Beers that resemble mass-market lagers don’t typically thrill adventurous beer aficionados. They tend to prefer exotica—the further from Bud Light, the better. This is why the humble Kölsch, named after its hometown, is so often overlooked. Yet few styles are more interesting historically and culturally than Kölsch—and even in formulation and profile, it’s a far more interesting beer than the first sip might suggest.
As a tease, let me point out how well altbier—the hometown beer of native Düsseldorf, just 25 miles up the Rhine—is accepted in Köln: not at all.
“We don’t say the name of that town here,” a smiling Kölnisch brewer told me. The opposite is also true: Kölsch is native to Köln (or Cologne), but good luck finding it on tap in Düsseldorf. It’s as odd as it sounds: Imagine if a beer style were omnipresent in Baltimore but couldn’t be found in Washington, D.C.
Germany is a modern market economy, and nothing prevents Kölners from drinking something else—or Germans elsewhere from drinking Kölsch. A couple of larger brands distribute small amounts around the country, mostly enjoyed by Kölners living away from home.
It’s as if a force field surrounds Köln and keeps most of its beer inside.
Bremen Beer, Bitterbier, Bitter Lagerbier…
Perhaps history can help explain why Köln has gone its own way with beer.
Until 1871 there was no “Germany” as we know it today. The German-speaking lands fell in and out of empires across the centuries. Köln, however, was a free city for 500 years before falling under French control, just before Napoleon’s reign. It was part of a larger region of ale brewing—near Belgium, and closer to London than Munich. Lagers were a Bavarian thing; the northern half of what would become Germany was ale country. That was especially true of Köln, which in 1603 forbade the production of lager, codifying top-fermenting beer as the local malt beverage.
Even more important, the region was hoppy ale country. About the time Köln became a free city, Bremen began brewing hopped ales commercially. This changed the gangly bine’s fortunes, and it proved to be a watershed moment in brewing. Bremen beer may have tasted weird to drinkers used to the era’s sweeter botanical blends, but it had an unbeatable advantage: The hops’ antimicrobial properties kept Bremen beer fresher for longer. The Hanseatic League city exported it via boats to distant locations—including ports along the Rhine—where it would presumably keep better than local beer.
Eventually, hops beat out bog myrtle. Brewers along the Rhine adopted hops with special relish, brewing an important ancestor of Kölsch called bitterbier—a medium-strength ale bristling with lupulin. Altbier and Kölsch grew out of this broader category of Rhenish ale. However, paler Kölsch came later—a direct response to the pale lagers filtering north in the 19th century. While Kölsch remained a top-fermenting beer, Kölsch brewers also picked up the curious southern habit of lagering their beer after fermentation. By the end of the century, Köln’s beer became pale and crisp, but it remained bitter and continued to express the telltale fruitiness of ale.
This close forebear held onto its bitterness all the way into the 1960s, though in other ways it closely resembled modern Kölsch. At that point, local breweries still made other beer styles, but a culture was beginning to form around the pride of hometown Kölsch. By the 1980s, Kölsch had become so popular that Köln’s breweries banded together to protect it from lesser imitators. In 1985, two dozen of them signed a document called the Kölsch Konvention. It stipulated certain benchmarks to prevent the beer’s debasement.
More than a dozen breweries still ply their trade in Köln, and locals each have their favorites. It takes a few days to attune one’s palate, but soon the reason emerges: Each Kölsch is different. This illustrates the style’s subtle capacity for interpretation. The breweries have three different levers to pull—or is it four?—to create a unique balance of flavors that make their own Kölsch unique: subtle fruitiness that comes from the yeast; a zesty sprinkle of Noble hopping; and a base layer of malt that might be assertive or restrained. The fourth element is a minerality that comes from the city’s hard water, adding a note of terroir.
The most obvious way that Kölsch differs from the lagers it resembles are the esters left behind after a comparatively warm fermentation (usually just below 70°F/21°C). Yeast strains vary, and so do the esters. Usually subtle but sometimes less so, common expressions include melon, pear, white grape, and quince in various examples, and sometimes in combination. The presentation of malt and hop can vary fairly broadly. Hop bitterness may be barely noticeable or rather sharp. In any case, the hops have the elegant flavor of their home strains, peppery and/or herbal, like a delicate spice. The malts may likewise offer a gentle, pillowy breadiness or something a bit more characterful—toastiness or dry cracker.
Then there’s the conditioning time, which smooths the Kölsch into its clean, crisp final phase. Americans sometimes call these “hybrid” beers, but the Germans have a better term: obergäriges lagerbier, or top-fermenting lagered beer. To call them hybrid is to suggest an awkward in-between state, but Kölsch is nothing of the kind—it’s exactly as it’s meant to be.
Enter a local brauhaus, and one of the world’s richest beer cultures envelops you. Instead of choosing from a tap list with dozens of choices, everyone’s drinking the same beer, served by often puckish waiters known as köbes. They deliver the beer on round trays with a central handle. It evokes communion; the whole presentation suggests ritual.
Once seated, there’s no need to order or reorder. With the slightest nod of the head, a cylinder of liquid gold will land on your coaster (or deckel) along with a tick mark. The glass, with a measuring line at 0.2 liters (about 7 ounces), is known as a stange, and you’ll find it in every brewery—as prescribed by the Kölsch Konvention. If the level of your glass gets low, another will arrive alongside it, along with a fresh tick mark. In Köln, the purpose of going out for beer isn’t the pursuit of novelty. These practices are now innate, which in turn supports the social rituals of conversation and enjoyment.
Köln’s beer culture didn’t develop overnight, but it finally firmed up as the city rallied around its signature style. At Reissdorf, Jens Stecken describes the development: “I don’t know how it happens. When you look back, up until the Fifties, Reissdorf also made a pils beer; they also made an export beer. Kölsch didn’t have a big number here in Köln; it gets bigger in the Sixties.”
The quirks make Köln a fascinating case. The local tipple is much more than a beer—it has become an inextricable part of local culture.
Kölsch Outside Köln
Americans hew to few European traditions. We appropriate products and practices and often tailor or even scramble them to suit our own purposes.
It’s curious, then, that we have largely left Kölsch alone. Aside from stealing the name—dislocating a true geographic indicator—we tend to brew Kölsch with as much fidelity to the originals as possible. This is further testament to the style’s understated magnetism. There’s something alluring about trying one’s hand at a beer that is at once simple and direct yet composed of subtle pieces. A well-made Kölsch doesn’t need peaches or Citra hops—it stands on its own, ready to be drunk in volume (if not in seven-ounce increments).
For those who have visited Köln, that simple glass carries with it memories of köbes and stanges, tick marks and trays. Far from being an ordinary blonde ale (or lager), it conveys the taste of its place like almost no other beer in the world.