The Queen of Köln—
A Visit to the Court of Germany’s Kölschbier
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 out 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.
As a microbrewer in America, I’ve become accustomed to walking into a pub expecting to see several beer styles on tap. I’ve always believed that human nature demands variety and that U.S. brewpubs and multitap bats were an expression of this desire. Similarly, bars in Germany generally offer at least three or four beers on tap, of vom Faβ. In the Westerwald region, the offerings may include a local Pils, Diebels or Hannen Alt, and probably a Weissbier from Spaten or Paulaner. However, at the two dozen brewpubs in and around Köln (Cologne, to English speakers), Kölsch alone is the king (or is it queen?) of beers.
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.
Although the beer is exquisite, the lack of choice takes some getting used to for Americans. In the United States, customers visit a brewpub and expect to select from a variety of styles, most often top fermented, spanning the spectrum of taste and color. In contrast, many regions across Europe champion a particular style, which is often interpreted differently from village to village. In the northwest region of Germany, one can find a few small towns, long on brewing history, that have traditionally resisted the advances of bottom fermentation and that have created styles of beer quite different from those popularized by their Bavarian cousins. The alt, or old, style of brewing refers to these beers. Fermented at the moderate end of the higher temperatures associated with ale production and stored for extended periods of time at cold temperatures like lagers, these beers are most accurately described as a hybrid style. (See Norm Hardy’s article in “Further Reading” for more on Altbiers.)
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,” on page 40). They are perfectly happy drinking Kölsch exclusively. They know no other way.
Beyond the Pale —A Kölsch Overview
Kölsch, along with the Altbier of Düsseldorf, has been gaining in popularity among U.S. craft brewers, though what we brew here would more properly be called a “Kölsch-style ale” in deference to the city’s appellation contrôllée. Kölsch’s rise in popularity can be partly attributed to the fact that although the craft brewing industry has captured 2% of the total beer market, most of the beer drinkers in the country are still drinking pale lagers. American brewers are forced to create products that satisfy these customers, yet retain the “dignity,” for lack of a better word, of the all-malt, top-fermented styles our beer menus are designed around. More and more brewers are choosing Kölsch as the style to fill this niche.
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, often described as a digestif (and only slightly less so as an apéritif), is sometimes thought of as being as close to a Pils as an ale can reasonably hope to be. That’s not altogether misleading. As a style, however, Kölsch eludes such pat categorization.
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).
With an original gravity somewhere between 1.040 and 1.046 (10 and 11.5 °P) and an attenuation approaching 85%, Kölsch is light-bodied, crisp, and easily balanced by a moderate Hallertauer/Tettnanger hop charge. A typical Kölsch malt bill may call for Pilsener or equally pale two-row malt as a base, comprising at least 75% of the grist. The difference between an English pale ale malt at 3–4 °SRM (12–16 °EBC) and a continental European Pilsener malt with an ASBC color of less than 2 (<8 °EBC) is appreciable and should be a factor in malt selection.
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.
Hop character varies significantly among the brewery taps of Köln, though certain similarities suggest guidelines to follow. German Hallertauer and Tettnanger, in various incarnations, are the hops of choice and are generally aimed at producing somewhere between 20 and 30 IBUs. The Päffgen brewery, in the popular Heumarkt section of Köln’s Altstadt, drifts pleasantly towards the upper end of this spectrum. At Früh, the smooth hop character asserts itself enough to balance the malt character of the house Kölsch, but not enough to jeopardize the delicate character of the beer. The hops are there, but they do their job quietly. Given the range of hop character present in modern “classic” examples of the style, selecting proper varieties and sticking within the IBU guidelines is a suitable reference point for formulating the hop bill. It is important that the hop charge be broken out over two or three additions so that the hopping level is balanced between bitterness, flavors, and aroma.
The delicate Kölsch style benefits most noticeably from the noble-type aroma of true Hallertauer Mittelfrüh hops, though the lack of availability of this variety to small craft- and home brewers effectively precludes its use here. Several other varieties are acceptable (and more readily available). My personal preference is Hallertauer Hersbrucker, which compares favorably with its noble cousin. The alpha- and beta-acids are comparable, and the Hersbrucker is more stable under extended storage conditions. Although this particular variety doesn’t quite capture the elusive aroma “nobility” of Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Spalter, Saaz, or Tettnanger (the four true “noble” hops), elements of it are indeed present and make Hersbrucker an excellent and versatile hop for Kölsch production. The Germans think so as well: Its tolerance to Verticillium wilt has prompted German growers to replace the less-resistant Mittelfrüh with Hersbrucker throughout many fields in Hallertau as well as in Hersbruck. This slight shift in tradition is paralleled by an upswing in the hop’s usage by the country’s brewers.
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, which was released in 1991, 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.
In Defense of German Ale
Kölschbier is one of the few top-fermented beers recognized as a German beer style. It owes its survival in a country monopolized by lagers to a history of persistence.
Köln’s location in northern Germany established it early on as a hub of commerce and trade. By the middle of the 12th century, the church’s monopoly on brewing was facing serious competition from the city’s merchants, a situation that was then common to cities throughout Europe. Issues of taxation and control preoccupied the Köln brewing scene well into the 13th century; a brewers’ guild was formed in 1254 to defend the brewers’ interests. Brewing, religion, and politics were entwined from them on, and the guild was instrumental in the removal of Köln’s controlling archbishop in the 1288 Battle of Worringen (3).
