The Queen of Köln --|
A Visit to the Court of
by Forrest Williams
One style alone is served in the Köln region of Germany's western edge -- a gentle reminder that a beer can rule with a light touch.
"You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least, you need a beer."
Recently, my wife Jessica and I spent a week in Germany visiting relatives, part to maintain contact with that side of my family and part to celebrate our then-new engagement. Naturally, we planned on visiting a few breweries and sampling some local specialties, but the brevity of the trip seemed to preclude any opportunities to glean insight into the centuries-old traditions and customs that make Germany the largest per capita consumer of beer in the world (as Michael Jackson has said, there are great beer nations, and there is Germany). Luckily for me, Köln presented an epiphany of beer and brewing experience.
Köln's P.J. Früh brewpub, with its delicately pale Kölschbier, is the most regal of all. Within minutes of getting off the train and making your way around the 600-year-old cathedral to Am Hof street, stepping back in time is as easy as heaving open the giant oak doors of Früh and letting the slightly musty air of a century of brewing tradition summon you within. (The brewery is a youngster, though, compared with the Gaffel brewery, in the Altstadt section of town [the old city], which traces its roots to 1302.) When your eyes adjust to the dim lights, the first thing you notice is a line of waiters in blue coats and skirts (manly skirts, mind you), impatiently waiting in line at a serving counter, empty trays in hand. The single tap continuously fills the straight-sided, 20-cL glasses, one after another. As far as I can tell, it is never turned off. Trays now full, the waiters whirl off, slinging full glasses and collecting empties on the fly -- perpetual motion but for the need to stop and refill. Jackson notes of the mayhem, "beers whistle by like golden bullets" (1). After spending a few moments in the Schwemme (literally, "swimming area," as Kölners refer to the area in front of the tap) the simile seems oddly appropriate.
We found an empty table for lunch and immediately picked up on the trick of taking as many beers as the waiter had with him whenever he paid us a visit (the worst thing about Kölsch is the wait for your next one to arrive). A dog sat among his people at the bench next to us, chest high to the table, having as good a time as anyone.
As the snow began to pile up outside and the crowd began to thicken, we spoke animatedly about the differences between brewer taps in our country and those in Germany. Once, I wondered aloud what our waiter might think if I asked him for an Altbier. "I don't know for sure," my cousin replied, leaning back and pondering. "You are bigger than him, but he has many friends here." And so he did. (I'm told Kölsch is treated with the same lighthearted disdain in Alt-producing Düsseldorf.) The sprawling Früh was filled to the brim with Kölners, staying warm and enjoying glass after glass of the beer that bears their name. Over the years, they have taken great steps toward preserving the identity of their creation (the Köln Guild of Brewers has been active since 1254 -- see box, "In Defense of German Ale"). They are perfectly happy drinking Kölsch exclusively. They know no other way.
Beyond the Pale -- A Kölsch Overview
Despite its increase in prevalence in craft brewery line-ups, sporadic and oftentimes misleading information on the style has led to an array of golden ales bittered with German hop varieties being sold as Kölsch in brewpubs across the country. What is missing from many of them is the understanding that the theories behind recipe formulation, ingredient selection, and presentation are equally as important as wort preparation, fermentation techniques, and cold maturation to the overall quality of so delicate a style. When properly executed, few Pilseners match the subtle grace of a Kölschbier, and fewer still offer so ideal a showcase for a brewer's freshest ingredients.
Kölsch is extremely pale in color; most filtered examples in Köln fall between 8 and 10 °EBC (3.5-4.2 °SRM). Though the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup consider 7-12 °EBC an acceptable range (2), authentic examples rarely take on the deeper straw to almost pale amber notes implied by a 12 °EBC number.
Like the copper-colored, hoppy Altbiers of Düsseldorf, Kölsch is fermented at cooler-than-normal ale temperatures, perhaps 65-68 °F (18-20 °C), and then allowed to condition in cold storage for one to two months. This fermentation regime, when paired with a highly attenuative strain of yeast, effectively retards ester production and generates a faint fruitiness considered integral to the style. Bitterness levels are moderate; IBUs are typically in the mid to upper 20s and somewhat pronounced, though certainly less insistent than in classic examples of Alt, such as Diebels, Hannen, or Schlösser. Fred Eckhardt goes so far as to suggest that Kölsch is in many ways a pale version of an Altbier (though insinuating as much to a fiercely proud Kölner would be ill-advised).
At City, Ale & Oyster, my brewery on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I stock a well-modified Belgian Pilsen malt with an ASBC color of around 1.7 (about 7 °EBC) and a theoretical extract yield of 80% or higher. We use this malt only for our Kölsch and Weissbier. Though it is a bit more expensive and must come from a separate malt distributor, the expense and effort represents the difference between the production of echt (real) Kölsch and simply offering our customers another golden ale. A measure of light wheat malt is often included as a component in the grist to help lighten the color and to ensure a tight, long-lasting head. Though a small addition (less than 5% of the malt bill) of Vienna malt is acceptable, I recommend against it. The desired continental flavor components of the style are better achieved through the use of fresh German hops. Keeping in mind the style parameters and the zero tolerance of caramel character in the collected wort, a malt bill of 85% two-row lager malt and 15% light malted wheat is an excellent starting point for brewing an authentic Kölsch.
Domestic alternatives: Other acceptable varieties include, in order of appropriateness, the U.S. varieties Crystal, Liberty, and Mt. Hood -- all of which were bred in an attempt to replicate the "nobility" of Hallertauer Mittelfrüh. Mt. Hood never quite lived up to early expectations, though Liberty and Crystal have both subsequently come much closer.
