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.