Exploring German Bier: The Kölsch Ale

After spending the last few months exploring the ales of the New World, it’s time to get back to the birthplace of modern beer: Europa! Specifically, we take our beer magnifying glass and old-timey pipe back over to Germany to inspect some styles that are oft written off as simply “easy to drink” and “not particularly interesting.” If you walk into bar with over five taps, chances are you will find a Hefeweizen or a Pilsner. However, other German beers do exist and this month we are going to study one style a week in order to make clear the differences between each type of beer.

To get started, we will be consuming the Kölsch Ale–a warm-fermented and cold-conditioned (“lagered”) ale straight outta Cologne (Köln), Germany. This ale, a variant of the wheat beer, was first produced in 1906, and the term “Kölsch” appeared in 1918. But as these things go, there’s more to this story….

note the Cologne Cathedral in the background

History of Kölsch

The Kölsch ale was not a wild hit when Sünner Brauerei produced the first modern version in 1906.  No, it was the lager that maintained popularity throughout Germany. This all changed after World War II. During the war, over 95% of the breweries in Cologne were destroyed. After the war,  these breweries slowly rebuilt their facilities, and the brewing industry was revitalized by the 1950s. It was at this point that the Kölsch began to reign the Cologne beer market.

The Kölsch is a reliable ale–you won’t find too much variation from one Kölsch to the next. This is largely due to the fact that the beer is defined by the Cologne Brewery Association in the Kölsch Konvention of 1985(1). Like the infamous Reinheitsgebot, a Kölsch is only a Kölsch if it meets the terms in this Konvention. Certainly, there are other German breweries–and American breweries–that produce Kölsch-like ales; however, they aren’t (and shouldn’t be!) labeled “Kölsch.”

(1) In case you were wondering what the Kölsch Konvention stipulates: 1) the beer must be brewed in the Cologne metropolitan area, 2) must be pale, 3) must be top-fermented, 4) must be hop-accented, 5) must be filtered, and 6) it must have a gravity between 11-14% plato. 

The good Kölsch name was further protected in 1997 when it became an appellation of origin under EU law. This means that, much much like Parmesan cheese or Bordeaux wine, only Kölsch beers brewed in the designated region can be referred to as a Kölsch.

Regardless of these exclusive protective regulations, the Kölsch isn’t all that popular outside of the Cologne MSA. Less than 1 out of 20 beers consumed in Germany is a Kölsch. In Cologne proper, the  Kölsch accounts for about half of beers downed in das bierhaus.

Kölsch Ale is not a German Lager

What is particularly special about the Kölsch, is that not only is it one of the few ales in Germany, it is actually a hybrid beer–neither a true ale nor a true lager. An ale, as you may know, is a warm-fermented, top-conditioned beer, and a lager, the opposite. A Kölsch is a combination of these two techniques: it is warm-fermented, but bottom-conditioned, and it sits for about two months before consumption, which is typical of a lager.

Cologne was an anomaly in German beer history. According to moderately credible sources, lagering techniques slowly made their way to Cologne. While lager was all the rage in most of Germany, Cologne only really began brewing lagers with the advent of refrigeration. Instead of jumping on the lager bandwagon, the stadtvaters (city fathers), decreed that top-fermented beers (ale) were to be brewed in the city in 1603. Later, the city outlawed lager production after Bavaria prohibited summer brewing due to potential quality and spoiling concerns. Lagers, which are cold-conditioned (i.e., designed to sit in the winter), were brewed in the winter and ales in the summer. Thus, it was illegal to brew ales in Bavaria. Cologne and neighboring Dusseldorf had no intention in following Bavarian trends, and began producing a “Keutebier”–a wheat-based ale falling somewhere between a Belgian Wit Ale and a German Hefeweizen–which was consumed between the 1500-1800s. Slowly, the wheat content of Keutebiers petered out and slowly transformed into the beer we know today as the Kölsch–an all barely ale. Dusseldorf produced a slightly darker, copper ale called an Altbier, or old beer, referring to medieval pre-lager (ale) techniques.  The major difference between the Kölsch and the Altbier is that the latter is brewed with Munich malts (giving it a dark, amber color–like a Marzen) and the former with Pils malts (giving it a pale, straw color–like a pilsner). They are both barely-based and filtered, unlike German’s popular ale, the Hefeweizen, which is wheat-based and unfiltered.

A Cologne Ritual 

As the Kölsch is a regional speciality, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are a number of cultural rituals attached to the consumption of this hybrid ale. For one, the Kölsch is a party beer: this is a beer that is often served in large quantities via special beer-carriers (kranz), and this is also a beer that is meant to be consumed quickly. Lots of beer consumed quickly = PARTYBIER. Further, while the Koln Konvention stipulates how the beer is brewed and with what ingredients, there might as well be a Konvention that mandates how the beer is served. Kölsch ales are served in something called a stange–a 200 ML narrow glass.

Köbes mit einem Kranz Kölsch

Köbes, or male waiters in Cologne, deliver these beer holders while wearing a long blue apron and a money pouch. As you finish a beer, the Köbes will replace your empty stange with a new one until you admit yourfail at life by putting a coaster over your stange, or you become a bierleichen (beer zombie) and fall asleep at the table.

someone couldn’t keep up…

What to Expect

Brewed with one malt, the pale Pils malt, and the quintessentially German Hallertauer hops, expect the following from your Kölsch:

Sight: Clear, pale straw-colored body with a little head that quickly dissipates.

Smell: The aroma should be slightly apple-y, hoppy, and fresh.

Taste: Light hop bitterness, with a hint of sweetness from the malt, and a slight fruity flavor from a special yeast.

Feel: Dry with medium carbonation that will become slightly flat if you let it sit for too long.


As you go forward with your Kölsch drinking, make note that it is traditionally served in a tall cylindrical glass called a “stange,” or pole. As the story goes, these ales are served in small glasses because they lose their flavor as they sit. So, get yourself a Stange, a Kölsch, and drink quickly.


Categories: Kölsch | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Exploring German Bier: The Kölsch Ale

  1. The kolsch is a truly remarkable beer. I’ve been drinking a fair amount of Zunft recently (a product that represent), ever since I got my local bar to get it on draft. Such pretty little bubbles.

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