By Graham Tracey
Photograph courtesy of Hannnnemannnn / Wikimedia Commons
I made it through Sea-Tac airport security without a full cavity search, so I decided to have a beer. Three hours early for a 10-hour trip to Cologne, Germany, my luggage consisted of a worn leather satchel and the blue wool Habsburg blazer I got married in. Thrilled by my own minimalism, I bellied up to the bar at a seafood eatery decorated like Popeye’s teenage bedroom, and perused the taps. I was staring down the barrel of what would be a full week of kölsch drinking, so when I saw Hale’s version of the fabled Cologne ale on draft, it seemed only right that I should have one. It was ice cold beneath an average head and drank like any number of well-made European-style lagers; all traces of the ale’s fruity profile beaten into submission by the aggressively frigid North American cooler from whence it came. A good beer, but I couldn’t help but worry a little about crossing an ocean to drink a similar product for seven days straight. Had I been spoiled forever by the Pacific Northwest’s encyclopedic selection of beer? Could Cologne’s brewing history, pub traditions, and famed consistency tame my ADHD palate?
After my first hour on Lufthansa, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The attendants were smiling, stalking the isles with cognac and bottles of red and white wine in hand, everyone speaking in polite, hushed tones. I had become accustomed to United Airlines, where my knees and shoulders were in constant danger of a bludgeoning by some zealously wheeled soft drink unit. Made comfortable by a statuesque stewardess named Anna, my thoughts turned toward the week ahead, and I soon fell asleep with visions of mustard, sausage, and little straw-colored glasses of beer dancing in my head. After what seemed like moments, I deplaned in Frankfurt and fumbled my way to the main train station. In certain areas of the world, my lack of bearings or language skills might have rendered me helpless, but I soon discovered that most Germans are quite happy to employ their excellent English—especially if you contort your face like a lost child. My friend and host, a gluttonous New Yorker named Sean, arrived from Paris on track three, and we were soon aboard a one-hour train to Cologne.
Cologne’s place in the beer world is practically unsurpassed. Credited with giving rise to some of the world’s first brewing guilds, the city has done as much as any locale to turn beer making from a game of chance into an exact science. Its flagship brew, kölsch ale, is the relatively recent culmination of a thousand year’s worth of experimentation, argument, war, and cultural shift. Taking its name from a word used to describe the local dialect, and indeed, practically anything related to Cologne culture, kölsch could be the most balanced beer on Earth. Combining a mild hop bitterness (typically 16–34 IBU) with differing levels of malt sweetness, it is a highly attenuated ale that undergoes extensive cold aging. This marriage of ale yeast with lager methodology results in a crisp, slightly fruity hybrid beer that hovers around 5 percent ABV and goes down as smoothly as any pilsner. In Cologne, kölsch is served moderately cold and with minimal carbonation, and it arrives in thin-walled, seven ounce glasses called stanges. These little vessels are meant to be drained and replaced quickly—a direct contrast to the serving styles seen in Bavarian beer gardens and an effective defense against warm, flat beer.
Climbing from the rail station’s depths and into the sunlight, we found ourselves directly in front of the city’s most famous landmark, the High Cathedral of Saint Peter. From beneath its impressive, if somewhat malevolent-looking spires, we were footsteps away from our hotel and the dozen kölsch breweries and taprooms that flanked it. We walked directly to Früh am Dom, one of Cologne’s largest and most visible watering holes. The building was enormous, as was our waiter, referred to professionally as a Köbes. Traditionally dressed in blue, and carrying circular trays of kölsch stanges, these characters replace your beer relentlessly and without request, employing their unique brand of hospitality as they go. We ordered our first two beers of the week and drank to the future. The sausages were obscene, the Dutch cheese was excellent, and the beer was grassy, very light in body, with a bitter, peppery finish. A decent product, especially when you consider how difficult it is to brew a beer of this sort with a clean, transparent profile. We drank several before checking into the hotel, both of us hoping for something a little more assertive around the next bend.
