Kölsch is a light-bodied, pale malt beer hailing from Köln, Germany, the nation’s fourth-largest city with just over a million inhabitants. Many American breweries produce contemporary versions of the style, especially come summer when drinkers tend to seek out crisp, refreshing sessionable beers. But hardly anyone knows the real background of the style, a beer inseparable from Koln’s history and cultural identity.
Köln’s focus on beer goes back a long time. Set on the Rhine River, Köln developed as an important trade city for the region. In 1396 Germany’s first trade organization formed–The Guild of Brewers, still operational today. As the rise of bottom-fermenting or lager beers took hold in Europe from the 1800’s onwards, Köln fiercely defended its own identity, even making bottom-fermented beers illegal to produce or bring into the city. Most of these “imported” beers would have come from Bavaria during this time, a progressive region for beer and trade. But Köln’s brewers continued using top-fermenting yeasts and utilized a short cold lagering period after initial fermentation, using pilsner malt and local hops to produce a rival to Bavaria and Bohemia’s bottom-fermented pilsner beers. The kölsch yeast we know today is a result of Rhineland brewers’ selection over hundreds of years–a hybrid type of yeast that ferments warm, like an ale, but generally requires a cold conditioning period for clean flavor and flocculation (when yeast drops out of suspension after fermentation). Köln and nearby Düsseldorf, famous for its dark and bitter Altbier, are unique outposts of German styles that survived the lager beer revolution.
Fast forward to 1986: in an attempt to maintain cultural ownership over their historical beer in an evolving land of global trade, a brewers’ meeting, later called the Kölsch Konvention, instigated strict rules for the style–for ingredients, stats, serving vessels, and most importantly, origin. Nowhere in the world can you now legally label a beer a Kölsch except if it was brewed in Köln. This is a European controlled appellation similar to other regional products like wine, cheese, or sausage. Germany loves its rules, and Köln loves its Kölsch fiercely. I encourage you to explore the “Maintenance Tips” page on the 108-year-old brewery Gaffel’s website, which detail the specifics of how to enjoy their beer, such as “You have to be careful not to get too excited about drinking it” and “Two stale beers do not make a fresh one.” Truth, all truth.
So what makes a Kölsch, anyway, besides being from Köln? The Kölsch Konvention describes the style as a top-fermented, pale, dry, hop-accentuated filtered beer of 4.4-5.2% ABV served in a specific 6 oz. narrow glass intended to maximize carbonation and head retention. In fact, in Köln it’s protocol for beer servers to continue bringing small glass after small glass in succession until patrons indicate they’ve had enough by placing a coaster over their glass. Delicious, and dangerous. Contemporary American brewers sometimes choose to brew a kölsch in place of a full-fledged bottom-fermenting lager like a pilsner. The total time from brew to glass is shorter, and kölsches usually satisfy a similar market segment. There aren’t strict rules for us, so versions vary greatly, for better and for worse. Working with a kölsch yeast requires different controls than with a typical house-strain ale yeast, and achieving the ideal level of cold conditioning time can be challenging especially to smaller breweries without quality control lab equipment. Moreover, with a simple malt bill and a highly attenuated profile, there is little to hide behind if ingredients or technique shortcuts are taken. Flaws are easily perceived even by the novice drinker, and thus it’s not actually a simple beer to produce.
With all these rules and with the weight of history upon you, how do you know if you’re drinking a “good” Kölsch? As I mentioned earlier, anything made outside of Köln isn’t held to a strict standard, but the general guidelines should apply: spicy hop notes, a crisp, clean body, and a lovely straw color in your glass. Seattle brewery Hale’s Ales uses Czech hops and adds wheat to their Kölsch, which won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest 2010. Freya’s Gold Kölsch from Odin Brewing Co., also Seattle-based, uses American and British-style hops along with some nutty Vienna malt. For a more continental take on the classic, try the Kölsch from German styles-focused Occidental Brewing Co. in Portland. Personal taste preferences always apply, of course, so if you like it, then drink it. I myself like to say a little cheers to those stubborn Köln brewers who maintained an excellent style against tremendous external pressure in a quickly-changing world. Prost!
Categories: Style Spotlight