Do the fruit-infusions and shandies of summer leave you pining for a refreshing yet still classic craft beer? Then it’s time you got to know kölsch.
Kölsch is a brisk, low-malt, straw-colored ale/lager hybrid that embodies favorable characteristics of both beer types. Like an ale, it's made with top-fermenting yeast at a warm 70 degrees (give or take). This imparts subtle nuance, sometimes in the form of fruit aromas like apple, cherry, and pear, and/or wine-like notes. Kölsch is also cold conditioned, which produces a clean, crisp, smooth finish. The result is a beer with the complexity of an ale and the thirst-quenching qualities of a lager. Per the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines, an archetypical kölsch expresses “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 [slight] dryness and pucker in the finish.”
Officially, kölsch can only be produced within the city limits of Cologne, Germany. Brewers there invented the style in the late 19th century in response to a shift in consumer tastes toward golden lagers. This ruling was codified in the Kölsch Convention of the mid 1980s. In it, the German government and 24 breweries decree that kölsch is only kölsch if it is pale in color, top-fermented, hop-accented, filtered, and brewed in Cologne proper.
Check out our field guide to learn more about German beer styles.
Which is not to say that American brewers don’t make kölsch-like beer. They do, and they are generally easier to come by than German imports. In January 2017, for instance, Boulevard Brewing Company announced a new, year-round 4.6% ABV American Kolsch (note the lack of umlaut) made using European pilsner malt, malted wheat, and Magnum, Tradition, Saaz and Saphir hops. In an interview, head brewer Steve Pauwels attributed the portfolio addition to a consumer-driven movement toward easy-drinking, approachable beers.
Whether you choose a German import or an American interpretation, you should consume kölsch cold in a stange glass. Stanges are cylindrical and much smaller than typical beer glasses, which is exactly the point. Because they only hold about 6.75 ounces, you’ll empty your stange before your beer gets warm or flat. The stange also helps keep things bubbly. Just as the tall, narrow design of a flute helps preserves champagne's carbonation, so too does a stange preserve a kölsch’s effervescence.
Stange glasses are the norm in Cologne, where they are served in restaurants and beer gardens by waiters called köbes, who promptly (and without asking) replace emptied stanges with full refills. Placing a coaster over the mouth of your stange is the only way to end the parade of kölsch.
Different beer styles call for different glassware. Learn about the various types of beer glasses on our blog.
The Kölsch Experience
While there is nothing quite like drinking a true kölsch in Cologne served to you by a brusque köbe whose primary agenda is racking up your beer tab, you can recreate the experience at home with an American facsimile and a set of stange glasses of your own. Or you can finally buy that plane ticket to Germany. Either way, it’s the season for it.