The Malt Mill
In 1986, 24 Cologne breweries banded together and created the Kölsch Convention, a series of strict regulations that govern the manufacture and marketing of their distinct cultural export. Protected as an appellation by the Convention, a beer can only be called kölsch by breweries within Cologne and the immediate surrounding area, making it illegal for any other territory in the E.U. to label its product as such. It is also explicitly outlined that any tavern serving kölsch should not be exclusive based on class or gender, resulting in a pub culture that is not only steeped in history but also welcoming and down-to-earth.
Perhaps no structure in Cologne better exemplifies this history than Brauerei zur Malzmühle. The building, dating back to at least 1165, is a fixture of Heumarkt Square, a former city market that through the ages has hosted everything from a slaughterhouse to a malt mill. The brewery produces Mühlen Kölsch, a small but widely available brand, and also houses a restaurant famous for its traditional cuisine.
I was well slept, starving, and harboring the highest expectations as I pushed my way through the ancient revolving door. The atmosphere was crowded but quiet, simple but contented, and bathed in dark wood—the sort of scene that can only take place in a room that has stood the test of time. We were offered an excellent communal table in the corner, and we settled quickly into the weyden—a German term for “light darkness.” As we decoded the menu, our Köbes approached and asked us something in German. He quickly deduced that we were helpless Americans, and said in broken English, “Two beers…or not two beers?”
Unable to mask our delight, we nodded in agreement and received two stanges from his rack. The first thing I noticed was the rocky head on top, practically a barley meringue, which seemed like it could sustain a typhoon. We toasted our own good fortune with a lively “Prost,” and dove in.
Sweeter, colder, and more full-bodied than Früh, Mühlen Kölsch made an immediate impression as a far more complex beer. The light carbonation and background bitterness kept it lively and balanced while still letting a soft feel shine through. I never had to ask for another beer all night, as they just continued to appear magically before me. The Köbes kept track of our tally in the traditional manner—by making hash marks in pencil on a coaster.
An hour later, our table had gotten medieval. I had the schweinshaxe, an enormous, crispy pig’s knuckle, and Sean had beef soorbrode with apples, potato dumplings, and raisin sauce. Huge wedges of Dutch cheese sat beside vats of butter and loaves of rye. We had outlasted two dinner sittings and several immediate neighbors, our coaster getting embarrassingly crowded with pencil marks. Soon enough, the manager, Stephanos, was sitting with us talking about beer. An affable Greek gentleman, he told us about their upcoming renovations, after which time the restaurant will double in size. He was also endlessly curious about brewing in the U.S., appreciating our revolt against what he called “neutral beer” and acknowledging the potential for a similar uprising in the ultratraditional German beer world. He and his staff were generous with their time, passionate about beer, and delighted that we were willing to travel so far to enjoy their wares.
By closing time, we had amassed an impressive 35 hash marks spread across two coasters—not counting the malzbiers we sampled, or the rounds the Köbes started buying after hours. We paid the bill, bid a fond farewell, and lurched home feeling like a couple of emperors.
Ups and Downs
In his article titled “Brauereisterben” (“Brewery Death”), beer writer Christian DeBenedetti outlines some disturbing statistics that speak to a serious decline in the health of the German brewing industry. More disturbing than flaccid sales figures are his assertions that suggest young Germans have simply lost interest in beer as an alcoholic beverage, opting instead for various malt potions and Red Bull mixed drinks. Has pilsner-style lager, the most popular beer in the world, worn out its welcome? Or has Germany’s famous reliance upon style guidelines, rooted in the Reinheitsgebot purity laws, begun to fail them in the face of so much global variety?
Interestingly enough, kölsch is enjoying a worldwide sales boom, with Gaffel reporting a 200 percent increase in the U.S. since 2011. Perhaps kölsch’s attractively diminutive glassware has something to do with it—after all, what would Stella be without the glass? Or could it be that kölsch has effectively recharged a consumer market that, despite being over saturated by pilsner for decades, is still interested in German beer?
