Beer Department: Get to Know a Style: Kölsch

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With warmer weather on the horizon, it seems a great time to offer a little insight into a great light beer option that’s often misunderstood, even in the geekiest of beer geek circles.

Kölsch is the native beer style of the city of Cologne (Köln in German) in northern Germany. Its production dates back to the early 20th century at the Sunner brewery. At one time there were as many as 40 breweries in and around Cologne brewing Kölsch but the devastation wrought by World War II reduced the number of functioning breweries to just two. Since the middle of the last century, Kölsch has slowly been on the rebound. Today there are over a dozen breweries in the area, most in Cologne proper, who brew plenty of Kölsch for the thirsty masses. The style, while well represented by Gaffel, Reissdorf, and Sunner, has even gained a quiet yet persistent following among American craft breweries. Notably, Cincinnati’s own MadTree Brewing Company produces a fine Kölsch called Lift. In Germany, the style is actually dictated by a trade consortium called the Kölsch Konvention which sets rules for production including color, alcohol ranges, and degrees of gravity. Kölsch, as a defined beer style, even gained legally protected status within the EU in the late 90s.

So what makes a Kölsch a Kölsch? Why is it so cool and awesome? For starters, the beer is a bit of an enigma. To the casual beer drinker, Kölsch might just taste like any other golden lager. The truth, however, is that Kölsch is actually an ale. Made entirely from light pilsner-style malt, the beer picks up a little light fruitiness from the ale yeast but is otherwise a very clean, easy drinking beer that isn’t dissimilar from light lager. The secret to this clean character is that Kölsch, after a traditional, short two-week primary fermentation with ale yeast, is allowed to sit and condition for a few weeks in a process that any lager brewer would instantly recognize. It is during this conditioning period that any secondary flavors that would be a telltale sign of ale fermentation are largely cleaned up and dropped out of the beer. Thus, Kölsch is something of a hybrid between ale and lager. The finished beer is a light, easy drinking straw to light golden colored liquid with a light fruitiness, great clarity, some bitterness, and should present with a solid collar of foam as white as a summer cloud. In short, this is a great, easy drinking style of beer that’s perfectly at home at backyard parties, the pool, the beach, camping, catching a baseball game, anything! It’s also a great style of beer to introduce to folks who are just starting to familiarize themselves with craft beer.

If you ever find yourself in Cologne, be sure to indulge in the communal ritual of Kölsch drinking. At beer gardens and halls all over the city, servers will bring out racks of 6oz glasses full of Kölsch and drop them on the table for all to share. The idea is that the servers will just keep the good times rolling, making pass after pass with more racks of these incremental servings of beer. The drinker signals that they want more by simply leaving their empty glass upright on the table. Only when you turn your glass upside down will the server cease bringing you all the beer you can manage. This is the essence of the German notion of gemütlichkeit, a spirit of conviviality and good times shared by all, especially when those good times include beer.

Whether you’re drinking in Cologne or staying more local, you owe it to yourself to check out this delicious style of beer that’s just perfect for that next get-together. Maybe you can generate a little gemütlichkeit of your own.

Eric, Eastgate

Conversation (1)

Brilliant and very well written piece Eric. I look forward to more of these entries.

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