Germany is mostly thought of as a land of lagers. The brewing of cold-conditioned, bottom-fermented beers is thought to have originated in Bavaria some four to five hundred years ago. Fermentation in cool caves hindered the growth of beer-spoiling bacteria and stimulated cellular mutations in yeast that yielded strains well suited to colder climes. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, clean, crisp, and refreshing lager beers spread throughout Germany, Europe, and the world.
But pockets of ale brewing survived. Bavaria kept its wheat beer. Berlin had Berliner weisse. And along the Rhine River the cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne retained their top-fermenting traditions. This was not entirely accidental. A short time after rulers of Bavaria outlawed summer brewing, thus assuring the dominance of lager, the city fathers of Cologne in 1603 passed an ordinance that allowed only the brewing of top-fermented ales in the then-independent city.
The term “kölsch” is believed to have first been applied in 1918 to a beer that had been brewed by Sünner brewery, in Cologne, since 1906. It was a filtered version of an older, cloudier style called “Weiss” that was meant to appeal to drinkers of the newer pale lager beers. The Weiss style largely disappeared by the mid-twentieth century, but a few Cologne breweries have begun brewing it again on a small scale.
Kölsch is one of the few beer styles in the world with a protected geographical indication similar to the appellation d’origine contrôlée in wine. While kölsch-style beers are made in other cities, in Europe they cannot be called kölsch. In 1948 the brewers of Cologne banded together in the Cologne Brewers Association to establish guidelines for style, region, and brewing process. These were formalized in the 1986 Kölsch Konvention, which stipulated that only beers brewed in and around Cologne could be called kölsch. In 1997 the protection was adopted throughout the European Union. American brewers are not bound by the Konvention, but many still choose to respect it.
In Cologne, kölsch is as much a lifestyle as a beer style. Nearly every bar in the city serves it. Kölsch is traditionally poured into a small, straight-sided, 200 milliliter (6¾ ounce) glass called a “stange.” Blue-jacketed waiters called “Köbes” will automatically replace empties until the drinker signifies they are finished by placing a coaster on top of their glass.
The Kölsch Konvention is fairly vague in its description of the style. To qualify, a beer must be a pale, top-fermented, filtered, hop-accented “vollbier” (11° to 14° plato starting gravity) brewed in or near Cologne.
For a more detailed description, turn to the recently released 2015 edition of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines. They describe kölsch as a clean, crisp, delicately balanced beer usually with a very subtle fruit and hop character. It has low, grainy-sweet malt and spicy hop aroma. Subtle fermentation-derived winey or fruity aromatics may be present, including apple, pear, or sometimes cherry. The flavor largely follows the aroma. Soft, grainy-sweet malt is delicately balanced by moderate to low bitterness and gentle, spicy hop flavors. Those same vinous and fruity flavors may be present. Kölsch is a delicate beer that fades quickly with age.
Kölsch is a great accompaniment to lighter, green salads, especially those with apples. It is also good with flaky fish or shellfish. For something a little different, try it with a lemon tart for dessert.
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