange, the same style of glass (though in both 20 and 25 cl sizes) is used in Düsseldorf house-breweries and pubs for serving altbier. In both cities a köbe standing by the zappes fills a Kranz (crown)—a round tray with a central handle and a circle of holes for the stanges—and then makes his way to the customers.
The köbes, traditionally dressed in blue aprons, are in constant motion throughout a kölsch or altbier pub, either delivering full glasses of beer or picking up empties. As a customer drains his glass, it’s usually not more than a few seconds before a full, fresh one is placed before him. The operative idea is that kölsch and altbier are meant to be drunk fast and fresh. The only sure way to stop the flow is to place your coaster on top of your empty glass. The total bill is calculated by the number of pencil marks the köbe made on the coaster, which he does each time he brings you a new glass.
Specialties to eat with kölsch and altbier include Mettwurst (a lightly smoked sausage), Kölsch Kaviar (blood sausage), Mainzer Kasse (a runny, aromatically powerful cheese, marinated in altbier), Schweinhaxe (pig knuckles) and Eisbein (a boiled pig leg served with heaping portions of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut).
Cologne has a number of restaurant-pubs where kölsch is either brewed on premises or at a separate brewery especially for that brewery’s Altstadt pub. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the largest (capacity of 1,000), is Früh Am Dom, located about as close as is possible to the Dom. Früh, which opened in 1904, has become so popular that a larger brewery was built outside the city center. Früh offers visitors several levels in which to drink or dine, as well as an outdoor beer garden in a plaza in front of the pub-restaurant. Their kölsch is among the best in the city—soft, delicate and slightly hoppy.
Brauhaus Sion, founded in 1318, is the second largest brewery pub in the Altstadt. Sion is a member of Kölner Verbund Brauereien, brewers of Gilden, Kuppers, Kurfürsten, Römer and Sester Kölsch. This brewery group is owned by Brau und Brunnen, which in turn is owned by Interbrew. Sion’s Kölsch, brewed off premises, is pale in color and light in body.
Peters Brauhaus opened in 1994 on the site of a brewery established in 1847. The interior is as warm and inviting as one could hope to expect. The Peters Kölsch, brewed off-premises, is clean and soft, not too malty, slightly hoppy, with a dry finish.
Brauerei Zur Malzmühle, which serves a delightfully tasty kölsch called Mühlen Malz, is a bit off the main tourist route in the Altstadt, but well worth the extra few minutes’ walk. Bill Clinton made this walk in 1999, and a picture of the former president is displayed in this quiet, cozy pub. The kölsch here—one of the best—is rich, creamy and malty with a big body.
Die Hausbrauerei Päffgen, established in 1883, is a bit of a hike outside the Altstadt but a must-visit in Cologne. This house-brewery with a huge, traditional beer hall serves what could be considered the best kölsch in Cologne. The beer is definitely the hoppiest in both flavor and bitterness.
Reissdorf, founded in 1894 in the center of Cologne and still family owned, was destroyed in World War II, rebuilt in 1945, and in 1998 moved to the Rodenkirchen section of the city. The second largest producer of Kölsch, Reissdorf exports to the United States. The kölsch here is clean, delicate and hoppy.
Not far from Reissdorf is the Dom Brewery, which opened in 1914 and is one of the largest kölsch producers. Dom’s beer is grainy and full of hop flavor. The brewery’s museum contains a remarkable collection of brewing equipment from the Middle Ages.
Düsseldorf has four house-breweries where altbier is brewed on premises; three are in the center of the Altstadt and the fourth is just a few minutes’ walk away. The beer-loving traveler must visit all four.
Zum Uerige (The Grouch) is perhaps the best known of the Düsseldorf house-breweries. Located in a large Altstadt building not far from the Rhine, Uerige is made up of many interlocking rooms that range from warm and cozy—where the wood is darkened from years of patrons’ cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke—to a huge beer-hall-like seating area. There are 400 seats in the restaurant-pub and tables and tents on both sides of the street outside. The brewery’s name derives from the owner, Wihelm Cuerten, who in 1862 started serving beer at what had been a wine bar. Cuerten had a reputation for always being in a bad mood. His cranky personality became the reason for the name Uerige, which means “grouch” in the local dialect’s slang. Patrons became used to saying they would meet “at the grouch’s place.”
Uerige describes its altbier as dat leckere Dröppke (that delicious drop). It’s a pale copper beer, soft in malt and grain flavors, finishing dry and hoppy. Twice a year, in January and October, Uerige also brews a stronger (6.2 percent ABV or more), hoppier (and dry hopped) altbier called Sticke (secret). This beer is a “secret” because only the regular customers know of its existence. Both of these beers are available (in limited quantities) in the United States.
Zum Schlüssel (The Key) is a subsidiary of the larger Gatzweiler Brauerei, located elsewhere in Düsseldorf. Gatzweiler in turn is owned by the larger Hannen Brewery of Mönchengladbach, which itself is owned by the even larger Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark. Established in 1850, Schlüssel is a large, open place, dominated by light pine wood with many large tables for seating. Notably, the köbes at Zum Schlüssel include women as well as men. Schlüssel’s altbier is a rich copper color, clean and malty, finishing sweet with some hop bitterness.
Brauerei Im Füchschen (The Little Fox) opened in 1848. It is another large, open establishment with two big front rooms and a huge back room. An upper deck in this rear area is a perfect location to drink, eat and watch the crowd below. Füchschen is known as a great restaurant. The altbier here is copper colored, moderately malty and grainy, medium-bodied, and finishes with malt sweetness and hop bitterness.
Brauerei Ferdinand Schumacher is the oldest altbier brewery in Düsseldorf, established in the Altstadt in 1838. The brewery moved to newer and more spacious quarters near the train station in 1871 but kept a pub outlet in the center of the Altstadt, named Im Goldenen Kessel (The Golden Kettle). Still a private company, Schumacher was re-built after World War II and again in 1997, adding an outside beer garden to the 400-plus seats inside. Schumacher’s altbier is amber-copper in color and malty sweet, with a pleasant fresh hop flavor and dry hop finish.