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Kölsch is a refreshing German beer for the sultry days of summer

Photo: Kevin Pang. Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
Photo: Kevin Pang. Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The A.V. Club offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.

Kölsch

The lowdown: Odds are you’ve never had a Kölsch. Well, not a true Kölsch. Those you can only get in Cologne (Köln in German), a German city that lies along the Rhine River.

Kölsch is a relatively new style, having been born—in its current form, at least—in the late 19th century, when Czech pilsners were the rage. The clear, golden effervescence of the pilsner looked nothing like the darker beers of Germany, so German brewers throughout the country sought to create their own lighter, paler beers. Bavarian brewers created the Helles lager, while those up north perfected their own Dortmunder recipe. In Cologne, the result was Kölsch.

Kölsch stood out from its contemporaries, namely for not being a straight lager. Like the West German altbier before it, Kölsch is a hybrid brew. Like with traditional ales, it’s made with top-fermenting yeasts, but then conditioned like a lager at cold temperatures for up to two months. This process made it a fine counterpoint to the pilsner, as Kölsch typically uses a pilsner malt, helping it to retain some of the grainy pilsner flavor but with less bitterness. It also tends to have less alcohol, a boon in warm weather.

Kölsch beers were meant to be crushed. In Cologne, the beer is served from small barrels perched on bar tops. Waiters (called Köbes in Cologne) serve them in paper-thin, 25-centiliter glasses called stanges, and when you finish your glass, another will automatically be brought to you (think meat at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse). Placing a coaster atop your glass lets them know you’re finished. It’s also said that the Köbes speak a local dialect (also called Kölsch) and are directed to exude a certain crassness among their clientele.

Obviously, the beer is important to Cologne, which is why in 1985 two dozen breweries from the region teamed up with the German government to publish the “Kölsch Convention,” an order that states a beer must align with certain criteria in order to be called a Kölsch. It must be pale, top-fermented, hop-accented, and filtered, but the real kicker is that it must be brewed in the Cologne metropolitan area. As such, no other beer in Germany can give itself that distinction.

The same also goes for those who want to make the beer in the U.S., though brewers have gotten around it by calling their beer a Kölsch-style ale or, in some cases, ignoring the “Kölsch Convention” altogether. Legal protection of the name only extends through the European Union, after all.

The German city of Cologne (Photo: Oed/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The taste: Crisp, sparkling, and slightly fruity, Kölsch is often described as soft or delicate. Hops—almost always of the German variety—have a place in Kölsch beers, but they’re there to accentuate flavors and provide balance to the malt rather than stimulate. As such, Kölsch beers have very little bitterness. They tend to finish smooth but quite dry. Unlike pale ales and saisons, Kölsch beers aren’t often a source of experimentation. They serve a very specific purpose in the beer world, and that’s to serve as a light, tasty quencher in warm weather.

Possible gateway: Reissdorf Kölsch is one of the originals, having been brewed in Cologne since 1894. It joins Gaffel Kölsch, Sünner Kölsch, and Früh Kölsch as the primary purveyors of the original Kölsch style. It’s light, smooth, and straightforward, with a mild fruitiness and a touch of sourness. The malt is clean and the hop character very subtle, the latter offering a grassy, herbal quality. It’s a perfect introduction to the style.

Stateside, a standout is Metropolitan Brewing’s Krankshaft, which also benefits from a healthy distribution line throughout the country. It has higher carbonation than more traditional Kölsch beers, but that gives it a bite that helps complement the sharp smell of lemon zest that headlines its aroma. Regardless, Krankshaft remains a light (and sessionable, at 5 percent ABV) beer that should delight drinkers old and new with its sunny notes of citrus, honey, and cut grass.

Another worthy option is Clown Shoes’ Mangö, an “American-style Kölsch” that incorporates a blast of its namesake fruit into the traditional recipe. The mango note makes the beer much juicier than its contemporaries, working to counteract the dryness that usually lingers on the palate post-Kölsch.

Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images

Next steps: Messing with the classics will always make you enemies, which is precisely what’s happened to craft brewers who have sought to experiment with the style. Take Texas brewers St. Arnold Brewing Company, for example; after creating a solid Kölsch-style ale with Fancy Lawnmower, in 2011 they decided to fold in dark malts with Kölsch yeast and see what happened. The result was Santo, a beer that received a great deal of criticism for what some called a pointless modification and others called false advertising (adding dark malt, they argued, simply nudged them closer to other dark styles). Regardless, Santo turned out to be a success, and a number of “black Kölsch” beers have cropped up since then. Chicago’s Half Acre Brewery, for example, is currently serving Cult Vulture, which draws on Munich and Perla Negra malts to offer a roasted, nutty flavor that, unlike a stout or porter, retains a bright crispness.

Coffee is a flavor that tends to dovetail well with several different types of beer, and the same goes for Kölsch. Take Campanology Brewing’s Adventurous Stranger Coffee Kölsch, which steeps for 17 hours in Colombian cold-brew coffee and takes on a touch of hazelnut before being bottled. It’s currently being sold for a limited time at Trader Joes across the country.

Talk like an expert: “You haven’t had a Kölsch until you’ve had one in Cologne.”