We spent the next few days walking the city, seeking out the few buildings that survived WWII-era British air raids, and attempting to repeat the utter satisfaction we experienced at Malzmühle. We logged plenty of quality time at Peter’s, Sion, Gaffel, and the much-heralded Päffgen, wandering around the city with permanent grins. But while we found the beer endlessly refreshing, the goulash otherworldly, and the atmosphere almost mythical, we were beginning to feel, as Stephanos put it, a bit “neutral.” At that point we remembered his suggestion that we visit a small brewery called Hellers, and our evening took shape.
A quick ride on the light-rail brought us out of the city center and into the Kwartier Latäng (Latin Quarter), a popular district thick with students. Once inside Hellers, we were greeted by a statue suspended above the bar. It depicted an ugly little man sitting on a rafter attempting to defecate on whatever walked beneath him. The bartenders were female, clad in monogrammed Hellers polo shirts, and Pearl Jam was on the radio. But the pub’s aesthetic wasn’t the only nontraditional aspect of the establishment: There were several different beers on tap and in bottles, a departure in and of itself, and they were all certified organic. In fact, the whole affair reminded me of a hip tavern in the U.S., but with warm lighting that approached cinematic levels.
We started with their standard kölsch. It was on the sweeter side, like Malzmühle, and featured the lowest level of carbonation I’d found thus far. It drank like a cask ale, and I wasn’t in the mood. Our server suggested the wiess, an unfiltered ale that predates modern kölsch as well as an employee favorite. Not to be confused with weissbier, wiess beer is currently enjoying a resurgence in Cologne, and after my first glass I knew why. It arrived in a small weizen glass, and had a wonderful, opaque honey color. The aroma was much fruitier than any beer I’d had yet, and the lack of filtration brought out some of the yeast’s apricot character. Next, I tried a winter weizenbock that tasted so much like bananas flambé you could have heated it and poured it over ice cream. An interesting beer, but I switched back to the wiess and remained there for the rest of the evening.
When I asked the bartenders to pose for a picture for a U.S. beer magazine, they informed me that they would need to get clearance from the manager. After ten minutes I received an audience, and presented copies of Beer West for him to inspect. He thumbed through with a smirk on his face, and I asked if he’d ever been to Portland, Oregon. He said that he hadn’t, and upon hearing my suggestion that he would enjoy the beer scene there, he stated, “Yes, but it’s not like German beer.” This was not the first time I’d had this sort of exchange with a European in a bar, but in this case, and in light of brauereisterben, I found it more sad than annoying. A minute later, he admitted that he didn’t drink beer, after which I abandoned all hope of our relationship blossoming into anything meaningful. I returned to my table, thoroughly impressed with Hellers’ beer, if not their management.
The next day, we had our usual post-lunch nap, and snored our way through the mid-afternoon like two tranquilized bears. Earlier, I had noticed an Irish bar near the hotel advertising Beamish Stout—an unlikely find in my part of the world—so I thought it might make a nice interlude before tumbling headlong back into a tray of kölsch. Unfortunately, the Beamish sign turned out to be nothing more than a decoration, so I ordered a Murphy’s and wedged myself into a sea of soccer hooligans. Sean had a Guinness, and I envied him.
After a quick walk and a ride on the light-rail, we arrived in the Ehrenfeld district—Cologne’s hipster heaven. Skinny-jeaned bicyclists with Meg Ryan careless hairdos blended ironically with the native population, echoing the culture clash endemic to all gentrified neighborhoods. We had come here to find Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, known as the city’s smallest and most adventurous brewery. Christened recently with an uninteresting review in The New York Times travel section that focused mainly on the neighborhood’s hipness potential, Braustelle seemed like the most promising place to discover how far Cologne was willing to push their taste buds.
