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Home / German Beer Styles / Kölsch

German Beer Styles:
Kölsch (Koelsch)

A style distinctive to Köln (Cologne). The name Kölsch is, like champagne, Appellation Controlée, protected by law so that only beers brewed in and around Köln can bear the name. The anglicised spelling is sometimes given as Koelsch.

Frueh Kolsch Glass

The appearance is like a Pilsner: pale straw-coloured and clear. The taste is delicate and refreshing, less bitter than a Pilsner, gently fruitier and a little sweeter, often with a delightful biscuityness. A pale barley malt is used, sometimes with wheat added. The result is a refreshing cool beer (served at about 8°C), ideal for summer afternoons or perhaps with white fish. Many people would mistake it for a lager, and foreign brewers who attempt a brew in this style often describe it, incorrectly, as a lager. In fact, Kölsch is a warm fermenting beer — a survivor of the days before lager, though it is now given a period of lagering and is paler in colour than it used to be, following the demand of modern drinkers for lighter beers.

On a visit to Köln I tried a number of different Kölsch beers and the differences between them were more pronounced than I had noticed before, but that's probably because I hadn't ever sampled such a range of them in a relatively short time to properly compare them. It seems best to compare them in terms of the amount of dry, hop bitterness they have. Malzmühle Mühlenkölsch and Sion Kölsch lie at one end of the spectrum, with relatively little hoppiness and the Mühlenkölsch is distinctively malty. Päffgen and Gilden have considerably more hoppy dryness while Früh had a noticeable sweet, juicy malt character. Kölsch is usually 4.8 percent ABV and served in a simple, tall, straight, cylindrical 200ml glass called a Kölsch-Stange.

When drinking in Köln, it is assumed that you will be drinking only Kölsch. It's probably best to resist the temptation to order a pils or any other kind of beer as people in Cologne rarely drink any other beer. The bar staff, called Köbes, clad in blue shirt, dark trousers and apron, patrol the Biergarten or Brauerei bringing Kölsch to the waiting customers. The glasses are carried in a circular tray (Kölschkranz) with holes for the glasses and a handle in the centre. It is considered bad form to try to attract the attention of the Köbes and ask for a Kölsch. Instead, you should grab a seat and wait for the Kölsch to be offered to you. The Köbe will usually make a mark on your beer mat for each glass you receive so that your bill can be easily reckoned when you want to pay. The Köbes command a certain respect with their casual, fairly brash humour. Give a tip (5-10%) when you pay, rather than leaving it on the table as you might in the UK. Have your tip ready before you ask to pay, to save confusion. Failure to tip is a clear sign of discontent.

Gaffel Kölschkranz

Menus can be a little confusing due to a strong regional bias and regional dialect. Halve Hahn is not, as you might imagine, a half chicken but a bread roll with cheese. Himmel un Äd (heaven and earth) is a splendid regional Blotwoosch/Blutwurst (black pudding, literally: blood sausage) on a bed of mashed potato and apple. Kölsche Kaviar is sliced black pudding with onion and, usually, a Röggelchen (crusty rye bread roll). Soorbroode, or Sauerbraten (sour roast), is sliced, roast beef marinated for several days in a sweet and sour marinade of vinegar, beer and spices, then braised in the marinade. Flöns is another name for black pudding, usually made with rice. Decke Bunne un Speck is a dish of broad beans with ham/bacon. Rievkooche (Reibekuchen) are potato pancakes.

There are many bars and Brauhäuser in Köln, including many where you can sit outside overlooking the Rhine or the market squares in the touristy Altstadt. My favourite was Päffgen (Friesenstrasse 64), a roomy, relaxed Hausbrauerei (brewpub) about 5-10 minutes from the Dom by foot. It is popular with the locals and is outside of the main tourist trap, serving excellent food and their own, pleasingly hoppy Päffgen Kölsch. There's a leafy, walled Biergarten at the rear and their Himmel un Äd was sublime.

Cologne is easy to reach from the UK by Eurostar: a quick hop to Brussels from London Waterloo, then a connecting train to Köln Hauptbahnhof. It's much nicer than flying, leaving you right in the centre of the city, and less environmentally destructive. Don't bother with the one hour round trip by boat on the Rhine: there's really not much to see, and your ticket does not guarantee you a seat.

Unfortunately, a frenzy of takeovers leaves many Kölsch breweries (Gilden, Sester, Sion, Küppers, Kurfürsten) owned by the giant Brau und Brunnen group and brewed in the former Bergische Löwen-Brauerei. Added to this, Richmodis Kölsch has been owned by Gaffel since 1998 and Privatbrauerei Giesler was bought and closed by Dom. Garde is now owned by Gaffel and brewed at the Richmodis brewery, Severins Kölsch is brewed by Sünner while Dom have closed their brewery and moved production to the old Küppers brewery and Ganser Kölsch is brewed by Dom but still independently owned. You may well be a little perplexed.

The problem with this is that when a beer is moved to another brewery and/or taken over by another company, the character of the beer often changes. There is a risk that beers will lose their individual character as they become just another part of a big company's portfolio of brands. The Reinheitsgebot doesn't stop this happening and the only real defence is public awareness of the unique tastes and qualities of beer and demand for high quality, distinctive beers.


Click any of the links below to read or add reviews of the beers on the Oxford Bottled Beer Database

Koelsch Links

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Last updated: 2nd September 2004

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