Why we could soon be enjoying more Kölsch in the UK
Monday 06 July 2020
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Cologne is Germany’s party town. It has more bars, pubs and clubs than Frankfurt, Hamburg or even Berlin. And it’s famous for carnival, the annual week-long bacchanal of beer, Schnapps, and fancy dress that makes Oktoberfest seem almost demure.
“We’re known to be the happiest people in Germany,” says Ben Ott, Director of Brewing at London’s 40FT Brewery. “When you come to Cologne you come for a laugh.” Ben is a proud native of Cologne, and calls himself “a rare-breed Krauser: half Kraut, half Scouser”.
I’m talking to Ben to learn more about Cologne’s own beer style, Kölsch. It is a little summer smasher, the sort of beer you can knock back on a hot afternoon without getting silly drunk. “All the English people who come over [to Cologne] absolutely love it,” he says, his accent drifting somewhere between Henning Wehn and Craig Charles.
The style has been gaining ground in the UK for years. Already we’ve seen excellent examples from Thornbridge (Tzara), Orbit (Nico), and North (Herzog) establish themselves in our collective beer pantheon. I want to learn more because COVID could mean it’s about to become even more popular once the lockdown is eased. Ben thinks so too. “Since I’ve moved to the UK, I’ve always said Kölsch would be the perfect beer for the UK.”
A fluid definition
Like Ben, Kölsch is a hybrid. It brews like an ale but drinks like a lager. It has a lager’s golden straw colour and fluffy white head. It is crisp and clean, like a lager, but retains a light fruitiness through esters that come from the yeast, like an ale. On top of that you will get just a touch of hop character but the bitterness is generally low.
The name Kölsch is reserved for beers brewed by breweries in and around Cologne. This is policed by the Kölsch-Konvention, a charter drawn up by the Cologne Brewery Association and given teeth through an EU designation of Protected Geographical Indication. In practice, however, brewers beyond the EU’s reach can and do use the term with impunity. (Brewers in the UK have typically used phrases like ‘Köln-style’ or ‘Kölsch-style’ to get around the rules. It will be interesting to see if this changes thanks to Brexit.)
In Cologne people drink it from a 200ml straight-sided glass called a Stange (or stick). “The rest of Germany takes the piss out of us Colognians because we drink out of these very small glasses,” he says. “They say we drink out of test tubes.”
But drinking like this means you will always have a fresh, cold beer in your hand. “I know quite a few people who, when they’ve had three-quarters of their pint, they start fighting with it a little bit, you know?” he says. “[In Cologne] that will never happen.” So who’s laughing now, I half-expect him to say.
Ben is warm and funny, engaging and open when I talk to him about the city and the beer. I find it hard not to be swept away on a wave of his enthusiasm.
“Everyone in the rest of Germany talks shit about Kölsch,” he says. “They all call it either women’s beer or water beer or piss.” He laughs this off — he laughs often as we chat.
And thanks to him I find myself picturing Cologne’s detractors as grumpy Bavarians in overly-stiff Lederhosen, tangled up in tradition, or perhaps protestant fun-shunners from Northern Germany, sour-faced and sniffy.
Busy with the fizzy
So why will we see more of it in the UK? When it comes to sales, lager rules the waves. This is true around the world, and the UK is no exception. Here lager surpassed the combined market share of ale and stout back in 1990 and has been growing steadily ever since. It accounted for 75% of all British beer sales in 2017.
Even as the UK’s craft beer sector matures, and we grow accustomed to finding modern brews on our supermarket shelves, brewers know that if you want to sell a lot of beer then you’d better brew a lager.
During lockdown, with breweries operating far below capacity if they’re brewing at all, committing tank space to lagering beers doesn’t pose any problems. But when a brewery is working at full tilt, it means forgoing the profits from one or even two batches of beer than could have been made and sold in the time it takes to make a decent lager.
Down in Southampton, Unity Brewing Co. needed a lager option to keep the weekend crowds in its taproom happy. “Our taproom is five minutes away from the local football stadium,” says Unity’s founder, Jimmy Hatherley. “We were buying in stuff like Donzoko Northern Helles and Kellerpils from Lost and Grounded as a lager option. And we were like ‘we need to make one ourselves.’”
Making a lager isn’t quite the same as making an ale. It takes longer. It ferments slower, and colder, and then sits in tanks for two or three times longer. (It is possible to make it faster. Carling, for instance, holds its lager in its conditioning tanks for just three days. But this option isn’t on craft brewers’ radars.)
Unity’s solution was to split the difference and brew Prinzen, a ‘Köln-style lagerbier’ that is the newest addition to the brewery’s core range. “I chose a Kölsch because we can knock it out a little bit quicker,” Jimmy says. “We wanted something nice and clean and super drinkable that we know could be really consistent and we wouldn’t have to have in tank for too long. So it’s three to four weeks rather than the five to six weeks that we’d want to do with a pilsner or proper lager.”
Jimmy describes Kölsch as a great end-of-the-shift beer, a real crowd pleaser. “They’re a bit fuller bodied than a helles, and less bitter than a pilsner and a bit less hop forward, so it has that middle ground pretty nicely,” he says.
“It’s a very soft, fluffy enjoyable crisp clean drink,” he says of Prinzen. “You’ve got lovely bready malt and pretty low bitterness and some nice yeast esters, bit of fruitiness there, and it’s just the perfect little tavern beer.”
It’s this ability to please everyone that makes Kölsch a good candidate for brewing once the lockdown lifts. It can slake the public’s thirst for light, lager-style beers while also keeping brewers happy by not making them compromise on quality. At the same time, it doesn’t make an undue dent on the brewery’s balance sheet at the end of the month, because it’s cheap to brew and doesn’t tie up tank space too long.
The final reason we may soon see more Kölsch-style beers brewed in the UK is a technical one. “The big bottleneck always used to be that no one had pressurised tanks to ferment and mature in,” explains Ben. “That was always the biggest problem back in the day.”
But increasingly brewers here have invested in brewhouse equipment that will allow them to spund their beers — to brew them in the same way as German brewers, and replicate the refined, delicate carbonation a Kölsch requires. With that the final quality barrier has been removed.
“I think the UK has come to a point that they will definitely produce really good Kölsch,” says Ben. Some would say we have already. But if it’s going to get better? That can only be a good thing.
Kölsches to look out for
"Päffgen is absolutely stunning," says Ben. Brewed since 1883, this is one of the best examples of a traditional Kölsch. Definitely worth a trip to Cologne.
This has a touch more hops than other Kölsches, and a slightly more rounded malt note rather than the classic bready profile. "I think it sits between Kölsch and a Bavarian pilsner," says Jimmy.
The new kids on the block. "Duex is a tiny one that's literally just opened but it's gone a bit more back to the older ways," says Ben. This is more golden than straw, with a slightly richer malt taste.
"It's not really a lager, it's got more taste. So it's larger than a lager, and that's where the name came from," Ben explains. This is unfiltered and hopped with Lemon Drop for an extra citrus kick.
Unity Brewing Co, Prinzen
A new addition to the core range, this is soft and pillowy with a crisp finish. There's a touch of honeydew from the Huell Melon hops that adds to the fruity esters.
Howling Hops, Das Köolsch
Another great UK example that's been around for a while. Try it fresh from the tank at the Howling Hops tank bar for the ultimate experience.
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