Ours is the only language you can drink! —translated German saying about Kölsch
One of the beautiful things about the American craft-beer movement over the last four decades is the reviving and re-imagining of what we refer to here as “Old World styles.”
This has led to things like the now-ubiquitous American IPA, inspired by the English version that had been almost entirely ignored in its homeland, and the gose—a light, kettle-soured ale with salt and coriander added—from a town in Germany near Leipzig. The former underwent a major transformation; the latter seems to have hewed more closely to the original style (though often seeing fruit additions, among other things; for a treat, check out Modern Times’ latest version called Laser Rain, with guava, cucumber and lime).
The style I want to discuss has seen fewer alterations than most, but is often difficult to re-create due to its subtleties: Kölsch. The quote that heads this column refers to a bit of German wordplay: Köln is what the Germans call the city of Cologne, and the dialect of the language they speak is also called Kölsch. While Germany is known for its rich tradition of impeccable lagers (lagern being the German word meaning “to store”), the Kölsch (along with its cousin from Düsseldorf, the altbier) is from a time before lagering was the order of the day. While it is an ale, it disguises itself as a lager. This means an ale yeast is used for fermentation, but the beer typically receives the lager treatment, being stored at lower temperatures (45-55 degrees Fahrenheit) at some point during fermentation. This leads to a smoother, more-subtle taste experience which, unlike lagers, often includes a fruity note from the esters the ale yeast produces. Cologne’s website describes the beer as “a top-fermented, light-colored, clear, highly fermented, hopsy (sic) full ale and is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.”
Now that we have that out of the way, you may be wondering how it tastes. This is the best part about discovering or revisiting beer styles: The best way to do it is by drinking them. Thankfully, it is not as difficult of a style to find as it was even several years ago. I’ve bought cans of Reissdorf Kölsch at our Total Wine and More (and have even had it on tap at The Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs), and it is a widely celebrated example of the style. Bready from its pilsner malt, light and crisp at 4.8 percent alcohol by volume, floral, herbal, and/or spicy in its hop profile—with enough of a bitter backbone to balance it with the malt—it’s a perfect summer beer when you want lightness without having to sacrifice flavor. The Germans have perfected “summer sippers,” and they have the added benefit of going well with barbecued foods, not so coincidentally. Especially if you do it the German way: If your meal includes wurst, potato salad (not the nasty, swimming-in-mayonnaise version we do here in the United States; German potato salad is a revelation) and an accompanying bread, a Kölsch has your taste buds’ back.
From all I’ve heard and researched, the typical beer-drinking experience in Cologne is interesting and a little quirky. A Colognian (or, as referenced earlier, a Kölsch) person or visitor would enter a brauhaus (beer house, literally) and find a place with a surface. The server, called a köbes, stands in front of a tapped barrel of Kölsch ready to pour it into a 0.2 liter (a little less than 7 ounces) glass called a stange. The köbes will then continually bring you full glasses until you indicate you are done by placing a coaster over the empty glass. People who are familiar with Brazilian-barbecue restaurants will understand this process—except, instead of a seemingly endless selection of grilled meats, you get one style of beer, often from only one specific Kölsch brewery. Want an altbier? Forget it. You will deeply offend your hosts if you ask for one, as it comes from their rival city.
As mentioned, American brewers, both professionals and hobbyists, have taken this style and run with it. One of the benefits of the style is that the above-mentioned lager treatment (or “cold conditioning”) can take less time than a traditional lager. Less time in tanks equals more beer that can be made by a brewery. Having said that, not all American versions are created equal. Some examples I have had make it painfully obvious that the brewer has never had an authentic Kölsch and has simply copy and pasted a recipe. Others are just as sublime as their traditional counterparts (sorry, German friends) and, happily, are readily available to the interested consumer.
During the summer, Trader Joe’s Summer Brew, from their line of JosephsBrau brand beers (brewed by Gordon Biersch, a northern California brewery started by Dan Gordon, who received his training in Chicago at the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology, whose namesake was a German immigrant chemist), is a Kölsch-style ale for around $6 per six-pack. The reason I don’t say it is a Kölsch is that the designation of “Kölsch” can only be applied to breweries from Cologne, much like any sparkling wine outside of the Champagne region of France cannot be called “champagne.” But I promise you: The soft malt body and lightly herbal, floral hop bite will quench your thirst just the same. The brewery I work for has made a Kölsch-style ale since its inception called Kölschella, if you’re interested in supporting a local brewery and trying a drier, more-hop-forward version of the style.
If you’re tired of the grabbing the same old lager when you’re barbecuing (I sadly typed “going to a barbecue at a friend’s house” and then deleted it when I thought of our current situation), try finding some Kölsch to take with you. I love that these beers are as easy-drinking as generic lagers can be, but have more character to stand up against some of the stronger grill flavors
Germans take this stuff very seriously and are very proud of their brewing traditions. While I don’t want all of that seriousness to be transplanted into our craft-beer culture, we can certainly benefit more from taking what’s good in the beer world—past and present—and putting our unique spin on it. Prost!
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at email@example.com.