Category Archives: Philosophy

Why Kölsch Works

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!

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On our second or third round at Gaffel, but not even a pint in!

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.

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Though one drinker succumbed to tea (due to a slight cold), much Päffgen was enjoyed.

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).

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Still jet-lagged but thrilled to be with friends drinking fresh Früh!

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.

 

 

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One of these things is not like the other. Counterpoint of the Kölner Dom and modern buildings.

What is Beer Community?

It’s a staple of every brewery’s mission statement, but what does community mean? For people in the industry, it is an actual community of people with common interests and goals. For patrons, it is a public space that should feel welcoming and safe. The way a brewery (or other beer drinking establishment) interacts with other organizations can be an essential tool in its branding, and can positively augment its customer base. And breweries, more than many other businesses, actively contribute to their communities by creating jobs, supporting nonprofits and other local organizations, and by partnering with other businesses on collaborative adventures.

When Ninkasi was still tucked into a bay in the building that used to stand where its tasting room is, it doled out kegs and kegs to official and unofficial parties and concerts; I have fond memories of pouring red cups of Believer and listening to a Grateful Dead cover band at the Eugene Whiteaker Hostel during the Last Friday Art Walk; music events were particularly rife with black and teal. Now, nine years later, Ninkasi has its own recording studio; bands only pay for the recording engineer, James Book’s, time.

While the big breweries are relegated to grocery store shelves and distributor warehouses, local craft breweries and beer bars can use the social aspect of beer, arguably its most important contribution to civilization, to indirectly pay its customers back. This happens both economically and psychologically. The pub is where connections are made, where ideas form and mutate, where business deals are hashed out and relationships are negotiated (strike that; reverse it). Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? The pub or taproom may also be a place of solitude; one finds a nook out of sight to read a book, or even sits at the bar, turning pages and tilting glasses. The thrum of a busy but safe space without the stress of a shopping mall or bus station can be meditative, white noise.

My own experience has taught me not to expect any particular social situation. Meeting a friend for beer yesterday, we were joined by two more friends, then two more friends; pure happenstance. Our conversations expanded and contracted within the group, and pulsed with laughter. I absorbed the spirit and left happier than I arrived.

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Community starts with good people. Beer helps!

How does a business that relies on income and capital put money back in the pockets of its patrons? Many do so through work with nonprofits; the benefits are more than mutual. As an example, Oakshire Brewing gives 1% of sales of its Watershed IPA to the McKenzie River Trust. This helps not only to protect the brewery’s water source, but helps keep my wife in a job! That’s a pretty tight circle. In turn, employees and donors from a beneficiary nonprofit are likely to support the brewery.

On a broader scale, Hopworks and Patagonia Provisions partnered to make Long Root Ale, a beer using Kernza, a perennial grain that requires far less cultivation than annual grains like barley and wheat. While Kernza is unlikely to ever replace barley, the project emphasizes Hopworks’ interest in organic and sustainable business practices; a partnership with an arts organization may not have fit the brewery’s mission statement as well.

Though beer is not known as the best paying industry, it does provide tons of jobs; local jobs are naturally better for a local economy, and brewing and serving beer cannot be outsourced. Building a strong, regular customer base also adds opportunity for mutual support. Contractors (at least the ones I know) really like beer. They hang out at a spot long enough, chances are something’s going to break or need to be built; there’s that economic wheel spinning around again.

How do you fit into your community? How do I? It should be a mantra, a thing to reflect on periodically throughout the day, a subtitle to our lives. A part of our conversation over a beer.

We, the Consumers

Who controls whom? Increasingly, advertisements for products show up after a  conversation, rather than a dedicated internet search; our phones are indeed listening to us unless we tell them not to (and even then I’m not so sure). Want to buy a new TV? Instead of heading to the electronics store and conversing with a knowledgeable employee, we turn to the peer reviews, read ratings on the high and low spectrum, and make “our own decision,” or go to a store that sells everything from TVs to baby food and hunt down a roving person in uniform hoping for a reliable answer. Or, worse, we click on an advertisement and take a blind risk on a product; later, we are proud to have saved money on the potential piece of junk. Just as the consolidation of specialized brick-and-mortar businesses has lowered knowledge, breadth of choice, and quality of product at Walmart and its ilk, the consolidation of information and goods online and the rise of “Yelp culture” via proliferation of peer reviews has made everybody “an expert;” thus, nobody is an expert. We, the consumers, are complicit in this cycle when we choose to base our consumption on the advice of laypeople.

This dour, generalized view of middle class humanity plays out in the beer world when beer drinkers choose to base their buying habits on unqualified information from beer rating sites, and then either add their feedback, which feels more valuable than it is, or don’t, which defeats the purpose; the system works better, supposedly, with more input. In a fascinating New York Times Magazine article about cryptocurrency, internet protocols, and blockchains, author Steven Johnson quotes a former Google strategist, James Williams: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.”

This topic may seem too heavy for an enjoyable beverage like beer. It ought to be, but in this age of information access, subtle marketing techniques, and “likes” as social cachet, attention is what it’s all about (see previous post and subsequent Facebook debate for proof of my own foray into the attention economy). When a beer receives good attention–positive reviews–its desirability increases. And while questions of quality arise from this conversation, public perception and reaction are arguably bigger factors.

“If you like this, you may like that…”

Rather than a catalog of new items with raw details, pricing, and availability, beer rating websites create roadblocks and distractions by telling the consumer what they want (again, I’ll use the non-binary third-person singular terms “they” and “their” rather than he/she; it’s becoming grammatically easier), rather than encouraging the consumer to make their own decision based on data provided by the brewery. The ability of technology to tell us what we [think we] want is pervasive now; identifying when that’s happening and making a rational decision to adopt or reject the opportunity is the least we can do to remain autonomous. If a consumer chooses to read ratings, they should be prepared to make the same rational decision. But rejecting the opinion of one’s peers infers that one’s own opinion is just as insignificant; a loss for the attention economy.

In the less dramatic scenario of a catalog, the onus of descriptive ability would fall on the brewery. It would ideally prohibit active marketing techniques. It would force users to choose based on their own preferences and riskiness. It would encourage consumers to seek the advice of trusted individuals, or institutions. (Here is my bias: with eight years working in both commercial beer and homebrewing retail, I would like to think that my training, and that of my peers in the industry, matters. When a customer asks for a recommendation and then chooses, right in front of me, to opt for the suggestion on their phone, it’s a slap in the face. Is that what free will looks like?)

The Times Magazine article goes into some depth about the philosophy of open-source material and the potential for internet users to have control of their own identities rather than parting them out to corporations. The upshot is that it decentralizes and democratizes information and currency. The concept is a huge threat to our current economic infrastructure and forces people to become more aware of their virtual space. One doesn’t need to know coding language to understand that having control of one’s personal information reverses the power structure. For the beer consumer, having an intimate knowledge and control of their senses takes power away from marketing and centralized sources of potentially unqualified information. It provides an opportunity to engage more personally and honestly with friends and qualified people in the industry, and encourages others to do the same, organically.

The beauty of this evolving philosophy of decentralization, though it is quite complicated, is that it makes room for free will in virtual space. Right now, our physical world is partially informed by the internet, which is highly consolidated. Our engagement with others on solid ground is altered by internet memes, often passively and unironically. We are at risk of losing ourselves. For we beer consumers, it is imperative to rise above the noise, to take stock of our senses, and to use all external resources carefully. Seek qualified sources. Take risks, they won’t kill you. Question my recommendations, or use me as a metric in your own experiment. Just don’t let anything tell you what you want.

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I used to own this t-shirt.