If you’ve known me around beer, you probably know about my relationship with Kölsch. I’ve got a reputation, actually, for my obsession, analysis, and excitement, be it fit or fantasy, over this beer style. I may or may not have tasted Reissdorf, the most common example available in Oregon, before I brewed my first batch around 2011; mine came out well enough that I continued. Then Dave at Flat Tail began producing one, and Trevor while at Claim 52. At that point, Kölsch started to be a thing, and I started getting annoyed.
Yesterday, I saw a photo that included a can of something called “Ballast Point Tart Peach Kölsch,” and retched. This is a criminal example of what I call, “not a fucking Kölsch!” Many others are not so blatant in their total disregard for taste (and flavor and appearance), and produce beer that visually resembles Kölsch and contains the same simple ingredients as Kölsch, but that misses the flavor, aroma, and texture that defines the style; these should be called American Blond Ales. You see how goddamn obsessed I am?
Well folks, I finally visited the Mothership. Cologne*, Germany is the birthplace and stronghold of Kölsch; it is kept in its own Rapunzel’s tower by the Kölsch Konvention, which dictates that no beer brewed outside the city walls can be called Kölsch. (That obviously doesn’t apply in the U.S..)
My hajj took place on my honeymoon (as will have the next few posts); Liz graciously consented to this first leg of the trip, on a fast train from Berlin to the Rhineland, and we met up with Michael and Brendan, old friends from the Stein now living in Freiburg to the south, and their friend Joey. We disembarked at the Hauptbahnhof (main station), checked into our hotel, and went immediately to Gaffel am Dom, the Gaffel brewery right next to the Kölner Dom cathedral, which, Brendan pointed out, looks photoshopped.
The place was packed, but we got a table quickly. The waiter came by hurriedly, and we ordered Kölsch all around. I tried to keep my cool. When the dude carrying the beer (called a Kobe), brought around the tray (Kranze), deposited five beer mats and five small rod-shaped glasses (Stanges), struck five hash marks on a beer mat, and walked away, I about had an aneurysm. It finally happened!
The first sip, after the sacred ritual of Prost!, was… I can’t say the earth shook, but it jiggled a bit.
Part of my personal Kölsch mythology includes a German asking a beer nerd why he was sticking his nose in the glass. You really can’t stick your nose far into a Stange, it’s just not wide enough. And by the time you’ve taken three legitimate sips, it’s gone and about to be replaced by another. And so it goes.
Kölsch is an odd commodity. The indigenous ritual of drinking it is perpetuated by its appellation and by the breweries, which take full advantage of the lack of tied house laws to create anti-competitive relationships with bars and restaurants. Only one brand of Kölsch is served at any particular place, as far as I saw. Signs above the door and branded umbrellas outside indicate which Kölsch you’ll be drinking there. Other beers, like Paulaner, may be served as well. Some of the Kölsch breweries also produce different styles like Weizen or Bock, but I didn’t try them.
That’s how Kölsch works in Cologne, and is likely the reason there is so little craft beer there. I’m certainly not complaining; I didn’t go to Germany to drink American style beers, and only one Kölsch, Sion, is a subsidiary of a large brewing conglomerate (and easily the worst Kölsch I tried). So the scene is still “indie.” It has, in a way, protected its interests by setting up an economic wall around the city. Old school.
The Gaffel Kölsch was very clean and crisp, like a Helles or German Pils. Next we went to Früh (where we earned a moderate 18 hash marks on our coaster) and sat in the lower level of the ancient building. The beer was lighter and softer, with a very light fruitiness. Following that, we trundled over to Päffgen and were seated in a cozy, semi-indoor courtyard with a retractable roof.
This was fantastic beer. It felt dryer than the others due to a distinct mineral texture (Cologne water is pretty hard and tastes bad), and had a dash of noble hop character. I think it would be the best for pairing with food because of this extra, though still slight, nuance.
The service of Kölsch in .2L glasses (~6.75 oz) means that a lot more glassware must be cleaned, filled, transported, and removed from tables. The bars often had one, maybe two guys hustling their asses off washing and filling hundreds of these delicate glasses. Though it doesn’t seem the most efficient, the beer never gets warm. The shape of the glass is a pleasure to drink from, and emphasizes the paleness and brilliant clarity of the beer (a suggestion of quality).
Since we’d had a few…dozen… Stanges of Kölsch by now, we set to walk a bit and wound up having one unfortunate glass at a Sion pub. It was full of bros, which should have been a tip-off. It had a green apple yeast flavor and was generally unpleasant to drink; by comparison, the others seemed all the better!
The next day I learned about walking on the street with beer, and how having to pee really bad can lead to drinking more beer because the bar you chose to sneak into was empty and you got questioned by the server. After our friends departed, Liz and I tried Reissdorf (super clean, tastes the same as in the U.S. but fresher) and Mühlen, which was excellent with the best presentation of yeast character– white wine and pear, beautiful counterpoint to the hops and malt. So delicate.
Kölsch is a drinking beer, not a thinking beer. If you (and by you I mean you, not me) have to fuss over it, it may not be a Kölsch.
*The city is called Cologne by everybody in Germany, not Köln (pronounced koeln). This is a sort of colloquialism not uncommon in Europe, which translates city names from their original/native language to a more phonetic pronunciation. Bad example: Baile Ath Cliath is Dublin. Good example: München is Munich. There you have it.