guide for English-speakers:
"Cllsh" (pronounce the "ö" like a French "" as in buf)
One of only a handful of traditional German ales. Kölsch is the local brew of the city of Cologne ("Köln" in German). It is one of the palest German beers made. It is Germany's answer to the British pale ale. It shares a history with the copper-colored Altbier made in Düsseldorf, some 44 km down the Rhine from Cologne. Just as the British pale ale emerged from the British brown ale in the 19th century, when pale malt became readily available, so did the Kölsch separate itself from Altbier around the same time. In 1948, the brewers of Kölsch joined forces in the so-called Kölsch Convention and formalized the Kölsch style in terms of modern brewing specifications. Kölsch, like Altbier, gets its characteristic, slightly fruity flavor from its own special ale yeast, with which the brew is cool-fermented and then aged and mellowed (or "lagered") near the freezing point. Kölsch is always served in a straight-side, narrow, 0.2-liter (6¾ fluid ounces) glass called a Stange ("stick," "pole" or "rod"). Kölsch is available only sporadically in the United States. The two brands that can be found in specialty beer stores in some areas of the country are Reissforf and Gaffel.
The German Pale Ale:
"Kölsch" is a low-German word in the local dialect of the city of Köln (Cologne), in the Rhineland of Germany. The word has three meanings. As an adjective it means "Cologne-ish" as in: "The Cologne Cathedral is a very kölsch vista." Or: "Eau de Cologne is a kölsch scent that was first created at number 4711 Glockengasse, in 1695, by Giovanni Paolo de Feminis, an Italian immigrant to Cologne." As a noun, Kölsch is the name for the local dialect itself as in: "She speaks fluent Kölsch." Finally, the noun Kölsch is also the name for the local ale as in: "I believe I ought to order another Kölsch." That's why patrons in the pubs around that famous Cathedral joke that Kölsch is the only language in the world that you can also drink!
In a country dominated by lagers of all strengths and colors, the modern Kölsch (the beer) is Germany's only true, all-barley, pale ale. The other German pale ale is, of course, the Bavarian Weissbier or Weizen, made mostly from wheat. Then there is the copper-colored Altbier from Düsseldorf, 25 miles down the river Rhine from Cologne, which is an ale like the Kölsch and usually made entirely from barley. While the British pale ale, or bitter, has become the signature beer of British brewing, the Kölsch pale ale has never become Germany's national beer. In fact, not even one beer in twenty drunk in Germany today is a Kölsch. Only in its city of origin, in Cologne, is Kölsch definitely the default beer. On its home turf, Kölsch accounts for more than half of all beer consumed.
Even though Kölsch has only a fairly limited distribution as a commercial beer, mostly in and around Cologne, this brew nevertheless represents one of the major beer styles of the world. This is so mainly, because there is no ale quite like it. It has ancient roots and is a great quaffing beer, especially for a summer thirst. Kölschlike the Altbier and Weissbier but unlike all British alesis a lagered brew, which means that it takes almost two months between brewing a batch and then tapping it.
Kölsch is very subtle and delicate. It is light in both body and appearance, its maltiness is subdued, and its hoppiness is unobtrusive. Like the Helles from Bavaria, it is straw-blond, but with a bit more effervescence. Unlike any of the German blond lagers, however, Kölsch imparts some noticeable ale-type fruitiness on the palate. Kölsch, again like the Bavarian Helles, is a beer, for which the ingredients are deceptively simple, but adherence to the prescribed brewing techniques and to meticulous sanitation are paramount for the success of the brew. There is simply nothing "strong" in a Kölsch to cover up any mistakes or sloppiness in procedures.
Medieval Ales Are at the Root
We know from ancient documents that brewing in Cologne goes back at least a thousand years, but the modern Kölsch style we know today, perhaps surprisingly, goes back not even a hundred years. Until the late Middle Ages, most brews in Germany were probably ales, especially in the summer. For at least the past five centuries, however, most German brewers have been making mostly "new" beers, that is, lagers. The only "old" German beers that escaped the lager onslaught and survived up to the Industrial Revolution and into modernity were the wheat-based Weissbiers, mostly of Bavaria, and the barley-based, copper-colored ales of the Rhineland. The Rhenish beers brewed by the old ale method came to be known as Altbiers (alt is "old" in German). Just as the British pale ale is an outgrowth of older, darker British ales, the modern Kölsch is an outgrowth of the older, darker Altbier.
