As much as I love a big, burly IPA or a dense but graceful stout, when the warm weather and sunny skies roll around (as I hope they will be doing consistently for the next several months), I happily turn to lighter, less ponderous beer styles. One of my favorites is the wonderful beer of Cologne, Germany, called Kölsch.
A light, crisp, dry, slightly fruity beer, Kölsch is as much fun for the meticulous culture surrounding its serving and consumption in its native Cologne as it is for its fine bubbles and crystal-clear flavors.
Kölsch is, like steam beer, a hybrid. Brewed with mostly malt (and often a touch of wheat), it starts off its life as an ale, made using top-fermenting ale yeasts doing their job at warmer temperatures. But at the end of its fermentation, the beer is chilled to temperatures just above freezing, where it’s kept for up to a month for maturation and clarification. (Steam beer is the opposite, brewed with lager yeasts at the warmer temperatures of ales.) The result is a light-straw-colored beer, very much like a lager. It is lightly hopped, with a sensation of malty sweetness. At only 4.5 to 5 percent alcohol, it’s an awesome session beer.
And that’s exactly how it’s treated in Cologne’s highly refined Kölsch culture. In Cologne, Kölsch is served in a tall, cylindrical glass called a stange. These glasses look like large test tubes and, when glowing with beer on a sunny afternoon, resemble something like the crystals in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Some versions of these can be very small (as little as .2 liters, about 6 ounces or half a can of beer). Kölsch is served at cellar temperature, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit; too large a glass will cause it to warm by the time you finish drinking it.
In Cologne, Kölsch is served by traditionally gruff blue-clad waiters, who walk around with big trays of filled glasses, replacing your empty glass with a full one without first asking permission. Placing a coaster over the top of your glass is the way to signal that you don’t want more.
Kölsch is increasingly brewed by the curious and open-minded microbrewers of America. (More open-minded than their customers, evidently: Dave McLean of San Francisco’s Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery says that male customers often reject his Kölsch when it comes to them served in a proper stange, as if their masculinity has been affronted by being given a smaller glass.) However, these beers shouldn’t officially be called Kölsch, which is a protected regional product of Cologne, much as wine called Champagne can only be from the eponymous region in France.
The advantage American versions have over the German is that you might find them fresh and on tap at your local brewery, since Kölsch doesn’t travel well and is best consumed fresh. If you find bottles at a shop that have gathered dust or are stored in a warm room, skip them—the beer will taste like cardboard. But a fresh bottle here can still be a nice experience; the most common and high-quality import brands are Gaffel and Reissdorf. If you get into it, I recommend you track down a couple of stangen, too. With Kölsch the culture is as much fun as the beer.