Too much is never enough in today’s extreme world of double IPAs, salty tart Gose beers, and Russian imperial stouts. Creative brewers constantly push the envelope and develop beers designed to dazzle the palate. This array of choices makes it a great time to be a consumer or a homebrewer, but it’s all too easy to get jaded by the sensory overload. That’s why it’s good to recharge your taste buds once in a while with a lighter, refreshing beer. A session pale ale is a reasonable option but can seem watered down in comparison to its bigger brothers. Instead, I think that Kölsch is the ideal style to reach for at these times. Malty, but attenuated, with a light kiss of hops, Kölsch is simple and refreshing, but it’s still flavorful enough to satisfy your inner beer geek.
The one problem is that it can be hard to find a good commercial example of Kölsch outside of Cologne, Germany. The few that are exported overseas often lose their spark along their journey and never taste as fresh, while many of the craft offerings in the United States miss the mark by either overhopping or picking up too much ester character by using their house ale yeast. Of course, that makes Kölsch the perfect target for homebrewers. Can’t find it or travel directly to the source? No problem, we’ll brew it ourselves.
Pulling off a good Kölsch at home is certainly doable, but nailing the style is fairly challenging. The first hurdle is hitting the exquisite mélange of hops, malt, and yeast character, where none of these topple the balance. Next, because this is such a light beer, there’s not a lot there to mask any off-flavors. Diacetyl, graininess, or even the mildest infection will be exposed. The final difficulty is achieving the beautiful pale golden color.
On the plus side, a Kölsch recipe is about as simple as you can imagine (see below for a starter recipe). You just need pale two-row or pilsner malt to hit a starting gravity of 1.045–1.050, a couple of additions of Noble German hops to get 18–24 IBUs, and a top fermenting Kölsch yeast. You can play with this a little, maybe swapping out some of the barley malt for up to 10 percent malted wheat or adding some CaraPils, but brewing Kölsch is more about your process than it is about a creative recipe.
Even with your process, the ideas are straightforward, but they require discipline and attention to detail. Let’s start with the water. You’ll need fairly soft water, which will help the malt/hops balance as well as the color. Depending on your local water profile, you may need to add gypsum or calcium chloride (see “Brewing Water” for more information about water adjustments). There are numerous online calculators and references to match Cologne’s water, but here in Fort Collins, Colorado, I get by with a little bit of gypsum alone.
Mashing & Boiling
Since Kölsch is fairly attenuated, you’ll mash at around 146–148°F (63°–64°C) to favor fermentable sugars. You could do a step mash, but a single-step infusion works just fine. It’s more important that you’re very careful stirring your mash (and your boil). Cavitation and splashing add oxygen that will darken your beer and may add off-flavors. It’s also good to have a thinner mash to reduce the amount of sparge water. The goal is to minimize the chances of oversparging, which would make this delicate beer taste husky or astringent.
Yeast & Fermentation
Yeast management is important for any beer, but Kölsch’s light body is more susceptible to off-flavors from fermentation issues. It’s best to use a yeast starter, ideally one that is still very active. Once the wort has cooled, make sure it is well-aerated, then pitch the yeast.
Primary fermentation should be a bit cool compared to normal ales at about 60°F (15°C). Once fermentation slows, I like to kick the temperature up to around 65°F (18°C) for a day-long diacetyl rest, but giving it an extra couple of days at 60°F (15°C) instead works as well. You’re aiming for a final gravity of about 1.009. After this, it’s time to cool your Kölsch down for aging, slowly dropping the temperature down to around 35°F (2°C). After a month, your Kölsch will be ready to bottle or keg.
Your patience will pay off. Clear, clean, and beautiful in the glass, your Kölsch will be a graceful dance of hops, malt, and mild ester in your mouth. It’s just what you’ll need to approach your next Imperial Red with fresh enthusiasm!
Spassmacher Kölsch Recipe
Batch size: 5 gallons (19 liters)
Brewhouse efficiency: 72%
8 lb (3.6 kg) Pilsner malt
1 lb (454 g) Carapils
0.75 oz (21 g) Spalt [7.0% AA] at 60 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Tettnang [3.8%] at 15 minutes (more flavor, low aroma)
Wyeast 2565 Kölsch or White Labs WLP029 German Ale/Kölsch
Single-step infusion mash at 147°F (64°C). To avoid oversparging, use a thinner mash (around 3.75 gallons/14 liters of water) and adjust the sparge water accordingly.
Boil for 60 minutes, following the hops schedule.
Chill the wort to 65°F (18°C), pitch the yeast, and place the wort in a 60°F (15°C) fermentation chamber for 5–7 days. Raise the temperature to 65°F (18°C) for 1 day for a diacetyl rest. Rack the beer and age at 35°F (2°C) for 21–30 days, then keg or bottle.