September is here and beer lovers know this is Oktoberfest season. But when I asked my German friends if they are going to Munich’s massive beer bash, they all contended “it’s too much trouble.” Hotels fill, prices rise, and the early morning complications of fighting crowds and lining up to get into a beer tent (or not), might not be everyone’s idea of fun. With no reservations or tour package, I thought I’d go alternative and visit another German city, one famous for its own particular style of beer: Kölsch.
Straddling the Rhine River, Köln – Cologne to English speakers – is home to one of the tallest and most impressive cathedrals in Europe, several great museums (dedicated to chocolate, Roman Age artifacts, and a collection of Picasso works), and the highly drinkable Kölsch beer. While there are at least a couple dozen brands of Kölsch currently on the market, only ten breweries are brewing it, and one can visit many of them in just a couple days and mostly on foot.
I start from Köln Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, adjacent to the cathedral, and take a commuter train a few minutes east to Sünner, one of the few breweries offering a public tour. In the US, the craft beer industry has seen many an old building reborn as a brewery, but this is the first time I have encountered a repurposed coal mine. Founded as a brewpub closer to the river in 1830 by Christian Sünner and Franz Hess, Sünner is the oldest currently operating Cologne brewery. In 1858, a coal mining operation kept flooding as they dug, until the company gave up and put the property on the market. The brewers bought it and took advantage of the water source and excavations that functioned nicely as cellars.
Sünner is a family brewery, now being managed by the sixth generation. I meet with brewery representative Christian Hagl for a tour and a bit of sampling. Unlike pilsners and other beers brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast, he explains, Kölsch calls for top-fermenting yeast and a warmer fermentation temperature, which impart a hint of fruitiness. Top-fermenting yeast was nothing new; such beers had been brewed for centuries. But in 1906, Sünner started to call it Kölsch (as in “from Köln”), and the other brewers followed suit. But bottom-fermented pilsner led sales until the 1970s when Kölsch finally caught on locally. Then in 1986, the Köln breweries came together for the Kölsch Konvention where they all agreed on parameters for their beer: It can only be made with Köln water, malted barley, top-fermenting yeast, and hops. It will be blonde in color but clear-filtered, and its alcohol content will fall within a range of 4.5-5.3%. They even agreed on serving it in special 200-ml cylindrical glass. And since the 1990s, true Kölsch can only come from Köln, much as Champagne is only from the region of the same name.
Beneath the brewery is a cellar beer hall that serves food along with its brews, and in summer a beer garden opens outside. But even at its busiest, “you might wait ten minutes to be seated,” says Hagl. He shrugs when I tell him I have decided to skip Oktoberfest and just visit Köln. “Don’t go to the big places. You go to the small places and it is just fantastic,” says Hagl.
Back at the main station I walk two minutes to another local favorite, Brauhaus Früh Am Dom. I pass through its beer garden, tucked along the backside of a fountain in a small square, and step inside the front door where a wooden beer barrel perches on the counter. A köbes, a beer server with apron and money belt, waits as the bartender fills another round of glasses and places them in a special metal serving tray called a kranz, which means “wreath.” No patron needs to ask for more beer; rather, the köbes whirls between tables like a dervish, deftly swapping out the empty glasses for full ones unless told otherwise. When you’re ready to call it quits, place a bar mat over your glass.
Eating Kölsch Style
Start off with Halver Hahn. A dictionary will suggest this is half a chicken, but in Cologne it’s a rye roll with Dutch cheese, butter and mustard.
The menu offers bratwurst, schnitzel, cheeses, and some typical Cologne dishes, such as Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and Earth), a side made with mashed potatoes and apples. I dine on two local specialties: black pudding, a euphemism for a well-seasoned blood pudding (Blutwurst or Kölsche Kaviar), and Schweinshaxe, a fried, meaty pork knuckle.
Thus I have quite a buffer to the rest of the day’s Kölsch drinking. Despite the adherence to guidelines, there are differences among the Kölsch beers due to allowed variations in malt and hops. Früh’s brew is a bit sweeter than Sünner’s, I notice.
After lunch, I stroll three blocks east and stop for another at the sidewalk seating of Brauhaus Sion. A souvenir shop across the street shows a mannequin in a köbes outfit with the kranz of Kölsch glasses at its feet. Maybe for Halloween? Another two-minute walk and I find myself at Peters Brauhaus. Like all of these places, Peters has a full restaurant, but I opt for a glass of Kölsch under a tree in their nearby beer garden, served again from a wooden cask.
Not ten minutes south across Heumarkt Square is Brauerei zur Malzmühle, a 150-year-old beer hall, which also offers lodging next door at Hotel zur Malzmühle. The fifth floor has an enviable view of the city and the cathedral, even from the bath tub. If you haven’t gotten your fill of beer, six “beer suites” include a tap handle and quarter-barrel next to the sink.
Finally, I pay a visit to Hellers Brauhaus, a twenty-five minute walk west in the Kwartier Latäng, a pub-filled district popular with students. Owned by Anna Heller, whose father founded it in the 90s, Hellers is Köln’s first organic brewery, and it offers several different styles of beer. But Hellers still makes a very fine Kölsch, which accounts for half of the production. “In our region, Kölsch is more than only a beer,” says Heller. “It unifies tastefulness, tradition, passion, and, of course, a good portion of localism.” In a male-dominated domain, Heller, who also brews, is a bit of an anomaly. She credits her father for her passion for beer, and completed her brewer training at the top of her class. “This sort of beer is, and always will be, a sense of life,” she says. The abundance of Kölsch drinkers in the beer gardens and brewpubs on a weekday suggests she’s not the only one who thinks so.
Kölsch in America
Sünner exports to the US, but in limited quantities. But the Kölsch style is a common one, often brought out by American craft brewers as a summer seasonal for its lower alcohol content and light drinkability on a hot summer day. In Chicago, watch for Metropolitan Brewing’s Krankshaft. Also from Chicago, All Rise Brewing Co. offers Feder Mond. Brewed the first full moon of spring, it took silver at the 2016 World Beer Cup.
You may also find flavored Kölsch beers, such as coffee Kölsch, which surely would send our German friends, faithful to the Reinheitsgebot – the German Beer Purity Law – into a faint.