Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Kölsch - the taste of Cologne

The photo opposite is of five bottles of Kölsch; Cologne’s unique and geographically protected style of beer. I purchased the bottles on the business trip I made to the city, last month, dashing into a local supermarket shortly before closing time, whilst on my way back to our hotel.

They were ridiculously cheap, working out at just under one Euro a bottle. I haven’t got round to opening any of them yet, but that’s not the point, but what is relevant is I bought them because all five are brands I haven’t come across before, despite having now made seven visits to Cologne.

To understand the reasons behind this, it is first necessary to learn a little more about the style itself, and also appreciate some of the takeovers and mergers which have occurred along the way. 

First the style.  Kölsch is the local style of beer and it is to Cologne (Köln),  what Altbier is to Düsseldorf. Both are survivors from the pre-lager brewing tradition of Northern Germany, but unlike Altbier, Kölsch has undergone a good deal of change, the most notable of which is the lightening of its colour to pale yellow. This gives it the appearance of a Pilsner, so it is perhaps not surprising to learn that it is brewed mainly from Pilsner malt.

Kölsch  is top-fermented at a temperature of between 13 to 21°C, which is more typical of ale brewing, but after the initial fermentation, it undergoes a period of conditioning, where it is lagered at a much colder temperature.

The end result is a clear beer with a bright, straw-yellow hue, but considering its background, there is  little ale character to be found, apart from a little fruitiness. Kölsch  tends to have a very soft, rounded character and can be quite sweet.

Kölsch has to be brewed in the Cologne area before it can call itself such, and this qualification is stipulated by the “Kölsch Convention”, which dates back to the 1980's. The convention was drawn up 24 breweries, some of which are no longer brewing, in order to protect the style from outside imitations. Additionally, a beer may only be called a Kölsch if it meets the following criteria:

It is brewed in the Cologne metropolitan area
It is pale in colour
It is top-fermented
It is hop-accented
It is filtered
It is a 'Vollbier'
Since that time there has been the inevitable mergers and closures, so typical of the brewing industry the world over. This has led to many Kölsch “brands” now being brewed at one large brewery, known as the Kölner Verbund Brauereien GmbH & Co. This is housed in what was formerly the Küppers Brewery.

I’m not going to list all the brands of Kölsch brewed there, but they include some of the better known names such as, Giesler, Gilden, Küppers, Peters and Sion Kölsch. Also included is Sester Kölsch, which is one of the five bottles I brought back with me
Kölsch is usually served in small, plain cylindrical glasses known as Stangen, which typically hold just 20 cl of beer; although some outlets will use 25 cl versions. The reason for the small  glasses is Kölsch is a beer designed to be drunk fresh. Leaving a newly poured glass standing for any length of time allows the beer’s condition to dissipate, and is not conducive to enjoying it at its best.

To ensure customers have a fresh glass of beer for as long as they wish to continue drinking, the waiters, who appear to always be male, carry round a circular tray known as a
Kranz, which has inserts designed to accommodate up to a dozen glasses
Kölsch waiters are known as "Köbes" (a word derived from “Jakobus”), and wear distinctive blue aprons. They have a reputation for being a bit gruff, but this might be unfounded, as most of the ones I have come across have been helpful and often friendly as well.

For places to enjoy Kölsch at its best, you won’t go far wrong if you try a few of the pubs and beer halls in Cologne’s Altstadt, or Old Town. I have written on several occasions about some of my favourite places, and the beauty of Cologne is there always seems to be a new pub or bar  to discover.

To finish, here is a list of my favourite Cologne watering holes, but if you decide to take a trip to the city on the Rhine, then I’m sure you will find a few of your own:

Brauhaus Sion, Brauerei zur Malzmühle, Brauerei Pfaffen, Bierhaus en d’ Salzgass, Früh am Dom, Hausbrauerei Päffgen, Peters Brauhaus, Sünner im Walfisch.


Dave said...

I'll be curious how those bottles compare to what you had in Cologne.

JoeyH said...

Nice post Paul. Got a good friend who lives in Cologne and I look forward to a kolsch every time I visit - top beer.

Matt said...

Like its Rhineland rival Altbier, Kölsch also spans the hoppiness spectrum, with Paeffgen the hoppiest, Pfaffen quite soft and floral, Malzmuehle malty, and Frueh delicately-hopped.

Paul Bailey said...

I'm planning to crack open one or two of those bottles this weekend, Dave. I need to find a suitably small (and tall) glass though.

Glad you enjoyed the post, JoeyH. I've grown fond of Cologne over the years, but would like to have seen the city in its pre-brutalist modern, (pre-Arthur Harris), heyday.

Matt, I wouldn't disagree with those descriptions. I wonder whereabouts on the spectrum the five beers I brought back with me, fit in.

Curmudgeon said...

It would be nice if we still had regional traditions like those waiters in blue aprons. The Germans seem more respectful of their beer heritage.