Home » Brew Time » Kölsch: The Light & Refreshing Beer of Choice

Kölsch: The Light & Refreshing Beer of Choice

Summer is coming to a close this month and while we all might be leaning into cooler weather and darker, spicier brews, I have one more lighter beer to assist and accompany the soaking up of some that last bit of warm weather that we know we’ll all be missing come January – Kölsch.

Traditional brewhouse in Cologne, Germany

Kölsch is a hybrid beer meaning that it is warm-fermented with ale yeast in the vicinity of 60-68°F and then conditioned at lager temperatures of no more than 40°F, which produces a very light, straw-hued, delicately hopped beer with a very subtle malty sweetness, well-rounded body, and a mild to moderate bitterness. It is clean, crisp, extremely refreshing, and should be consumed at about 41°F – if consumed too cold, (ie. directly out of the fridge), it loses some of its gently intricate flavors. The ABV is also usually less than 5%.

Kölsch originates in Cologne (Köln), Germany, and has a history of being produced as far back as the early 1600s, but noted in writing as early as 1408. Throughout the next couple of hundred years, beer brewing in the region evolved and different styles of beer gave rise – golden pilsners, pale lagers, and altbiers, to name a few, and brewers in the region began to experiment. Initially, Kölsch wasn’t an actual style of beer, it was only a term used for a beer that was brewed in Cologne. However, by the early 1900s, Kölsch as we know it today was born out of said experimentation and became known on its own, as its own distinct style. And boy, oh boy, is the style strictly defined in the city of Cologne…

The Cologne Brewery Association (Kolner Brauerei-Verband) has its own set of rules set forth for a beer to be called Kölsch. This document, founded in 1986, is known as the Kölsch Konvention and states that the beer must be brewed within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of the city, the brew must be filtered and never be cloudy, and must be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, among other requirements. The Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”) is a German set of regulations created in 1516 that limit beer ingredients and state that “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops, and Water.” Whereas the original document does not mention yeast by name, it was common knowledge that yeast was a given in order to brew beer. It also sets forth punishment should a brewer defy the order and includes the power of the courts to confiscate barrels of beer.

Today, Cologne boasts 13 brewhouses that meet the Konvention standards but still maintain their own unique take on Kölsch. Unlike breweries in the United States, where you can select from a variety of different styles of beer to sample, the only beer that is served in a Cologne brewhouse (or Brauhaus) is Kölsch. The brewhouses are varied in their menus and decor, but each traditional establishment has a collective feel to it, right down to the waiters themselves. The waiters (all men) are known as Kobes and each wears a blue shirt or jacket, leather apron, and carries a circular tray, known as a Kölsch-kranz (literally translated as Kölsch wreath) that is able to hold approximately twelve 6.75 oz. stange glasses in individual round slots.

Stange glasses are the traditional glasses to serve Kölsch in; narrow and cylindrical, the word stange translates to “pole” or “rod.” The purpose of these small glasses is to ensure that the beer never gets too warm as you drink. Therefore, each time the waiter passes your table, should your glass be empty (or close to it) you are brought another beer without having to request it, each time the waiter marking a tally on your coaster. The waiters will keep bringing you a beer (and marking your coaster) until they see your coaster placed on top and covering the opening of your stange glass – this signals that you have had your fill. The waiter then counts the tallied marks and you pay for the amount you’ve consumed.

I, myself, have had the opportunity to travel to Cologne twice and visit several traditional brewhouses while I was there – Früh, Sion, & Reissdorf. While the style of Kölsch is relatively the same at each establishment, the subtleties of each are distinctive. My favorite of the three is Reissdorf Kölsch with its near-perfect balance of malty sweetness and mild bitterness. As well, in some of the bar-only offshoots of the big brewhouses, there is such a thing called a Kölsch Cola, and it is literally draft Kölsch mixed with Coca-Cola. Strange? Yes! But also, strangely delightful and surprisingly tasty!

I’m also usually able to get my fix of traditional Kölsch these days, despite there being a travel ban in place during the global pandemic. Lucky for us, we are privy to have one of the four Wolff’s Biergartens in New York State, and they do usually have a German Kölsch on tap. As well, sometimes you can find a traditional German Kölsch in the Inter-national section of beer at our local Wegmans grocers. In addition, within the last couple of years, brewers around the US have begun experimenting with the Kölsch style and putting their own spin on the traditional beer; and while they may not be following the “rules” set forth by the Kölsch Konvention and/or Reinheitsgebot, they have still man-aged to be pretty darn good.

Current recommendations for US-based Kölsch-style brews include:

Genesee Ruby Red Kölsch by Genesee Brewing Company (Rochester, NY), 4.5% ABV, boasting a top-notch and refreshingly pure grapefruit flavor while not being overtly tart or overly sweet. It’s light, crisp, and very tasty.

Gearhead Kölsch by Sager Beer Works (Rochester, NY), 4.9% ABV, a more traditional golden ale that is easy-drinking with a light maltiness and a hopped-finish. Quite lovely!

Passion Fruit Kölsch by New Belgium Brewing Company (Fort Collins, CO), 4.3% ABV, this is fruity, refreshing, and the epitome of a patio beer in the summer. The tropical notes of the passion fruit are not at all overpowering and lend a nice body to the beer.

Oceans of Patience by Mikkeller Brewing NYC (Flushing, Queens, NY), 5% ABV, this particular American-Kölsch is right on the money. It’s definitely the most similar to a traditional Cologne-based Kölsch that I have sampled to date. Light, refreshing, balanced, crisp.

Peach Kölsch by Stoneyard Brewing Company (Brockport, NY), 5% ABV, this Kölsch is light, with subtle peach notes as advertised, with a slightly earthy base throughout. And if you’re lucky enough to find it, there may still be a few 4-packs kicking around our local Wegmans stores!

To sum it up, If you haven’t had the opportunity to try a Kölsch beer up to this point, you should definitely do so before summer officially runs out. There’s still plenty of time this September for a refreshing beer to be had after mowing the lawn, lounging in your hammock, or floating in your kayak. Cheers to the last little bit of summer left in CNY! 

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!