Monday, 30 March 2009

A Week in Cologne

Visitors to this site will no doubt be aware that I have been in Cologne for the past week, helping to man our company's stand at the International Dental Show. This event, which takes place every two years, is by far the largest such show in the world and for any company involved in the dental industry attendance at IDS is pretty much essential. The company I work for is the UK's leading manufacturer of "Private Label" dental materials and although we are not quite up there with the likes of 3M and Fuji, having a stand at the show is very important to the ongoing success of our business.

Myself and three of my colleagues drove across to Cologne last Monday in order to set the stand up ready for the show's opening the next day. Although the show was open from 9am through to 6pm, there was the opportunity for a fair degree of socialising in the evenings. Whilst some of this involved attending a function with our parent company, a dinner engagement with one of our suppliers, plus a lavish "End of Show" party, we did manage to visit a reasonable number of Cologne's brew-houses and bars, and this is primarily what this article is about.

Before going any further it is worth pointing out that the style of beer most widely available in Cologne is Kolsch, which despite its pale golden colour is actually an ale and not a lager. This is because it is brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, rather than a bottom-fermenting one. It can only be brewed within Cologne itself and its immediate environs . It is served in small, tall, thin glasses that typically hold just 20cl of beer, but these are normally brought to one's table thick and fast by waiters dressed in blue aprons who are known as "Kobes" (an abbreviation of Jacob).

Our first night in Cologne saw us dining in the Sion Brauhaus, a large establishment just off the Alter Markt. Sion Kolsch tasted slightly sweet for my liking, but was pleasant enough all the same. The pub's home-made sausages with fried potatoes and creamy cabbage also slipped down well.

The next evening saw us visiting another Kolsch establishment, this time Gaffel am Dom. This huge, cavernous establishment lies close to both Cologne's famous cathedral, or Dom, and the imposing Hauptbahnhof or main station. Gaffel's brewery is also close by and I found its hoppier Kolsch rather more to my liking. The large Schnitzel I ate at the pub was also very good, but left precious little room for more beer drinking. However, two of my colleagues persuaded me that a night-cap or two would be a good idea so we headed off into the Alter Markt and ended up in a bar called "Papa Joe's". From the outside this looked the sort of place I would not normally frequent, however, once inside I was pleasantly surprised. A pianist was bashing away at an old fashioned piano, and when she had finished a mechanical wax-works dummy, played a tune on the accordion. The place was heaving and it was all very jolly. We found that as well as Kolsch, Papa Joe's had Konig Pilsener on tap. This beer is the sole offering from the huge brewery of the same name in Duisburg. It made a pleasant change from Kolsch though, and being served in 40cl glasses meant less time waiting at the bar to be served.

Wednesday evening saw us dining at a Spanish restaurant with a party from one of our main suppliers. Fish featured prominently on the menu and was both well-cooked and well-presented. I had several glasses of Veltins Pilsener to wash my meal down, much preferring this to the San Miguel which was the other beer on offer. We left the restaurant just before 10pm and said farewell to our guests. The fact that we were slightly to the west of the town centre gave me the opportunity to lead my colleagues to a superb Kolsch establishment that I had first visited over 30 years ago.

Brauerei Paffgen is a place that is well-known to beer lovers; not only is its wonderfully hoppy Kolsch brewed at the rear of the premises, but it is also dispensed from wooden casks. A former school friend had taken me to Paffgen during my first visit to Cologne, way back in 1975. My friend was working in the city as part of the language degree he was taking. I was also a student, but at the time was travelling around Europe, by train, on an Inter-Rail ticket with a friend from university. I had parted company from my travelling companion in Hamburg; he had travelled on to Stuttgart to spend a few days with his then girlfriend, whilst I had made the shorter journey to Cologne. The plan was that we would meet up later in the week in Stuttgart and continue with our journey on into southern Europe. Even back then I had a reputation for enjoying good beer so my host, knowing this fact, had taken me to Paffgen as he knew I would be impressed.

This was certainly the case; pubs that brewed their own beer in England were as rare as hens teeth back in the 70's, so Paffgen was certainly a novelty as far as I was concerned. I had always wanted to make a return visit, but never realised it would take me 34 years before the opportunity to do so would arise. This was something I was going to enjoy and was an occasion I would not have missed for the world.

It was with a sense of eager anticipation that I pushed through the door to Paffgen's legendary establishment. There was a central corridor with a small room leading off to the left, and a much larger one to the right. We opted for the latter, and were soon seated at one of the many tables in the wood-paneled room. On the way in we noticed two up-ended wooden casks, tapped and ready for serving. We ordered a Kolsch each and were pleasantly surprised by its hoppy flavour. I had a look round the rest of the pub to see if it would bring back any memories. I recognised the large back room at the end of the corridor as being the place where my friend and I had sat that damp July evening all those years ago. It was great to be back there, even if the memories were rather vague. We enjoyed several more glasses of Paffgen's Kolsch before walking back to our hotel; it had been a long-overdue return and I hope not to leave it that long again before my next visit.

The next two evenings were taken up with a corporate dinner at the Hyatt Regency, where Sion Kolsch was on tap, plus a lavish end of show party held at a massive, converted former engineering workshop called "Die Halle", on the outskirts of Cologne. Gaffel Kolsch was on tap here, and we consumed more than our fair share of it.

Having manned the stand for the five day duration of the show, we were each allocated a free afternoon. My allotted spot fell on a very wet Thursday afternoon. Despite having the corporate dinner to attend that evening, I was determined to visit a few of Cologne's Kolsch houses but without getting too"tanked up" in the process.

My first port of call was the famous Fruh am Dom, a large establishment in the shadow of the Dom. It wasn't exactly heaving inside, and I had no difficulty in locating a table. On my way in I had witnessed the beer being dispensed from a large wooden cask. On reflection, and certainly compared to the casks I had seen in both Paffgen and Pfaffen, this cask looked far too shiny and new to have been used for the transport of beer from the brewery. I suspect therefore that it was purely for show, and that the beer was fed to it via a hidden pipe. Nevertheless Fruh Kolsch was pleasantly hoppy and eminently drinkable.

I moved on as I wanted to visit a place called Pfaffen, which is the only outlet for the beer of the same name. There is a story behind this establishment in so much that it's owner, Max Paffgen fell out with some of the other members of the family and decided to start a brewery of his own. The Pfaffen kolsch was probably the best version of the style that I tasted during my stay in Cologne; in fact it was so good that I stayed for several more glasses. The long, narrow building features some attractive carved, light-coloured wood-work and also some interesting contemporary stained glass. I brought my colleagues here on the last night of our stay and they were well impressed. The beer is served direct from wooden casks, and such was the demand for this excellent kolsch that we witnessed the cask being changed twice in less than an hour, and saw the row of empties stacked up in the corridor.

So there we have it, Cologne in a nut shell. Given the fact that I was there on business, I still managed to see and sample a fair bit of the city. The Dental Show itself is a hugely important event for Cologne. This year there were over 1,700 exhibitors; some relatively small like ourselves, others massive international companies with the large entourage necessary to man their stands. There was a real buzz just walking about in the city at night, and all the bars and restaurants, as well as the local taxi companies, were doing a roaring trade. Although I had been to Cologne a couple of times before, I felt I really got to know it on this visit. It is a lively, vibrant and friendly city with some great places to eat and drink. I am already looking forward to a return there in two years time!


Tandleman said...

Makes me nostalgic for a trip. Need that pound to improve though.

Paul Bailey said...

I'm with you on the weak Pound Tandleman; 1.60 Euro's for a 20cl glass of beer does work out expensive. Fortunately the company picked up the tab!