What Makes a Kölsch a Kölsch?

This pale German beer is easy to drink but difficult to brew
August 21, 2020 Updated: August 21, 2020

This German-born beer is good year-round, but summer is my favorite time to have some Kölsch: Light, crisp, with a hint of fruit from the yeast and a touch of bitterness from the hops to balance it all out. The delicate dance of flavor makes it an easy drinker but a difficult brew to get just right. 

In Germany, this beer can only be called Kölsch if it actually comes from Köln, the literal meaning of the name. In Europe, the beer holds the status of PGI (protected geographical indication). (Other products, such as the beers and cheeses from Trappist monasteries, also have agreed-upon rules for production and labeling, but in the case of “Trappist,” it is not a particular style like Kölsch is.)

Köln—or Cologne, as we generally say in English, perhaps out of wariness of umlauts—lies along the Rhine River, with a towering Gothic cathedral at the city’s center. One of the tallest and most remarkable in Europe, the double-spire beauty also played a role in the identity of the local brewing style. It was said that if you couldn’t see the cathedral from your brewery, you were not brewing Kölsch. 

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Koln—or Cologne—lies along the Rhine River, with a towering Gothic cathedral at the city’s center. (Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock)

That may be a folksy legend, but it is true that in 1986, the Köln breweries came together for the Kölsch Konvention to declare a PGI for their beer, and one of the rules stated that it had to be made within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the city. 

Other rules held that the ingredients must be Köln water, top-fermenting yeast, and hops, and only malted barley could be used as the grain. (The limitation to these four ingredients—yeast, water, hops, malt—is also the rule of Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law). The brew must have a pale straw color, be clear-filtered, and bear an alcohol content of 4.5–5.3 percent. 

Unlike pilsners and other lagers with cold fermentation temperatures and yeast that works at the bottom of the tank, Kölsch calls for top-fermenting yeast and a warmer fermentation temperature, which imparts a hint of fruitiness. After that, however, it is aged a bit at colder temperatures, like the lagers. 

But despite the adherence to guidelines, Kölsch beers are not all the same, thanks to the permitted variations in the malts and hops used. Additionally, exported varieties are not required to stick exactly to the rules.

Kölsch in Cologne

While there are at least a couple dozen brands of Kölsch currently on the market, only 13 breweries are brewing it. You can visit many of them in just a couple days, and mostly on foot. 

On a trip to Cologne, I went on a tour of Sünner, the oldest currently operating Cologne brewery, founded as a brewpub in 1830 and then moved to a failed and flooded coal-mining operation in 1858. The move gave them an abundant water source and the partial excavations provided lagering cellars. 

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Sunner, the oldest currently operating Cologne brewery. (Pictor Picture Company/Shutterstock)

Top-fermenting yeast was nothing new, they told me; this sort of beer had been brewed for centuries. But in 1906, Sünner was the first to call it Kölsch (as in “from Köln”), and the other brewers soon followed suit. Even so, bottom-fermented pilsners led sales until the 1970s, when Kölsch finally caught on locally. 

The serving vessel itself is particular to Cologne and its beer: a special 200-milliliter glass cylinder called a stange. A köbes, a beer server, whirls amid tables carrying several glasses in a special tray known as a kranz, meaning “wreath.” It looks like a deep-dish pizza pan with a handle rising from the middle and a top surface of circular holes, to secure the glasses for the ride. Without being asked, the köbes deftly swaps out empties for full glasses and marks a tally on your bar mat, and when you are ready to settle up, you lay the mat over the glass until the server comes by to collect your tab. 

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When you are ready to settle up, you lay your bar mat over the glass until the server comes by to collect your tab. (Kevin Revolinski)
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A köbes, a beer server, whirls amid tables carrying several glasses in a special tray known as a kranz, meaning “wreath.” (Kevin Revolinski)

If you don’t plan on being in Cologne, don’t worry: Sünner exports limited quantities to the United States, as do Reissdorf and Gaffel.

Kölsch in America

Kölsch, however, is a fairly common style among American brewers. But per the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, in the United States, any beer variety that suggests foreign origins must display the hyphenated “–style” on its label. Thus, you don’t see Scotch ales, German pilsners, or Belgian ales produced in the United States, but Scotch-style, German-style, and Belgian-style beers. 

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Sunner Kolsch. (Courtesy of Artisanal Imports)

You may also find flavored Kölsch-style beers, with additions of fruits, wheat, or even coffee, which would surely draw frowns from our Kölner friends. 

But for the real deal, I turned to Dan Carey, master brewer of Wisconsin’s largest craft brewery, New Glarus Brewing. Carey has a passion for Germanic styles and produces Kid Kölsch as a summer seasonal. It is as spot on as I’ve ever had outside Cologne. 

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New Glarus Brewing Company’s Kid Kolsch. (Courtesy of New Glarus Brewing Company)

I asked him why such a seemingly simple brew often fails to hit the mark outside of Germany. 

“Like all things—the devil is in the details (or maybe it’s God that’s in the details),” Carey wrote to me in an email. He believes that many “small things combine to make a huge difference,” and that a brewer needs to nail them all to make a successful Kölsch-style beer. 

Besides using the traditional ingredients, Carey also employs a double decoction mashing method. To put it simply, decoction mashing is a work- and time-intensive method of heating a portion of the mash separately and adding it back to raise the temperature in stages—twice in Carey’s case. Once a common practice in Germany, most brewers there, and especially here in the United States, opt for the quicker direct heating of an infusion mash.

“Decoction mashing is one of those small details that alone won’t make much difference, but when coupled with other things—proper malt, hops, and yeast; open fermentation, long lagering; and bottle fermentation—make a noticeable difference,” Carey wrote.

Kid Kölsch has been very popular for New Glarus. As Carey put it: “The perfect beer is a marriage of drinkability and complexity. It’s easy to make a beer with big flavors, but to make a drinkable yet complex beer takes a life’s effort.”

Pairing Foods

Beer halls in Cologne will serve Kölsch with Halver Hahn—not a half rooster, as the name translates, but a rye roll with cheese, butter, and mustard. 

Another traditional dish is Himmel und Erde (Himmel un Ääd in Rhineland), or Heaven and Earth, which is apple sauce (picked from heaven above) and mashed potatoes (dug up from the earth). This combo is typically paired with blood pudding or blood sausage (such as Flönz, a smoky and firm local take on blutwurst that also enjoys PGI status) and fried onions.

Don’t have any blutwurst in the fridge? How about fried pork knuckle? No? Then try bratwurst or perhaps some German-style cheeses.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com