Boston Beer Works, one of the largest brewpubs in the United States, uses only Crystal for its Kenmore Kölsch. With three additions spread out over the 75-minute boil, the Beer Works' Kölsch is delicately hopped without the flavor imbalances that a high-alpha hop would foster in so light a style. Brewer Jodi Andrews notes, "When it's on, it's really on. It's certainly the favorite golden ale of the brewers here, both to brew and to drink." Kenmore Kölsch calls for a grist of two-row pale malt from Canada Malting (which is comparable in color to most two-row lager malt) and wheat malt, offering a light-bodied, pale wort as a showcase for the subtly aromatic Crystal hops.
Note that domestic Hallertauer is not included among the domestic hops recommended for Kölsch. Transplanted Hallertauer Mittelfrüh rootstocks imported in the hope of replicating the variety in U.S. soil didn't grow the same in Washington as they did in Hallertau. Though the variety has gained its share of supporters, it has little in common with the imported noble hop of the same name other than poor storage stability and a similar alpha-acid percentage. It is still an economical variety for use in German-style lagers, of course, but its usefulness in a style as pale as Kölsch is dubious.
Hop forms: Though flower hops, pellets, and hop extracts are all used in the production of Kölsch in Germany, my experience with the style is limited to the use of type-90 (regular) hop pellets and baled whole hops -- the two methods used most commonly by home- and microbrewers. Other hop products such as isomerized pellets, type-45 (enriched) pellets, and isomerized extracts (kettle and post fermentation), could also be used, assuming they are available and that they are suited to your individual brewing technique.
Water in Köln is soft, with low levels of calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonates. Soft water is important because the "soft"mouthfeel of true Kölsch is due in no small part to the water and is certainly a major factor in the overall delicate impression the beer leaves with the drinker. One of the reasons I originally set out to brew a Kölsch was that the single-source aquifer supplying my brewery provides unchlorinated, unfluoridated water softer even than that of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, home of what is considered the benchmark soft brewing water in the world. Once my local water company assured me that my water analysis was indeed correct, my path was basically chosen for me.
Water can be eliminated as a source of stress for most brewers, however, as long as their supply meets a few basic requirements. In any pale beer, the importance of water being free of particles, color, taste, and odor is critical. Acceptable water should also be clear of pathogens; that is, beer spoilers such as Lactobacillus, Pectinatus, and Pediococcus. Less of a concern, but still worth consideration, is the presence of nitrate reducers; nitrates reduce to nitrites, which are toxic to yeast.
It's also worth noting that although soft water is desirable for Kölsch production, brewers should keep an eye on the calcium level of potential brewing water. Low calcium is often associated with soft water, but calcium serves several important purposes in the mashing process and the pH of beer and should not be viewed as a pariah (or, to force a pun, an inorganic par-ion). Calcium helps reduce pH, favors saccharification of the mash, reduces the extent of Maillard-reaction color formation, and acts as a yeast nutrient and, to a lesser degree, as a flocculant.
Generally speaking, microbrewers should take a long look at their water treatment programs. Home brewers can rest easy in the knowledge that if they simply pick up a few gallons of spring water before they brew they'll be able to produce a fine example of Kölsch without losing any sleep over water quality.
Of the various elements important to the formation of a light Kölsch wort, we have already considered water and grist composition. Certain elements pertaining to heat, time, and temperature can also be observed as guidelines and are worth mentioning. Heat in the
Mixing is a constant in all brewing (the entire grist must be properly hydrated to ensure adequate conversion efficiency), but mash thickness is a bit more interpretive. A thick mash will reduce the temperature stability of some enzymes and dilute enzyme substances and the products of enzyme action. A thick mash will help to stabilize the enzymes, concentrate the presence of calcium ions, and yield higher levels of soluble nitrogen. My experience is that a "loose" mash for around 45 minutes at around 152 °F (66 °C), followed by a gentle vorlauf (recirculation) cycle for pre-runoff wort clarity will produce a desirable Kölsch wort.
Boiling and Cast-out
As for any beer style, thorough aeration and a cast-out temperature of around 68 °F (20 °C) will ensure a minimal lag time and an accelerated respiration phase. For Kölsch fermentation, set cooling to activate at 70 °F (21 °C), which the beer should reach within 48 hours. Keeping the fermenting Kölsch below 70 °F will inhibit the levels of ester production considered integral to English ales while imparting the faint fruitiness desired in the beers of Köln.
Attenuation: The degree of attenuation required for Kölsch production can be achieved with adequate pitching rates and proper yeast selection. In Kölsch fermentation, attenuation rates of 85% are not uncommon. When the beer is done working, cool the temperature and harvest any yeast to be saved, and then crash the temperature to the 32-40 °F (0-4 °C) range for up to two months. Before the cold-conditioning phase, I like to rack my Kölsch onto finings in a freshly sanitized fermentor.
Filtration and Serving
My most memorable impression of Kölsch is of its delicacy, an impression augmented by the 5-in. tall, straight-sided, 20-cL glasses in which the beer is served. The size, common for German Pils, Alt, and Kölsch glasses, ensures that the beer is always cold (but not ice cold) and well-carbonated (but not gassy). When I first formulated Kennebec Kölsch, I spent as much time hunting down small, straight-sided glasses as I did searching for Hallertauer MittelFrüh pellets (at least I found the glasses!). You don't put roses from your lover in a coffee can.
Outside, the snow began to fall as dusk gave way to darkness. The pub started to fill with cheerful locals laughing and staying warm. They were as varied as the beers they were drinking and, whether they knew it or not, were defining the brewing legacy our country will someday take pride in.
My mind wandered, thousands of miles away, to the Altstadt, where people just like us were doing the same thing. Our glasses were big and clunky and the contents different, but the sounds and the mood were familiar and comforting.
Brewing in Styles Article List
Issue 6.1 Table Of Contents