Welcome to the twelth in our series of “Source of Styles”, with this focus being on Kölsch beers – perhaps the best thing that the city of Köln (Cologne), in Germany, has given to the world of beer drinkers. This one was voted for by our Patreons, so if you want to help choose the next few “Source of Styles” then join up here.
Kölsch beers have long been associated with the Köln region of German, and its history stems back to the 17th century where bottom fermented beers started to become popular. However, this went against the grain (excuse the pun!) as the traditional beers in Köln were top-fermented beers. (Bottom Fermentation is a process using yeast strains that work effectively at lower temperatures between 5°C – 10°C, while top fermentation is a process using yeast strains that work effectively at higher temperatures 15°C – 20°C). The authorities in Köln attempted to ban the production and sale of these bottom fermented beers, first in 1676, and then again in 1698; however, it was to no avail.
Despite the distance between Köln and Dusseldorf being less than 50km away, the styles of beer brewed in each city began to differ with the kinds of malts being used. The Köln region began to use lighter malts, thus producing the lighter, more golden beers, while the Dusseldorf region began using the darker Munich-style malt for a full copper color that more resemble altbiers. By this point, refrigeration had been invented and both regions began to use cold-conditioning in their beers to ensure the quality of the beer was the same throughout the year. In the middle of the 18th century, brewers in the area began to use a combination of bottom and top fermenting yeasts to brew their beers, which became known as obergaerige laberbier (top-fermented, cold conditioned beer).
However, even at this point in time, the beer style still hadn’t been given an “official” name. The word “Kölsch” was used to designate something that had come from the Köln region – so basically anything made in the area was called “Kölsch”. It wasn’t until much later, in 1906, in fact, that the nomenclature began to be associated with a beer. Brauerei Sünner had been producing a beer which had became a yard post for the style, and so in 1918, they began to call the beer “Kölsch”.
This turn of events though came at the expense of other breweries in the area, as between 1914 and 1918, World War I occurred. As Kölsch was gaining notoriety for being a beer style, the strict rationing imposed by the government caused the dropped the gravity of Kölsch severely. During this period of time, the numerous breweries in the area, which were often actually brewpubs, were forced to close. Even after the war and rationing had ended, the hefty taxes imposed by the local government prevented the brewers from hitting the higher alcohol content that was found in the beers pre-World War I.
While Brauerei Sünner managed to find some success with their Kölsch beers, and had begun to see some upturn in their fortunes throughout the 20’s and 30’s, World War II reared its head, causing destruction across the city. Bombing raids from the Allies levelled the city, causing over 60% of the city to be destroyed, and decimated the population, with over 95% either evacuating or having been killed in the raids. By the end of the war, only 3 breweries remained within the city walls. However, Kölners are a hardy bunch and they slowly began rebuilding the city, with another 7 breweries being formed throughout the end of 1946, into 1947. This continued progression lasted into the end of the 1950’s, with 20 breweries located with the Köln city limits – the same amount that were found over 600 years ago.
Nonetheless, as the style of beer grew in popularity, as did the number of breweries outside of Köln brewing the beer too. Unfortunately, the idea of lawsuits and brewing is not a new invention, and they began to pop up as Kölner breweries began to sue breweries that were outside of the area and making the style of beer. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the lawsuits came thick and fast, until in 1985 when the 1985 Kölsch Konvention, a contract signed by 24 brewers in the Köln area, that stipulated only brewers in and around Köln could produce Kölschbier, and also defined its stylistic parameters. Like how sparkling white wine can only be produced and labelled as champagne if it has been produced in the area, Kölsch beers can only be labelled as such if they have been produced within a 50km radius of the city of Köln. These guidelines specify that “true Kölsch is a top-fermented, light-coloured, clear, highly fermented, hopsy full ale and is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.”
Kölsch Appearance and Taste
Here’s the guidelines from the BJCP for what makes Kölsch, well, Kölsch.
Appearance: Very pale gold to light gold. Very clear (authentic commercial versions are filtered to a brilliant clarity).
Aroma: Low to very low malt aroma, with a grainy-sweet character. A low floral, spicy or herbal hop aroma is optional but not out of style. Overall, the intensity of aromatics is fairly subtle but generally balanced, clean, and fresh.
Taste: Soft, rounded palate comprised of a delicate flavor balance between soft yet attenuated malt, an almost imperceptible fruity sweetness from fermentation, and a medium-low to medium bitterness with a delicate dryness and slight crispness in the finish. The hop flavor is variable, and can range from low to moderately-high; most are medium-low to medium intensity and have a floral, spicy, or herbal character.
Characteristic Ingredients: Traditional German hops (Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt or Hersbrucker). German Pils or pale malt. Attenuative, clean ale yeast. Current commercial practice is to ferment warm, cold condition for a short period of time, and serve young.
Japanese Kölsch Beers
Despite the original brewers in the Japanese craft beer boom back in 1994 being of German origin, very few breweries were producing the style in spite of its light and easy drinking body. These are the recommended Kölsch beers from Japan that you should try. They are great for summer drinking and these will definitely hit the spot.
TDM 1874 Leitungswasser
- The Bottom Line: A great example of a kölsch and well worth finding it before the summer finishes.
- The Full Review: TDM 1874 Leitungswasser Kölsch
Locobeer Kaori no Nama
- The Bottom Line: Locobeer Kaori no Nama is a decent attempt at a kölsch – it’s simple and drinkable.
- The Full Review: Locobeer Kaori no Nama
Oh! La! Ho Kolsch
- The Bottom Line: Oh! La! Ho Kolsch is a safe kölsch for safe people looking for a safe evening in without looking to offend their taste buds.
- The Full Review: Oh! La! Ho Kolsch
- The Bottom Line: Baeren Colonia would be a great beer chilled for the summer.
- The Full Review: Baeren Colonia
Imported Kölsch Beers
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the overseas beers. Here’s some Kölsch we also recommend. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.