Kölsch is not only distinctive in its own right, but it’s also part of a distinctive and colorful beer culture. In a Cologne pub (see sidebar), your server is called a Köbes (the word is derived from “Jakobus”), a gentleman who wears a blue apron and a change dispenser. Köbessen carry on an honorable tradition, much like Parisian waiters, and they perform a job that was once reserved for brewery apprentices.
There is a long-standing ritual involved in serving Kölsch. The beer is drawn from large wooden barrels by a man known as either a Pintermann or a Zappes, or “tapper.” It’s poured into glasses called Stangen, the German word for “rods.” With a cylindrical shape and thin walls, the glass looks like it was stolen from a chemistry lab. But its design keeps the beer from getting warm or flat—which isn’t likely since it holds about seven ounces of beer that goes down easily.
Once the Stangen are filled, they’re loaded onto a Kranz, or “crown,” a circular tray with a handle and a dozen or so holes, which the Köbessen carry back to their customers. On a busy evening, a Cologne pub is a ballet in high gear: hustling Köbessen; hundreds of Stangen going through the wash-and-rinse cycle; fresh barrels being hauled up while old ones are rolled away.
The performance is accompanied by a jolly buzz of conversation; mercifully, television and music have yet to intrude into most establishments. The city’s brewers’ association called Kölsch a “social lubricant,” a beverage that bridges class, gender, and age distinctions.
It helps that Cologne’s pubs are perfect for socializing. The most famous ones are big, rambling establishments that offer communal tables and standing room up front and quieter dining rooms farther back. They’re cozy places with dark wooden tables and walls, huge chandeliers, and nostalgic pictures of old Cologne.
Michael Jackson described Kölsch a “wonderful aperitif,” something that you’ll discover once you try Cologne’s traditional pub food. Don’t even try to find the names of these dishes in your German phrase book. For instance, Halver Hahn translates into something like “half a chicken,” but it’s actually a slice of cheese on a buttered hard roll. Kölsch caviar is blood sausage that’s fried until it looks like sturgeon roe. And if you order something mit Musik, fair warning: you’re going to be served a plateful of gas-inducing onions with your meal.
Even if beer isn’t your reason for coming to Cologne, your visit won’t be complete until you try a Stange or two of Kölsch. You’ll literally be drinking in the local culture.