Kölsch is a relatively uncommon beer style that’s suddenly taking off around the Bay Area. That’s a good thing, because it certainly deserves that love and attention. It’s delicious — especially during the toasty weather so typical of late summer and early fall on the West Coast.
If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s a little background on this 1,000-plus-year-old brew, its modern versions and some suggestions for tasting it around the Bay.
Kölsch, as the name suggests, originated in Germany in Köln — the city we non-Germans call Cologne. Germany is a land of lagers, but Kölsch is essentially an ale — it’s brewed with top-cropping yeast — that’s fermented at cooler temperatures like a lager, which gives Kölsch the best of both worlds.
This style of beer has been brewed since at least 874. It’s mentioned in official documents as early as 1250. And its brewers guild, the Kölner Brauer-Kooperation, was founded in 1396 and is still in existence.
What we think of as modern Kölsch, however, got its start in the late 1800s, when pilsner began its rapid popular ascent around the world. So Cologne’s brewers met the competition head on by creating a new pale beer of their own, Kölsch.
In 1986, the guild, now called the Cologne Brewery Association (Kölner Brauerei-Verband) held a Kölsch Konvention and updated its declaration of what a Kölsch should be: a bright, light-colored, highly fermented, strongly hopped, top-fermented beer brewed specifically in Cologne. In addition, the Konvention stipulated it should be served in tall, narrow 6-ounce glasses called a “stangen” or stange glass.
In 1997, the European Union declared Kölsch a protected product and ruled that within
the EU, any beer called a Kölsch had to be brewed within a 30-mile radius of Cologne.
History is nice, but right about now, you’re probably wondering about the really important questions — what does this beer look and taste like?
A great Kölsch is bright and clear, never hazy. It’s very pale to light golden in color with a delicate white head that often dissipates quickly. When you put your nose to the glass, the aroma should be slightly sweet, with some grainy malt character and light fruit aroma — usually apples, but sometimes pears or even cherries.
Often, you’ll detect some floral notes, some spiciness or herbal hop character but — and this is the most important thing — it should all be very subtle and delicate, for that is the essence of Kölsch. Nothing must stand out too much. Everything should be in balance and very fresh and clean.
The other essential characteristic of Kölsch is that it’s a highly attenuated beer. That means it is drier than most (think dry Champagne) because the more highly attenuated a beer is, the more sugar gets converted into alcohol, although Kölsch tends to fall within the 4.4 to 5.2-percent range of alcohol by volume. It also gives it a fairly high level of carbonation with a crisp, smooth mouthfeel. Kölsch may well be one of the most perfect and quaffable beers.
Naturally, the best place to drink a Kölsch is in Cologne where, as I mentioned, the beer is served in relatively small glasses. The tradition is that you drink it fairly quickly, with your server refilling your glass and adding a mark on your coaster each time you set the glass down. When you’re done, you place your coaster on top of the glass, and your server counts the marks to determine what you owe.
But American craft brewers are making Kölsch beers, too, and several Bay Area breweries are turning out very good, traditional takes. You can taste True Kölsch at Almanac’s Alameda beer garden and taproom, and KSA — or Kölsch Style Ale — at San Francisco’s Fort Point. It was the first beer that brewery produced.
Other local versions include Kalifornia Kölsch from San Francisco’s Magnolia, Cali Coast Kölsch from Walnut Creek’s CaliCraft, Beer Kitty Kölsch from San Carlos’ Devil’s Canyon, Kölsch from Half Moon Bay Brewing and Liquifaction from Sebastopol’s Seismic Brewing.
There are variations, too. I’ve seen dry-hopped versions of Kölsch, super hoppy ones and some with added fruit. My favorites include Cucumber Kölsch, from Lodi’s High Water Brewing, and Ten Million Flowers, with its notes of honey and orange zest, made by Soquel’s Discretion Brewing.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at [email protected]
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