The Cologne city fathers made their own official contribution to preserving the "old" indigenous ale-style beer. In 1603, they issued an important ordinance: Henceforth brewers were only permitted to brew top-fermented beers in Cologne. Less than half a century after summer brewing was made illegal in Bavaria, which pushed that part of Germany firmly into the lager column, the authorities in Cologne took the opposite course. They downright outlawed the making of bottom-fermented beers.
One variation of the late-medieval Rhenish ale was a mostly-wheat beer known as Keutebier. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century much of the ale production of Cologne (as well as of neighboring Düsseldorf) was in the form of this Keutebier. This brew was a whitish ale, probably a bit like a Belgian wit beer, but without the addition of such spices as cloves, cumin, or coriander. Over time though, the once-dominant wheat portion of the Keutebier became less and less, until it disappeared completely from the grain bill by the early twentieth century, when the Cologne Keutebier gradually metamorphosed into the pure barley beer we now now as the modern Kölsch.
The medieval lager-making prohibition in Cologne, however, became impossible to keep on the books after Napoleon Bonaparte had occupied the Rhineland during his campaign of 1794/5 and installed his brother-in-law Joaquim Murat as the new governor. Murat imposed the Code Napoléon, the legal code inspired by the French Revolution, on the locals, which demanded the liberalization of trade and commerce. Napoleon's fatal defeat two decades later, at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, may have ended the territorial ambitions of France, but it could not turn the clock back on many of the social reforms that Napoleon had brought about in the lands that he had conquered.
Thus, in 1830, the French banking dynasty of the Rothschilds decided to pour substantial amounts of money into a large, state-of-the-art brewery for bottom-fermented beer in Cologne. The lager that came out of this brewery, however, turned out to be no good, principally because the cellars lacked adequate cooling. The climate of Cologne was just too warm for making lagers-and the invention of refrigeration was then still more than four decades into the future. Soon the Rothschild's lager brewery failed for lack of demand for its indifferent product, and the facility was converted into a sugar factory.
The Modern Kölsch
The Cologne pale ales just as the British pale ales, owe their light color to nineteenth-century innovations in malting techniques that made the kilning of pale barley malts possible. So the modern Kölsch style developed from both the brownish "alt" ales and the whitish Keutebiers as they were then brewed throughout the Rhineland and even in parts of Holland. Interestingly, the brewers in and around Düsseldorfunlike those in and around Colognedid not embrace the paler malts for their ales. Instead, the Düsseldorfers concentrated on perfecting their copper-colored ale.
Even though the two Rhenish brew centers of Düsseldorf and Cologne took different paths in developing their ales from common medieval roots, both adopted beer filtration and scientific yeast management in the late nineteenth century to control the quality of their beers. Thus emerged almost simultaneously within the span of a few decades in the early twentieth centuryand practically within the same neighborhoodtwo distinct, barley-based, filtered, German ale styles: the modern Altbier brewed with plenty of amber Munich malt and the modern Kölsch brewed only with pale Pils malt. Each style now has its distinct color and flavor profile, as well as its own, rather unusual, top-fermenting yeast strains. In spite of the lagering they undergo, these beers are true ales, and, to paraphrase a line from the play and movie Cabaret, "...they don't taste British at all!" A Kölsch is always served in a very narrow, straight-sided, cylindrical glass called a Stange (which means "rod" or "pole" in English). The 0.2-liter (6¾ ounces) Kölsch-Stange stands six inches tall and is only two inches in diameter. It takes almost two and a half of these German pale ale servings to fill one British pint glass! With such small portions, on a hot summer day, a Kölsch rarely has a chance to get too warm in the glass before it is amuses your palate.
is a "Controlled Substance"
The Kölsch is one of the few beers styles nowadays with a regional appellation similar to an appellation d'origine contrôllée in wine. The Kölsch appellation is recognized by the German government, which means that only about two dozen brewers located in Cologne and its immediate vicinity may legally call their beers Kölsch. These breweries originally got together in 1948 to create a formal association, the Kölsch Konvention, established for the sole purpose of preserving the quality and uniformity of the style and to keep the style from being brewed by distant imitators.
What Makes an Ale a Kölsch?
Perhaps the best way to describe the character of a Kölsch to someone who is not too familiar with the style is to compare it to a few related and better-known styles. Unlike a British pale ale (and the Altbier, for that matter), a modern Kölsch tends to be brewed with just one type of malt, pale Pils malt. Until about the time of the First World War, when the style was still in flux, traditional forerunners of the modern Kölsch often also contained up to 20 percent malted wheat.