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Where Kölsch Night Is Every Night

Kölsch-style ale is an American craft mainstay, and reverent Kölsch service is now a trend with broad appeal. Before we all get carried away, Ryan Pachmayer goes to Köln to consider the subject more closely, from how it’s served to how it’s brewed—and why its future is uncertain.

Ryan Pachmayer Jun 29, 2023 - 17 min read

Where Kölsch Night Is Every Night Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

An older, heavy-set man has just set down my first glass of Kölsch, and I immediately do what we beer people tend to do: I stick my nose into the glass.

“It is beer; you drink it,” the man says.

“Okay,” I say, downing the beer in one gulp before handing him back the empty glass. He smiles, nods, and hands me another, ticking a second mark on my deckel. As he turns his attention to the table behind us, I furtively sneak another sniff of the beer.

Welcome to Köln, the land of grumpy waiters and an endless stream of delicate, subtle, surprisingly complex, sublime, and incredibly drinkable pale beer.

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Kölsch is a beer that North American brewers and many drinkers think they know, being a near-permanent resident on many brewpub and microbrewery tap lists since the 1990s. More recently, some bars and taprooms have joined the “Kölsch Night” service trend, finding that their customers appreciate the simplicity, communality, and change of pace. With all that in mind, on my recent visit to Köln, I wanted to pay closer attention to how the beer is served in its hometown—and to how it’s brewed.

Before we riff on things too far, after all, it usually pays to revisit the source material.

That Unique Service

The anecdote above takes place at Peters Brauhaus in the Altstadt, Köln’s historic town center, practically in the shadow of its towering Dom Cathedral. Yet it could have happened at any of the city’s famed Kölsch houses. Kölsch is virtually the only kind of beer the locals enjoy, something they can drink together after a day’s work or on weekends, a polite accompaniment to socializing and eating. To the people of Köln, Kölsch means beer and beer means Kölsch.

The serving style is unique, with its nearest relative being the way that altbier—a very different style of beer—is served in and around Düsseldorf, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the north.

Some vocabulary:

  • The servers are called köbes (pronounced a bit like “kur-bess”), and they carry beers in a wreath- or crown-shaped tray.
  • That tray is called a kranz.
  • About a dozen 0.2-liter (6.7-ounce) glasses called stangen sit in a kranz.
  • In the better pubs and brewhouses, the stangen are filled via gravity from a spigoted barrel called a stichfass.
  • The person who pours the beer from the stichfass is called a zappe.

A köbes will place a single stange in front of you and add a notch to your deckel (or coaster). When your glass is empty—or, if you are lucky, almost empty—the köbes returns with another stange of Kölsch. No need to ask. If you’d like this automatic process to stop, simply place the deckel atop your glass to signify that you are done.

The brew kettle at Päffgen. Photo: Ryan Pachmayer

The Legend of the Köbes

The word köbes originally stems from the name Jakob, going back centuries to a time when Köln was the destination and waypoint for various pilgrims. The name was given to people who were visiting, sometimes for weeks, often serving at bars to make money along the way. “These were people who were not from here,” says Kevin Kader, beer sommelier and co-owner of Blauer Tapir, a modern brewery in Köln. “The legend says that they had no name known by the locals, and they kind of got lost in the city, so they were not so nice.”

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The reputation of being not-so-nice extends to this day, a mix of myth, reputation, and reality. The gruff exterior of a köbes is apparent from the moment you greet one, although they each play out this character with their own degree of earnestness—some get into a schtick that borders on carnival performance. Typically, though, once you spend some time (and money) and act friendly enough, most reveal a warmer, jollier side.

Still, it’s not for everyone. “Sometimes I bring people from the art scene,” Kader says, “and the communication between the old-fashioned köbes and the younger art people is not possible.”

If you’re not feeling that connection, one surefire way to forge a more friendly relationship is to come later in the evening, an hour or two before closing. Around that time, you’re allowed to buy beers for the köbes. Just say, “One for me, one for you,” and the köbes will add two notches to your deckel. In some pubs, the köbes may oblige by gulping the entire stange in one go. As you can guess, this can quickly make for a fun and loose time. Stories of drunken köbes late at night are common among locals and regular visitors.

