Tag Archives: Kölsch

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!

koln_gaffel_food
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.

koln_paffgen_beer
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).

koln_fruh_party
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.

 

 

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

Lagers and Hybrids Gain Traction

Over the past few years, craft brewers around the country have set out to prove that lager is not a four-letter word. In fact, there are plenty of good words to be said about lager.

Lager brewing is a test of a brewer’s skill; lager yeast is very particular, and will manifest strange off flavors if not treated right. Malt quality will become readily apparent, as lager yeast tends to emphasize the malt bill. Yeast count, fermentation temperature, even fermentor shape affect the final product, and should be taken into account when brewing large batches of beer.

In Oregon, there are many breweries that produce a variety of craft lagers on the regular; I don’t mean a “token” lager to appease macro beer drinkers (HUB’s Lager comes to mind– it’s a great lager, but is the only one they produce). There are more styles of lager than Pilsner, woudn’t ya know, and it’s gotten to the point where the idea of a craft lager “revival” is relevant to the beer conversation.

Full Sail has been producing their LTD line of lagers for several years now, and has showcased many lager styles, from Bohemian Pilsner to Vienna Lager (which is typified by Negra Modelo, woudn’t ya know). Heater Allen produces a range of German styles, mostly lagers, and they do it very, very well.

Perhaps the most important asset to locally produced and consumed lagers is hop character– they have it! I spoke with a Bier Stein customer about local vs. imported lagers, and the most defining difference seems to be the presence (and lack, in the import versions) of hop aroma. That long trip across the pond and through our Interstate system gives those imports a little too much time to breathe out their former hoppy glory (just another reason to go to there*), whereas a fresh Heater Allen Pils is piquant with spicy, herbal notes from German hop varieties (these include, but are not limited to: Hallertau Mittelfruh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz). Some of these varieties are grown here in the Northwest (Saaz, Tettnang (which is remarkably similar to, and may in fact be Fuggle))– even better to showcase our lager brewing prowess!
(*This is not to say that imported lagers aren’t good. On the whole, they are delicious– it’s mainly the Pils and Helles that have lost some of their pizzaz, but they’re still uber refreshing!)

A few other local breweries have a penchant for bottom-fermented beers: Falling Sky has practically run the gamut of lager styles, going so far as to produce an Imperial India Pale Lager, truly capitalizing on a Northwest fetish. Occidental Brewing in Portland had a Dortmunder at the Oregon Brewers Festival that seemed to nail the style description with plenty of malt and hop flavor, medium body, and a decidedly smooth but bitter finish.

While we’re on Occidental, let’s talk hybrids. They produce a Kölsch, described on the cans as a “German-style ale.” That’s partially true. It’s definitely German, originating in Cologne (Köln) in the late 19th Century; it’s definitely an ale, as the yeast is top-fermenting. But it’s so much more! “Hybrid” beers– Kölsch, Altbier, and California Common are the most notable– lie somewhere in the middle, and bear the marks of evolution in brewing tradition.

Kölsch and Altbier use ale yeast that produces a “clean” beer in cooler (55-60F) conditions, i.e. very low fruity esters and phenolics, much closer to lager character than typical ale yeast, which doesn’t ferment very well below 62F. The use of ale yeast is relegated to these styles, and Hefeweizen in Germany, and harken to the days before refrigeration and the isolation of lager yeast.

California Common, commonly known as Steam, is brewed in a somewhat opposite fashion. German immigrants brought lager yeast to North America; many used it to start breweries that grew into, for example, Pabst. Others brought it to California during the Gold Rush. Without refrigeration (or temperature-stable caves), they had to take advantage of the cooler coastal weather and hope for the best. The original example of the style is Anchor Steam, brewed by Gottlieb Brekle in the late 1800s. The beer is amber in color, with toasty notes from Munich malt, and distinctive woody-minty flavor and aroma from Northern Brewer, a German hop variety.

In Eugene, nearly every brewery has produced a Kölsch-style beer in the last year. Claim 52’s version is available around town year-round, while Falling Sky, Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Agrarian (Sommer Steiner) have done single batches. Everybody’s is a little different. My own homebrewed version is slightly more bitter than the standard (Reissdorf), and I change up the hops now and then because I can. Kölsch should be soft, with light and crisp maltiness, very low bitterness, and just a bit of hop aroma. The difference between it and Pilsner is a somewhat ethereal quality of fruit that comes from the yeast.

And so the crazed minds of craft brewers continue to defy; to upheave beer drinkers’ notions of what can be, what is good beer; to reclaim lager as “one of us.”