Great European brewing nations may be famous for their tradition, but it is the array of regional specialties that really stoke the intrigue of beer drinkers. They are a touchstone for locals, a beacon to adventurers. No style better exemplifies that spirit of community pride and distinction than Kölsch, the indigenous beer of Köln, Germany. Köln is important historically in many ways, and boasts more breweries than any other major city worldwide.
Kölsch is a symbol of fierce independence and civic unity, a modern interpretation with a firm grip on its own history. Blonde and affably-hopped, Kölsch is unremarkable at first encounter. It is anything but, being the only pale barley ale found in Germany, top-fermented and cold-conditioned, and staunchly protected as an appellation. More importantly, the perfect balance of delicate malt and wispy fruit and hop aroma leave Kölsch without peer in its refreshing drinkability. It is the unpretentious culmination of a resilient city that has weathered a thousand years of outside threat, oppressive regulation and devastating war.
From Colony to Capital
Köln (Cologne), in the Western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was founded as a Roman fort and trade center in 38 BC. The name translates to “colony.” Perfectly situated as a commercial hub, it hugs the heavily trafficked Rhine River, and is equidistance between Munich and London. When the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, Köln had 500 years of mercantile might under its belt, a résumé that served it well into the Middle Ages. Köln became the de facto capital of the Rhineland and had developed a thriving brewing industry. Then, there were some 500 monastic breweries in Central Europe, with several operating around Köln. Hops had not yet been used as a major ingredient in beer: brews contained a mixture of herbs, called gruit.
Monks took brewing out of the Dark Ages of serendipity and divine intervention between the eleventh and fourteenth century as hops began trickling into brew houses and grain crops became more consistent. Commercial and house brewers grew more numerous as the church lost some of its power, even though in Köln the tightly-knit brotherhood of brewers included both monastic and secular artisans. In 1396, twenty-two breweries unionized to protect themselves and their craft by forming a guild. This collective voice battled untoward taxation, labor and trade practices foisted upon them by the ruling class, an attitude that persists today.
The first mention of hops in Köln was in 1408, as the brewers of Köln proper were making mostly barley-gruit beers up to this point. Alternatively, a wheat and barley beer, infused with hops rather than gruit, known as keutebier, was being brewed in northern Germany. Seen as a threatening interloper at first, keutebier would have a swift, profound effect on the development of kölsch. Local brewers were allowed to brew keutebier, but not admitted to the guild. Predictably, keutebier proved very popular, and finally, in 1471 its brewers were granted admittance. Membership swelled to about 90 breweries, but more importantly, the original members phased out gruit mixtures in favor of hops. Gruit beers were outlawed altogether in 1495. This marriage of barley-based grist and exclusive hop flavoring by Köln’s guild brewers essentially pushed kölsch beyond its archaic roots and laid the foundation for the future.