The biggest challenge in a Kölsch is building just enough malt body and character without going overboard. During a recent Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® review panel, we tasted quite a few Kölsches. Some of the disappointing ones were too flabby, and others were barely beers. Working the axis between fermentation character, malt, hops, and carbonation is a tough line to walk, but Matthew P. Steinberg, the cofounder and head brewer at Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company in Framingham, Massachusetts, knows a thing or two about how to make a beer worthy of the style’s name. We asked him for insight.
I focus on using the true ingredients. We use Weyermann floor-malted Bohemian Pilsner malt and a little bit of Carafoam malt to get the dextrin in there to fatten the beer up a bit. For hops, we go with Tettnanger and Mandarina Bavaria, which is not traditional, but, man, it’s a cool hop, and it brings a fruitiness to the beer that we really like. Then it’s traditional German Kölsch (White Labs WLP029) yeast.
When it’s all said and done, we want this beer to have a medium-light body, that cereal-malt taste, and a bit of hops. We get there through fermentation, and for us and the style, the key is to go slow.
When we first add yeast, we let it start off slow, giving it a few days around 62°F (17°C). When it gets going, we bump it up to 64°F (18°C). Toward the end of fermentation, we do a diacetyl rest, at 68°F (20°C), and that’s where fermentation finishes out, at that higher temperature. We’ve discovered that the final beer does better after it has sat at that temperature. When we don’t let it sit there, the finished beer can feel a bit flabby.
Then for the next 28 days, we slow crash the beer by two or three degrees until it gets down to 48°F (9°C). It’s not that we lower the temperature every day; sometimes there can be 2 or 3 days between the drops. We keep it at 48°F (9°C) until we know when we’re going to package it. When we have a date on our production schedule, we bring it down to 38°F (3°C) and then 32°F (0°C) for packaging.
When we’ve crashed it more quickly, we’ve found that it loses some of the dynamic character of the style. It loses that slight sulfur characteristic and even smooths out too much some of the hard edges that you look for in something crisp like this. And I do think you want just a hint of sulfur, like when you’re walking up to a hot spring and get that first whiff.
So our Kölsch is a 40-day minimum beer, but we’ve had 8-week batches that are stellar. And that takes time and space, and I know that not a lot of people have that. But this beer doesn’t do well in a 3-week turnaround time, and bringing it from like 70°F (21°C) to 32°F (0°C) super-quick does no favors for this beer.
The carbonation is super-important, even if it can hamper your palate a bit. I’m on the fence a bit on the perfect level, but here we carbonate up to 2.7 volumes, and it comes out to about 2.63–2.66 by the time it gets into the can. It’s elevated, but not as highly carbonated as some others. It’s not even the highest carbonated beer that we do. But for our Kölsch, it’s the right spot to be. We get minimal loss and the best flavor; the carbonation and mouthfeel line up just right at that point.
With this style, it takes a lot of time to get it right, and it won’t be perfect every time. But with the focus and commitment to slow crashing, it really can be a beautiful beer. Just please stop using American hops and Chico yeast and calling it a Kölsch. Let’s use authentic ingredients and processes.