When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
Most of the German styles we’ve discussed to date have originated from southern Germany, birthplace of lagers. Believe it or not, though, northern Germans enjoy beer too. In fact, according to The Beer Bible, brewers in Breman (a city about halfway between Amsterdam and Hamburg) were the first to employ hops.
Northern Germany’s mild climate made lager brewing tricky. In fact, lagers so easily soured that the Cologne town council outlawed bottom-fermenting (i.e., lager) yeasts in 1603. In light of these restrictions, distinct ale-brewing traditions emerged throughout the northern part of the country. While many of these regional styles succumbed to pilsner’s dominance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a couple of provincial holdouts remain to this day.
One of these mainstays, kölsch, makes its home in Cologne. It likely emerged in its current form around the turn of the last century, as it matches contemporary accounts of bitterbier (this, again, according to The Beer Bible). The Complete Beer Course describes the brewing process to arrive at this fruity golden ale with a crisp lagerlike finish:
“To develop kölsch’s gentle, lightly fruity profile, the subtly bittered ale is fermented at toastier temperatures. Afterward, a stint of chilly lagering smooths out the sweet malts and adds a snappy character that is suited for summertime drinking.”
Kölsch is so ubiquitous in Cologne that you’ll struggle to find anything else to drink if you visit. Servers walk around with platters from which they serve kölsch in a cylindrical glass, called a stange. Its hometown popularity is inverted throughout the rest of the country, where kölsch is nearly nonexistent.
“A clean, crisp, delicately balanced beer usually with a very subtle fruit and hop character. Subdued maltiness throughout leads into a pleasantly well-attenuated and refreshing finish. Freshness makes a huge difference with this beer, as the delicate character can fade quickly with age. Brilliant clarity is characteristic.”
In Cologne, waiters (köbessen) carry trays with relatively small, 8 oz glasses. When drinkers have less than a quarter of their beer remaining, the köbessen will bring a fresh beer and put a tally on your coaster. Cashing out is a matter of counting the hash marks.
Third Coast Review’s Take
Kölsch is a worthy rival to pale lagers, particularly for those who enjoy a smidge of fruitiness. It’s also a great choice for those who enjoy wheat ales, but whose allergies make enjoying them difficult.
- Metropolitan Krankshaft Kölsch
- Dovetail Kölsch
- Old Irving Della Kölsch
- MIddlebrow Yard Work Kölsch
When Bernstein wrote about kölsch in The Complete Beer Course in 2013, he said: “It’s become an increasing favorite of American brewers searching for an offbeat hot-weather offering. But the new drop of kölsch beers often doesn’t bear the umlaut-topped moniker. Instead snag a stange and search for a beer named after summer.” He did, however, recommend Metropolitan Krankshaft Kölsch, a year-round beer that proudly proclaims its Rhineland heritage. This Chicago product remains a strong example of the style nearly a decade later. It’s full and fruity, yet still light and crisp. While it’s certainly a great summer beer, don’t hesitate to grab one anytime you’re in the mood for something on the lighter side but don’t want to sacrifice character.
Dovetail prints “fruity, floral, crisp” on the side of their kölsch cans. You’ll hear no argument from me. This kölsch has just enough malt to give it a backbone, without being so filling as to preclude another stange.
Recently, Dovetail engaged in a kölsch-based fundraiser for Karneval. For context, Cologne is situated in the historically Catholic Rhineland and plays host to Germany’s most festive Karneval. Even this descendent of Prussian Protestants found it to be a fun way for Dovetail to do some good while recognizing kölsch’s heritage.
In The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth writes that kölsch “allow(s) for pretty broad interpretation.” Within that spectrum, Old Irving leans toward the hoppy side; Della Kölsch’s listed IBU (23) is comparable to its peers, but the hops (Zuper Saazer, Hallertau Mittelfrüh, and Hallertau Blanc) really jumped out. While still light and drinkable, there’s certainly more going on in this kölsch than in the others I sampled.
Middlebrow Yard Work is at the other end of the kölsch spectrum from Della. It leans into delicate malt sweetness and the fruity esters left behind by top-fermenting yeast. The end product is a soft, refreshing beer that’s perfect for, well, yard work.
We take a seasonal detour to discuss dry Irish stout before returning to the Rhineland for kölsch’s older cousin, altbier.