Freshness First

While it may look like theater to the uninitiated, the ritualistic nature of Kölsch service is dedicated to a higher purpose: freshness. You can find Kölsch served via pressurized kegs throughout Köln and the region, but the more popular and authentic brewhouses and pubs continue to bring fresh stichfässer up from the cellar throughout the day. Those 20-centiliter pours aren’t meant to last long, and even if you savor them, they remain cool and lively through the last sip.

The thin, cylinder-shaped stange also holds foam well, protecting the beer from oxidation. The köbes are constantly moving back and forth on the floor, grabbing full trays and distributing freshly filled glasses while collecting empty ones. It’s not the easiest service to perform, but the patron is the beneficiary of reliably fresh beer and an ever-lively atmosphere.

More than Meets the Eye

Kölsch has its ardent fans, but it is not the most characterful beer on the planet—nor is it meant to be. It’s not a showstopper; it’s an easygoing beverage that accompanies conversation and food. Yet the context is what that makes a bigger impression. Even if the beer were average, people would still love it because of the unique experience and atmosphere of the Kölsch pubs and brewhouses. Thankfully, there is some really special beer here—and, more broadly, there is a high floor of quality throughout the city.

Inevitably, drinkers in search of the next big flavor will view Kölsch as simple and somewhat bland. While the beer itself is relatively simple and the flavors are delicate, these beers are far from bland when drunk fresh, and there is surprising variance in character.

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If you ask five people in Köln what their favorite Kölsch is, it’s not uncommon to get five different answers. Früh is popular and one of the more recognizable brands exported to the United States. The beer is well balanced, with more of a flavor “pop” than some of the other larger brands, offering a notable bready malt character. It features an ester that can come across as white grape, a common trait that manifests with varying degrees of intensity in different brands.

Malzmühle is the southernmost Kölsch brewhouse in the Altstadt. Its brand is Mühlen Kölsch, perhaps the most flavor-forward example of the style in Köln. It’s a busy beer, with increased malt and hop flavors, yet it maintains the hallmark of the style: a clean, dry finish that lends to extreme drinkability.

Another notable Kölsch—and possibly the most refined of the flavor-forward examples—is that produced by Päffgen. Päffgen Kölsch harmoniously blends clean, delicate hop flavors with a light malt touch and hint of acidity. Depending on your palate, lighter interpretations such as Sion or Gilden may be your preference, or the well-balanced Kölsch from Peters could fit the bill.

The Brewing Process

When it comes to ingredients, Kölsch is relatively straightforward. The grist is entirely or primarily pilsner malt, sometimes with a light touch of Vienna or wheat malt. Hops are usually German, but the variety can be wider than usual for pale German lager. For example, a brewer at Päffgen told me that they use Aurum and Brewers Gold varieties.

Decoction mashing was once traditional, but these days a step mash with a long beta rest is common. Päffgen, for its part, describes an initial temperature of 140°F (60°C) and a rise—eventually, presumably via another step or two—to 167°F (75°C). For a more elaborate, old-fashioned take, a text from 1927 describes mashing in at 95°F (35°C) with a 30-minute rest; slow rises to 122°F (50°C) and then 158°F (70°C), then a rest of 30 to 40 minutes; and a final rise to 169°F (76°C) for mashout. Notably, the malt back then was less modified than today. The conventional wisdom among American brewers is that a low-temperature, single-infusion mash for higher attenuation (say, 147–148°F/64°C) will get you pretty close—though the step mash remains typical in Köln.

Whatever your mash scheme, attenuation is key, and the high carbonation and quality pale malts—along with a touch of wheat malt in some beers—should help provide ample, protective foam for the fragile beer.

For what it’s worth, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) lists Kölsch as having a range of 18–30 IBUs, while the Brewers Association’s competition guidelines list 22–30 IBUs. What you’ll find in Köln is typically in the middle to lower end of that range; drier, lighter beers often accentuate bitterness and give the impression of higher hopping rates. On the other hand, texts from the early 20th century describe the beers as highly hopped.

