On the patio of a brewery founded in 1318, I discovered what Kölsch beer is all about, and it’s not fancy hops, new recipes, or top-fermenting yeast. It’s also when I realized the way we think about Kölsch in America is all wrong.
O.K., so top-fermenting yeast is part of it. But this light-bodied German ale centers more on history and attitude than on a mix of malts. Kölsch somehow manages to be incredibly flavorful and feathery light at the same time. In essence, it’s the recipe for happy summertime drinking.
Lighter, low-alcohol craft beers are having a moment, maybe as a backlash to intensely hoppy beers, or perhaps it’s because hot days are more bearable with mild, chuggable beers instead of ones that cause you to feel full and tipsy after only two. Despite this American renaissance though, Kölsch isn’t new; in fact, it’s ancient.
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There’s no better place to discover the time-honored tradition of this sudsy drink than its birthplace of Cologne, Germany. Though Cologne feels petite, the city on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River is the country’s fourth largest, and home to one of Europe’s most cherished Cathedrals. Wandering alone through the old city, or Aldstadt, beer is literally everywhere.
Kölsch developed here centuries ago thanks to an abundance of water, travelers, and barley, and today its name is protected by the E.U. in the same manner as Champagne. So the Kölsch-style darlings taking over the U.S. are Kölsch-style, not true Kölsch, though I’ll gladly welcome more beers that mimic the charming German original.
Kölsch is a pale, agreeable beer that’s better defined by what brewers don’t do than by exacting or fancy brewing techniques. The straw-colored ale uses a top-fermenting yeast, brew-speak for yeasts that work from the surface of the liquid downward, rather than from the bottom up (like the yeast used in well-known lagers like Budweiser and Stella Artois). After fermentation, Kölsch is treated like a lager in a process called conditioning, where the beer is chilled for a few days or weeks before being served. This combination of styles is what beer nerds call a “hybrid,” because it combines elements of the two major brewing styles. The result is a golden-hued beer that’s crystal clear and mild, without the bitter aftertaste that comes from the hops and yeast used in lager-style brews. The process makes Kölsch incredibly crisp and citrusy, a beer defined by minimalism and delicacy.
Drinking Kölsch at the source is an exercise in community. From the way it’s traditionally served in small, flute-like glasses on circular trays, it is meant to be an experience of sharing — from the beer itself to small plates, to tables with strangers, and hanging with friends new and old.
On my wandering from one brewery patio to another — or Brauhaus, as they say in Germany — every type of German could be seen knocking back a glass or three. At Brauhaus Sion, which has been serving up Kölsch since 1318, slender, gorgeous blondes neighbored jovial, white-haired men, middle-aged couples, bros in soccer jerseys, and even some kids.
Unlike other German beers that quickly approach room temperature thanks to their being served in massive steins, Kölsch comes in petite, 20- centiliter glasses — just under 7 ounces — so the beer never gets warm, and the waiters are always busy.
I snagged a seat in the bar area known in Cologne as the “swimming pool” — where waiters and swarms of thirsty people mingle and you’ll take whatever chair you can find — and within five minutes was sharing my spot with six German men aged 20 to 70. There was a distinct lack of English, despite being in a touristy location — just warm smiles, probably some laughs at my expense, and a bill made up of tally marks on my coaster, another Cologne tradition.
Here, cardboard coasters are considered legal documents, and the standard bar tab. Waiters rushing through busy “swimming pools” with dozens of beers at a time keep track of your consumption with a simple tally. Until the coaster is placed on top of the glass, the Kölsch keeps flowing. Meant to be a quick refresher, it’s all too easy to drink three in 30 minutes or less, but the roughly 5 percent ABV means enjoying multiple beers is easy and you can still see straight.
My next experience at Gaffel Kölsch, an iconic brewery across from Cologne’s massive Gothic cathedral was much the same. Here, shiny copper tanks stood in the distance, and the beer was again cold, fast, and fresh.
In the shadow of Cologne’s cathedral, it’s easy to feel the history of beer and Germany from a single bar stool. Monks and secular brewers banded together in this city in the Middle Ages to support the local beer style, which has been protected by their brewers’ guild since 1396. Unlike darker, heavier beers that are synonymous with Germany for many drinkers, Kölsch has always been a light beer designed for quick consumption that relies wholly on barley and just a sprinkling of traditional hops. As light, easy-drinking beers became popular and easier to produce, these brewers petitioned to keep their local style of beer local and succeeded, a few hundred years before the official Kölsch appellation became local. Through two wars that devastated Cologne, and modernization that’s fundamentally changed how we eat and drink, the brewers of Cologne have never stopped standing together, and the guild still exists today.
While history plays a large part in the identity of Kölsch, the characteristic of these modern brews is what’s driving their popularity at home and abroad. The mild flavor and slight bitter edge make Kölsch an easy pairing with almost anything. Whether I had it with bratwurst, currywurst, tartar, or bread, the pairing worked — Kölsch is as much for every food as for every person.
Bar after bar, with snacks or not (but mostly with) the same scene unfolded. With every, heady pour, Kölsch worked its way into my days, and I started to believe the coasters that read: “Kölsch, it’s healthy beer.”
Wherever you find a Kölsch or Kölsch-style ale this summer, give it a try. And for an authentic taste test, be sure to have at least three.