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What Makes a Kölsch a Kölsch?

Patrick Grass

As an avid craft beer drinker, you may have noticed Kölsch beer becoming popular with American craft beer producers and drinkers alike. Kölsch style beer has a fascinating history and tradition, undoubtedly playing a part in shaping today's beer culture. Maybe, in a recent Original Craft Beer Club delivery or while visiting your local craft brewery. Kölsch has also caught on among American craft brewers, who are discovering not only a delicious beer but also an innovative brewing culture centered around a city on the Rhine.

Weighing beer grains Kölsch History

Looking back on beer history, we can see times of influence that fundamentally change the culture and practices that create the beverage that we call beer. The evolution of Kölsch beer is one of these moments. When speaking of Kölsch beer one can be broadly referring to a unique yeast, or more specifically to a unique style and brewing heritage. This type of beer is rooted in the brewing tradition that emanates from Cologne (Köln) Germany; a place Kölsch beer now calls home. It was here in this city, during the 17th century, where the seeds were sown for the Kölsch that we enjoy today.

This German style had its beginnings in a time of fanatic German ale brewers, who, in efforts to combat poor ingredients and awful brewing practices, adopted an ale only beer mandate. Ale beer is a beer made with ale top fermenting yeast and warm fermenting yeast, which is different from lager beer - made with bottom fermenting and cold fermenting lager yeast (lagers going on to be cold stored for an extended period in a process called "lagering"). This only ale mandate was an attempt by these German brewers to standardize the way beer was being made in the city of Cologne.

The cause for their fanatic enthusiasm for ale only beers was the subpar and downright awful concoctions that were sold as beer in the 17th century. The beer was of such low quality around Cologne that many patrons of local taverns were regularly drinking stale and souring beer. One of the reasons for this travesty was that hops were not yet the overwhelming choice for spicing beer.

At this time, hops were competing with many other bittering and flavoring herbs, generally referred to as "gruit". Why did hops make all the difference? Hops have antimicrobial properties and act as a preservative to help keep beer from spoiling. This combined with their flavor and bittering qualities, has made hops a crucial ingredient to modern beer.

Kölsch Laws

To try and instill good brewing and ingredient practices the brewers of Cologne issued several mandates of proper brewing practice. They banished any brewers not conforming to these 17th-century beer mandates, including any bottom-fermented beer. The Kölsch style German ale is the culmination of this history, resulting in the blending of techniques and the development of Kölsch beer in the 20th century.

Cologne Germany river and city

Those fortunate enough to have visited Germany know that the Germans have a love for lager beer, and 1600s Germany was no different. Since lager was, and is, all the rage in most of Germany, the brewers of Cologne, evolved a compromise for the local beer brewer and drinker. This compromise developed from a hybridized brewing style. The new and unique brewing approach used both ale and lager properties. Cologne brewers used a top fermenting, warm fermenting ale yeast, but then after fermentation, the brewers would cold condition the ale beer as one would do to a lager beer. This Created a delicious, one of a kind, regional sensation.

First receiving its name "Kölsch" in 1918, the name was a tribute to the city that began this new style of beer. Then, in 1986, the “Kölsch Konvention” was established by the brewers of Cologne, agreeing upon a set brewing process that had to be used, and restricted the use of the name "Kölsch" to breweries that were within 30 miles (50 km) of Cologne Germany. Finally, in 1997, the European Union made Kölsch a product with a protected geographical indication (PGI), establishing Köln as the region of Kölsch beer for all the EU.

A beer toast to Cologne Germany American brewers can get away with calling their Kölsch a Kölsch, even though it is not made in the city or area surrounding Cologne. Some brewers in the States, out of respect for the brewers of Cologne, call their beer a Kölsch Style American Ale.

Kölsch Ingredients

This gold color beer is made with simple and straightforward ingredients, malt, hops, yeast, and water, all contributing to the quality. The malts used are usually German, like Pale Two-row and Pilsner malts, with a little wheat malt, and maybe some Munich or Vienna malt depending on how malty the brewer prefers it. The hop character in a Kölsch is not piney or citric like an IPA; but balanced with a slightly spicy finish, that is delightful and like that of a lager or Pilsner. Any traditional German hop, like Tettnanger, Hallertau, or even Saaz, would do the trick. For a Kölsch, the hops are added at the beginning of the boil for bittering and, depending on the brewer's preference for hops, a small aroma addition at the end of the boil. The preferred yeast is a European ale yeast that has a high level of attenuation and low ester production. Kölsch yeast is a German Ale yeast that was developed over many generations to take on qualities that accent both the lager and ale styles in which it was made. The yeast along with the lagering process, both contribute to Kölsch's lager-like qualities.

Kölsch Style Ale represents persistence, loyalty, tradition, and innovation. Similar to some French wines, Kölsch is a reference not only to the beverage or yeast, but also to the region in which it is made and produced. Now, in North America we are seeing craft brewers pay homage to this excellent German creation, giving the opportunity for many more people to discover, learn and enjoy this part of beer history. So, go visit your local craft brewery, or join an online craft beer club and appreciate one for yourself. Let it satisfy your taste buds, you will not be disappointed in this one of a kind beer.

Kölsch Food Pairings:
• Cheese that is creamy and peppery, pairs well with the peppery, floral hops in a Kölsch.

• Salads, and dishes based around bread. For example, a fresh fruit salad can bring out the beer's slight fruitiness, or, your favorite flatbread or pizza can complement Kölsch's bread-like flavors while using carbonation to cleanse the palate between bites.

• Fish (if it's not too heavy or oily), and just about any type of shellfish. Both can partner with a Kölsch beer nicely.

We offer a variety of Kölsch beers in our monthly beer subscription club. Join today and try out this brew style for yourself!

Daniels, Ray. Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles. Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2000.

Klemp, K. Florian. "Stylistically Speaking: Kölsch." All About Beer Magazine 30.4 (2009): 20 Feb. 2019

Patrick Grass
Author Bio: Patrick Grass is currently a student at UC Davis, attending the Master Brewers Program. In his free time, he enjoys the restorative qualities of the wilderness and natural world.