The Road to Munich: Cologne

Stop 3, Cologne and Kölsch

We have finally worked off our hangovers from all the high ABV bock beers, and are ready to leave Einbeck and make our way to our third stop on our educational beer journey to Oktoberfest. Back in the bimmer, we drive about 320km to the west to the city of Cologne, where we will have the opportunity to enjoy a beer style that falls on the lighter side of the spectrum. In case you were wondering, yes, we had to skip over a couple of German beer meccas in Dortmund and Dusseldorf, but we need to make some progress and move onward toward Munich. Oktoberfest is  just just around the corner and we have a couple more stops to make along the way. Sorry, but in Cologne, we won’t find any 1L behemoth glasses of Helles or Dunkel lagers; instead we find ourselves knocking back a seemingly endless supply of Kölsch ale.


Cologne’s brewing history stretches back at least a thousand years, but we will focus primarily on the 17th century and beyond. At the beginning of the 1600’s, lagers (bottom fermenting) from South Germany started to appear in the Cologne region and their popularity threatened the business interest of the local brewers, who only produced top-fermented beers (ales). In response, the town council and the brewers of Cologne collectively decided to forgo lager brewing methods that were all the rage in the country at the time, instead they passed a law stating that only top fermented ales were to be produced using only quality grains, well hopped, and pitched with top fermenting yeast.

In 1676 and again in 1698, the city and brewing councils tried to legislate against lager beer by forbidding its sale within the city walls. However, by 1750, Cologne brewers were competing against lagers by using a hybridized brewing process, first brewing their beer using top-fermenting yeast but then aging the beer in cold cellars as done with lagers. The new and unique brewing approach had created a delicious, one of a kind, regional sensation.

Fast forwarding, after WW2 only two breweries remained in Cologne brewing Kölsch. Most of the brewhouses were destroyed in the bombings, or the brewers and its employees went on to assist in the war effort. Following the war in the late 1940s and 1950s, Kölsch brewers returned to their craft, and reopened their brewhouses. It took some time to get back on solid ground and compete with the sales of lagers still infiltrating their city, but in the 1960s the style began to rise in popularity in the local beer market once again. 

Today, there are 12 breweries that produce Kölsch, now a protected geographical indication such as Champagne or Burgundy in France. In 1997, the European Union announced Kölsch as a beerstyle with a PGI (protected geographical indication). As a result, Cologne became an exclusive region for supplying the EU with Kölsch beer. Any Kölsch brewed outside the city of Cologne is required by law to be marketed as “Kölsch-style ale”.

About the Style

To the people of Cologne, Kölsch is more than just a beer. It represents a certain attitude to life and is an important part of coming together with friends or colleagues at the end of the work day to decompress and enjoy eachothers company. For foreign travelers, drinking Kölsch in Cologne is a unique experience in and of itself. The beer is made in small batches and is traditionally served that way too – in tall, thin 200ml (6.8oz) glasses called a stange, meaning “pole” or “rod”. The server, called a köbes, carries twelve stange in a kranz, a circular tray resembling a crown or wreath.  Instead of waiting for the drinker to order a refill, the köbes immediately replaces an empty stange with a full one, marking a tick on the coaster under the stange. If the drinker does not want another refill, they place the coaster on top of the empty glass and pay for the number of beers marked on the coaster. If ever in Cologne, it’s best practice to make sure you place the mat on top of the glass once it gets down to the last mouthful or two, otherwise you best be ready for one more.  At the brewery, a traditional bar snack to go along with is halver hahn. It means half a chicken, but what arrives on the plate is rye bread and cheese with a dollop of spicy German mustard and raw onion rings.

Common Characteristics and Taste

Most beer lovers agree that a good Kölsch should have flavor, taste, and aroma that is kept subtle, yet distinctive. Keep in mind that this is a relatively high carbonated beer, so you need to drink it fast to enjoy the full taste, hence the 200ml serving size in Cologne. A typical Kölsch will ferment at a temperature between 59°F and 68°F, which should give off a lightly sulfury and fruity yeast character of apple, cherry, or pear in aroma and taste. The beer should have very little residual sweetness, creating a smooth crisp mouthfeel across the palate. A pleasant hoppy bitterness from the nobel German varietals accentuate the aroma and balance out the bready malt flavors of the German Pilsner or Pale Two-row malts. The hop character in a traditional Kölsch should not be piney or citric like an IPA; but rather flowery with a slightly spicy finish. In appearance this beer should appear light gold with high clarity, and low to moderate head retention. Kölsch is a clean drinking beer; often able to pass as a German Helles lager.

What’s Next for Kölsch

The Kölsch style is widely brewed by American craft brewers, who tend to see it as the “gateway” or entry level step up from bland macro lagers to more flavorful and craft oriented beers. Kölsch is becoming more and more popular on the taplists as brewers are discovering the brewery operational benefits of this style and harnessing an innovative brewing culture from Cologne. Kölsch is more cost effective to produce than most other styles. They carry a simple grain bill, low quantity of hops, and a shorter duration in the fermentation tanks when compared to an IPA or a lager respectively. In Washington state we are also seeing Kölsch becoming more and more prevalent due to subtle shifts recently in beer drinker preferences from the hoppier and hazier the better, towards beers that are lighter, crisper, and can provide daily refreshment.

In our next installment of “the Road to Munich” we will explore Kölsch through the lens of Watts Brewing of Bothell, WA. We look into why they decided to brew this style, how history and tradition played its part, and how they put a Washington twist on their recipe to make something one of a kind. 

About the Road to Munich 

Hop into your Bimmer and merge onto the Autobahn (rather your Subie and I-5 since we live in WA), and let BeerNav lead you on an educational beer journey to Oktoberfest

“The Road to Munich” is our new blog and social media series that will run monthly from May until the beginning of October. BeerNav will highlight six of the most influential, historical beer cities and beer styles across Germany, and how Washington Breweries are influenced by tradition but add their own unique twists to each beer style. 

Here is the route: