Pop quiz time. Q: What does Kölsch beer have in common with Cheddar cheese, Parma ham, and Champagne? A: All of them are associated with particular place.
In the case of Kölsch, that place is Cologne, Germany. Under the “Kölsch Convention,” a strict set of rules agreed on by the city’s brewers, Kölsch beer must be brewed in the Cologne area, fit within rigid style guidelines, and be brewed with top-fermenting yeast. The Convention even dictates how the beer should be served.
If you’ve never tried Kölsch—it’s becoming easier to find in America—it’s a straw-colored beer with a slightly fruity taste, pinpoint bubbles, and a dry finish. It might take you a little while to develop a taste for the style, but many who do develop a long-lasting friendship with it.
In Cologne, there’s an extra reason for drinking Kölsch: It’s an expression of hometown pride. Cologne has much a rich heritage that goes back some 2,000 years. In Roman times, it was known as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinentium was a provincial capital and administrative center. The town was given that name to honor Agrippina, the wife of Emperor Claudius.
We think of Romans as wine drinkers, but those who found themselves in Germany developed a taste for beer. They called it cervesium, a strength-giving gift from Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. When in Germany, they did as the Germans did.
Despite what your history teacher told you, the lights didn’t go out all over Europe after Rome fell. A thousand years ago, Cologne was a thriving city that was known for its trade fairs. Its residents were wealthy, at least by medieval standards: some homes even had tile kitchens and flush toilets. So much for the Dark Ages.
Cologne also has a long tradition of independence, and here’s where the brewing community comes in. In 1288, the city’s brewers joined the revolt against the Archbishop and overthrew him—no mean feat in those days. Cologne’s brewing community has been close-knit ever since.
According to the city’s museum, Kölsch beer as we know it dates back to the 19th century, when it displaced wine as the municipal beverage. Todays it’s as essential a part of Cologne life as the Kölner Dom, the massive cathedral in the center of town, the pre-Lenten Karneval, and the fragrance we call cologne.
People are as loyal to their favorite brand of Kölsch as Americans are to their favorite football team. Local doctors have even recommended the beer as an agent for cleaning one’s internal organs–a health claim that would get a brewery in big trouble over here.
Cologne and its arch-rival to the north, Düsseldorf, are among the few places on the Continent that held out against the invasion of lager. That said, Kölsch brewers were forced to adopt some lager-making techniques, including aging it for weeks at low temperatures–which accounts for Kölsch’s clear appearance and crisp flavor.
Cologners might have gravitated to more conventional styles had Allied air raids not left most of their city in ruins by the end of World War II. The city’s brewers, only 21 of which survived the war, rallied to the occasion and rebuilt their industry around the city’s traditional beer. To keep that beer from being watered down or made with cheap ingredients, they agreed to the Kölsch Convention.
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.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.