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.
At the same time, lager brewing was becoming more common in Europe, especially in southern Germany and Bohemia. Lagerbiers were considered intrusive and, additionally, brewers in the Rhineland found that conditions were not optimal much of the year for bottom-fermentation. Substandard beers were simply not going to pass muster with the guild and, to that end, bottom-fermentation was outlawed in Köln in 1603. Top-fermentation is still a mandate of modern Kölschbier.
While stylistic kölschbier was taking shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it had much in common with traditional altbiers, as pale malt had not yet been developed. The invention in 1818 of the indirect heat kiln as a device to dry and color malt was perhaps the greatest modern event to influence brewing. This continuum of malt color, including the very palest, quickly led to an explosion of experimentation with malt combinations and the birth of numerous beer styles. Golden pilsner, first brewed in 1842 in Bohemia, sparked a Europe-wide brewing revolution. Pale lagers were everywhere, often muscling aside indigenous and regional artisan brews.
Köln was protected by the prohibition of bottom-fermentation, but the popularity of golden beer led them to acquiesce, furthering the design of a new and unique brew. For the most part, only brewers in Köln and Düsseldorf, 45 km to the north, were brewing top-fermented barley ales in the nineteenth century. The paler brews of Köln were described as being “golden in color, highly hopped, and 8 to 9 degrees Plato (OG 1.032 to 1.036). The Düsseldorf brews continued to use the darker Munich-style malt for a full copper color. Since refrigeration was now possible, altbier and Kölsch brewers adopted cold-conditioning, perhaps to ensure customers that smooth, refined character that they had come to expect, and also as a commercially viable means to store beer safely after fermentation. Both became known as obergaerige laberbier (top-fermented, cold-conditioned beer).
Until the late nineteenth century, “Kölsch” was not used to designate a style, but an adjective for a something emanating from Köln. By the turn of the twentieth century, there was a distinct style of beer coming out of Köln. Kölsch as a stand-alone label was adopted by the Brauerei Sünner in 1918 to describe the beer that they had been making since 1906. The style designation was born, and used thereafter by other breweries in the city. Filtered versions were often called echt Kölsch or genuine Kölsch, with the unfiltered examples known as wiess or white because of their turbid shimmer. It may have contained as much as 20 percent wheat.
Even though the brewers of Köln had persevered for six centuries, its biggest challenge was yet to come. As Kölsch was gaining its identity as a beer style, World War I broke out. Strict rationing dropped the gravity of Kölsch severely. As most breweries in Köln were brewpubs, the quota hit extremely hard. Köln survived World War I intact, but heavy taxation following the war kept the brewers from their previous prosperity.
World War II would be much more devastating. Bombing raids essentially leveled the city, reducing the population by 90 percent, and taking many of the brewers as soldiers. By 1946, only three breweries remained. But, as ever, the Kölners sneered at adversity, and by 1947 had reestablished another 10 breweries. Within a couple of decades, 20 breweries were operating, oddly enough, about the same number that formed the first guild over 650 years earlier. This emergent culture was as distinctly Kölsch as it had ever been: identity firmly intact.
As brewers outside of Köln tried to emulate them by calling their brews Kölsch, the Kölners once again banded together to protect their exclusive offering. Lawsuits were even filed in the 1960s and ‘70s. A consensus among the brewers was reached as to what constituted Kölsch. This culminated in the 1985 Kölsch Konvention, a contract signed by 22 brewers, that stipulated only brewers in and around Köln could produce Kölschbier, and also defined its stylistic parameters. It is akin to the French appellation d’origine contrôllée that accompanies protected wines.
The brewpubs in Köln that offer true Kölschbier have a distinctive and idiosyncratic culture when it comes to serving their specialty. Waiters known as Kobes dress in a uniform of blue shirt or jacket, and leather apron, bearing 0.2 L (6.75 oz) glasses of Kölsch in a circular tray known as a Kölschkranz ( Kölsch wreath). The cylindrical glass, known as a stange (pole) ensures that the appetizing beer will never warm, and that the Kobes will be ever busy. The standing area is known as a Schwemme, or swimming pool, because of the brisk, hectic interaction between the patrons and agile Kobes.
As an appellation, it is rather easy to characterize Kölsch by parameter and methodology, which is in turn subtly displayed in its sensory profile. A grist of pilsner malt ensures a brilliant straw-gold color (wheat has been largely phased out) and soft maltiness. Noble German hops lend that familiar herbal, spicy character, with Hallertau and Tettnang the most common, and bitterness in the medium range. A low mash temperature and attenuative yeast give a crisp feel and lithe body. The distinctive top-fermenting yeast, coupled with a cool fermentation, offers subdued fruitiness and hint of sulfur, and a few weeks of cold-conditioning softens the edges. At 4.5 to 5.4 percent ABV, Kölsch is study in sublime and delicious minimalism.
As interest in session-type beers grows, Kölsch is getting some much deserved attention by American brewers looking for a challenge as a seasonal beer, and importers seeking to introduce authentic versions from Köln. Kölsch will always be king in its hometown and, considering the storms that its brewers have weathered over a millennium, that place is rightfully earned.