My first experience with brewing Kölsch was as head brewer at Chuckanut (in Bellingham, Washington), right when they opened back in 2008. Will Kemper and the Chuckanut crew make an amazing Kölsch—crisp, clean, with a nice touch of fruit and light kiss of delightful sulfur—and theirs has definitely inspired ours. Also, I’ve had several travels to Köln and absolutely love the style and drinking it there. My favorite by far is Früh—such a beautiful beer. Another standout is Paffgen; it is really enjoyable to hop from brewery to brewery in Köln and try the different interpretations. (Note: You can only brew true Kölsch in Köln. At pFriem, we brew Kölsch-Style Ale.)
Brewing a great Kölsch looks a lot like brewing a great lager. This is a naked beer—everything you do with ingredient selection and brewing process will show up in your end result.
Brewhouse precision is important, but it’s hard to make great Kölsch without really healthy yeast. You want to balance nice fruity esters with the right amount of acid and just a kiss of sulfur. A little sulfur is nice, but too much and it takes over the beer. Cold-conditioning and time are key—you want these beers to be crisp and clean, and storing them below freezing really helps with this process. Finally, finishing is crucial—you want to make these beers bright and beautiful, so they literally shine.
In my travels to Köln, I’ve found my favorite interpretations to have those traits: bright and sparkly, topped with a dollop of snow-white foam; slightly fruity aroma with a light wisp of green apple; spritzy, crisp, clean palate, with a touch of maltiness that gets lifted by a delicate kiss of acid. These beers finish light on the tongue, leaving you yearning for more.
I prefer these beers from small glasses—200 ml is traditional and desirable. It keeps the beer cold, crisp, and ready for your next pour.
Step Mash, with a Bit of Wheat
We prefer high-quality German pilsner as the base malt for our Kölsch-Style Ale—we use Weyermann’s. We add just 5 percent of wheat malt for a slight silky texture, adding a dimension to the pilsner malt while increasing head retention. We’ve tried out many high-quality wheat malts over the years, but we’re currently hitting our stride with Briess White Wheat. It brings just enough of what we want from it without overpowering the rest of the beer.
Our mash regime looks more like a lager than an ale, with three steps: beta-amylase, saccharification, and mash-out.
The quality of the bitterness is very important—it needs to be present enough to work with the acid and carbonation for a crisp, snappy finish, but it can’t overwhelm these other subtle elements. We prefer German Tettnanger for our bittering, and we add a very small amount toward the end of the boil. The finishing gravity plays a role here, too—we like our Kölsch on the drier side, so we match our bitterness profile to align with our delicate finish.
Fermentation and Esters
We ferment at 60°F (16°C), and it takes only about two and a half days to finish fermentation. This depends on which Kölsch yeast you use; they all act a bit differently and thrive in different temperature ranges. We’ve tried quite a few yeasts over the years and found that we really like W-177, a strain cataloged at Weihenstephan and available to U.S. commercial breweries through BSI. After we harvest yeast, we lower the tank temperature to 29°F (-2°C). Start to finish, the beer spends about 21 days in the fermentor. We then centrifuge and polish with our lenticular filter.
All these cellaring and finishing techniques work together to make a very balanced, clean beer.
We want the fruity esters, but just enough—we’re not looking for a fruit bomb. We like them with a touch of green apple and ripening pear. Combined with the delicate nuance of the fresh, floral, grassy notes from the hops, this makes for a luxurious experience. I find this flavor experience to be essential to a great Kölsch.