These skirmishes, both internal and external, continued for the stubborn Kölners. Barley-based, top-fermented beers flavored with gruit were the rule in Köln up until the 15th century. But not even tradition could hold out against the forces of trade: The city was unable to halt the importation of wheat ales and hopped beers from other parts of the country — and ultimately stopped trying. Later, nearly a century after the Reinheitsgebot was issued in Bavaria, Kölners would respond to the tide of lager brewing overtaking the rest of Germany by issuing a mandate forbidding city brewers from using bottom-fermented beer (4).
The law stuck for many years and Kölsch still reigns in Köln. The Rhineland of northern Germany, which includes Köln’s ale-brewing rival Düsseldorf, has established itself as the main defender of Germany’s alt (old) ale-brewing tradition. In 1985, the German government established an agreement with Köln brewers that Kölsch could not be legally brewed outside of the city. It is one of the very few beers in the world (Berliner Weisse is another) whose name is legally protected by a sort of appellation contrôllée as has been granted to some wines (Champagne, for example). A centuries-old decree states that true Kölsch must be filtered, and thus the cloudy unfiltered beers served in some pubs in Köln are referred to as “Wiess” (white) instead (5).
Today, 17 breweries operate in Köln — more than in any other city in the world (6).
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.
Although selection of an appropriate yeast strain for Kölsch production depends on a few basic considerations, many widely available examples will provide excellent results. In general, look for a yeast strain that will take off quickly, ferment comfortably at temperatures less associated with vigorous ester production (that is, under 72 °F [22 °C]), and, most important, attenuate at a rate close to 80–85% — an attenuation rate that leads to the dry crispness and faintly winy character associated with this style.
Yeast companies generally have appropriate choices available, but while several strains touted as Kölsch yeasts are available, breweries and home brewers already maintaining strains of “cleaner” ale yeasts may discover excellent results with these, provided they tailor their fermentation regime accordingly. The “Chico” strain from Wyeast Laboratories (Hood River, Oregon), more commonly known these days as Wyeast #1056 “American ale,” comes to mind as a good candidate, as does Whitbread’s ale yeast, sold as Wyeast #1098 “British Ale.”
Dan Carey, superbrewer of New Glarus Brewing Company (New Glarus, Wisconsin), once impressed upon me the fact that as microbrewers (and, it would follow, home brewers) we pay much attention to obtaining the finest malt, hops, and yeast from all around the world, but it’s curious that we pay so little attention to the most readily available ingredient, water. Beer, by definition, is an aqueous solution, 91–97% of which is water. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the cursory requirements of the water to be used in the brewing of Kölsch.
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.
The merits of decoction mashing are vigorously debated these days. Regardless of personal preference, and with all due respect to traditionalists, I focus on single-infusion mashing in this article. It is assumed that brewers pursuing authentic Kölsch beers will be using well-modified malt and, because the goal is to generate a pale golden wort, any (disputable) color pick-up from a decoction program is unnecessary and unwanted. Single infusion, or single-temperature grist steeping, is the most common method of achieving starch conversion in today’s microbrew industry for many reasons, and it serves our ultimate purpose here — generating a nutritious and balanced food for our yeast.
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 form of foundation and strike water temperatures is necessary to provide energy for some of the biochemical reactions in the mash. By resting the mash in the 150–153 °F (66–67 °C) range, enzyme activity will be optimal for the light body and moderate-gravity of the style (and most lower temperatures would dry the beer out even further). Strike water temperature will vary greatly depending on mash thickness and equipment design, and brewers should rely on their experience.
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
A vigorous boil is important in the production of beer for at least a dozen reasons, most of which are no less important in producing Kölsch than in the brewing of strong ales. For this particular style, however, a few of the ancillary effects are relatively negligible. Though wort sterilization, extraction of hop contributions (bitterness, flavor, and aroma), halting of enzyme activity, and coagulation of proteins are vital functions of the boil, wort concentration and color pickup through caramelization are of less concern in producing Kölsch. My general practice is to boil for 90 minutes, followed by a 10-minute whirlpool and a 15-minute hot-break rest. Casting out through a hopback charged with whole flowers of the late kettle hop variety ensures effective break removal.
The factors that ate important to consider in fermentation for the Kölsch style are ester development and attenuation. For brewers with the ability to control fermentation temperature, creating a Kölsch calls for only minor adjustments to their general practice.
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 fates 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
Most Kölsch in Köln is served filtered, crystal clear. A notable exception is Küppers, the largest Kölsch producer. In addition to its bright Kölsch, Küppers markets an unfiltered version, labeled Wiess (Kölner for white, a term used to convey its cloudy quality). The practice of offering an unfiltered version of the product labeled differently occurs in several instances throughout the city. I prefer to pass my Kölsch through a <0.2-micron sheet filter en route to a serving tank, where a gentle carbonation, enhanced by the proteinacious wheat malt, is added.
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.
Back in the United States, Jessica and I stopped in at McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont, after a day of skiing and were pleased to find all as we had left it. A dozen or so excellent beers were served on tap, Pils alongside cask bitter, Alt coexisting happily with porter. Ray McNeill came downstairs to say hello and just as quickly returned upstairs to resume cello practice.
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 of 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.
Hardy, Norm, Brewing in Styles: “Altbier,” BrewingTechniques 3 (1), pp. 36–41 (January/February 1995).
Jackson, Michael, The New World Guide to Beer (Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1988).
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