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Kölsch yeast can ferment relatively cool, and the labs typically list temperature ranges around 55°F–70°F (13–21°C); starting on the cooler end and allowing a gradual rise to finish fermentation is one approach to keeping esters in check. The Köln breweries all lager for several weeks before serving.

Kölsch Abroad

The beer’s light nature and subtle fermentation character mean that it tastes best when fresh. In fact, it is one of the worst styles to drink with age, and it’s extremely challenging to export. For these reasons, many American drinkers unfortunately get the wrong impression of traditional Kölsch, as it may have traveled for months and thousands of miles before sampling. However, some bars manage to source imported kegs that are kept cold and move relatively promptly. Even so, there really is no comparison to drinking it fresh in Köln.

Locally brewed Kölsch-style beers in North America may be fresher and thus taste better than imports, but few American breweries are sticking to the same brewing processes and ingredients that Köln breweries employ.

There are some traditional examples, of course, such as those from pFriem in Oregon, Dovetail in Chicago, or KC Bier in Kansas City, Missouri. But there are many more that veer farther from the classic mold—often going too hoppy, too malty, with exaggerated fruity esters, or lacking a dry finish. Let us not speak of those who toss in fruits, spices, or heavy fruit-forward dry hops and still use the word “Kölsch,” as if the choice of yeast strain could magically make it so.

The Kölsch Konvention

There is more to what makes a Kölsch than ingredients and process. In 1986, more than two dozen Kölsch breweries signed on to the Kölsch Konvention, a document that states the beer must be “pale, well attenuated, hoppy, and clear top-fermented beer” brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot. Another requirement is that the beers must be brewed within a short distance from Köln.

In 1997, Kölsch became a protected geographical designation within the European Union and a few other countries, similar to Champagne or Cognac.

It’s a document apparently meant to protect quality as well as protect the local right to brew a certain product.

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“When you read the first few lines,” Kader says, “it talks about wanting to save Kölsch for the people. But then it gets into marketing and protecting a monopoly.” His opinion is backed up by events since the 1980s. In fact, while more than two dozen breweries signed on to that Kölsch Konvention, today fewer than a dozen remain. Consolidation has been common, with big breweries buying up smaller ones and long-ceased brands occasionally reappearing under much larger companies.

Photo courtesy Zach Wessel

The Future of Kölsch

To foreign beer lovers who know it as part of the canon, Kölsch may seem immutable, but there’s a whiff of uncertainty about it. There’s an element of performance that keeps some of the older brewhouses going, but it would be a great loss for the nuance of the beers to disappear—a real risk if consolidation gets a second wind.

Most Kölsch houses are located in prime (read: expensive) real-estate areas, in the Altstadt of Köln. The price for a stange remains relatively cheap, just over two euros (about $2.25), so margins aren’t especially high. There’s the risk that too many larger breweries will acquire smaller brands and the beers will taste too similar, too bland.

Right now, many of the pubs feel authentic, but the initial rough edge of an old köbes can be a real turn-off to younger people. “I hope the [tradition] will continue,” Kader says, as we talk and drink at Päffgen. “Here, you can hear them speaking with the Köln dialect; they’re very authentic. They’re a bit rude, but they’re also lovely.” Päffgen is run by Rudolf Päffgen, an older gentleman who adheres to tradition. They say he shows up every day on his bicycle and spends long hours at his brewery, frequently talking with patrons throughout the day.

“When you get the younger people running these clubs, there’s no old style, they [believe] they are smarter,” Kader says. “They are softer.” He says he believes that the most traditional pubs will survive the coming decades, but others will lose their way and fall by the wayside. Already, some longstanding traditions have mostly disappeared. For example, köbes used to buy the first barrel of the day themselves, since the cash system of the brewhouse hadn’t started up yet. Previously, this was also a way to ensure that the köbes did not give away too much beer. These practices have largely disappeared.

If you ask Rudolf Päffgen about the future of Kölsch, tradition, and innovation, he may smile and perhaps chuckle. He’ll then tell you what he’s told me and countless others: “We are craft beer,” he says. And then, with authority, he adds: “the original craft beer.”

In many ways, he’s right. May the tradition continue.

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