By 4 p.m., I was tugging on a locked door, the brewery not slated to open until six. It was disappointing news, but it took us only seconds to realize we had been given a priceless opportunity to spend a couple of hours combing the local dive bars on the main drag.
From that point on, the afternoon became an odyssey. Each door we opened into the darkness created a mutual adjustment period between us and the patrons. They beheld us with confused wonder, and we stood dumbfounded by clouds of smoke, temporary blindness, and Whitney Houston as her voice poured from the jukebox. Gambling machines, Euro disco, grandmothers with coughs, papier-mâché clowns—these bars possessed the kitsch and weirdness that all local dives should, with a generous helping of kölsch and friendliness on the side. Each bar served a different prominent brewery’s beer, so we became familiarized with bigger brands like Reissdorf and Dom. These beers drank very well but lacked any attributes worth mentioning beyond their refreshment value.
Almost reluctantly, we left these bastions of the real and waded into the Braustelle’s decidedly more self-conscious world. Customers sniffed at their beers not like wine snobs, but more like wayward travelers entering an animal’s cave for the first time, wary of what, in Cologne, could be considered uncharted territory. An unfiltered Helios Kölsch arrived with the warmest serving temperature I’d encountered yet, perhaps making the beer seem a touch too sweet. Similar in style to the wiess we’d enjoyed at Hellers, but quite different in taste, it is Braustelle’s most traditional offering. We also had a gose, which claimed whiskey malt in the grain bill and had a sour, smoky flavor. I skipped the weizen and had an altbier, a copper-colored ale brewed traditionally in nearby Dusseldorf that competes feverishly with kölsch for prominence in the region. The fact that Braustelle brews an alt is indicative of their place within the greater Köln brewing community—quite at odds with tradition. At the same time, their genre-bending brews sometimes lacked the heft of a North American craft beer, coming across a little thin. These qualities place the brewery in limbo between old and new, but they do an excellent job navigating that position, all the while creating a modern, cozy pub hell-bent on pushing boundaries.
Bringing It All Back Home
It had been an excessive week, and while I hadn’t received a single hangover from Cologne’s genteel brewers, there was a cumulative exhaustion inside me that made the return flight seem arduous. I arrived home with just enough time to eradicate my jet lag, pack the car, and start a long drive from Vancouver, British Columbia to Los Angeles. My beer journey continued down the West Coast, bringing me to some of the best breweries and craft beer taverns in the U.S., and it was within this context that I began to reflect on my week in Cologne.
After so much kölsch, the black rye pale ales and bourbon stouts of the West were tastes for sore palates. But I sometimes caught myself feeling less than relaxed amidst the cavernous, bright metallic stylings of our brewpubs, wishing instead for a simple wooden table that had seen a century’s worth of patrons. The big IPAs never tasted so bright and fresh, particularly after drinking beers that were minimally hopped. But occasionally, halfway through my second IPA, I began to feel inundated by sugar, craving instead a light-bodied, subtle brew that I could drink consistently during a four-hour dinner. The rack of 30 taps was a marvel of variety and engineering, yet once in a while, I would catch myself staring blankly at them, unable to make a decision, hoping in vain for some wise guy in a blue outfit to appear out of nowhere with two stanges of the house brand. I had traveled from the cradle of brewing, back home to its manifest destiny, and I was more convinced than ever that both locales could learn a great deal from each other.
Thanks to: Sean Craine for his constitution, humor, and hospitality. Jim’s Beer and Wine in Spokane, WA for their advice. Darcy Falkenhagen for her endless support.
Sidebar 1 /
With kölsch sales on the rise in the U.S., it isn’t very hard to find a North American “kölsch-style ale,” or “summer ale” that borrows from Cologne’s hefty traditions.
I gathered five Northwest varieties, and poured the contents into the stanges I had smuggled home as souvenirs, eager to see how they stacked up to the original article.
Alaskan Summer Ale
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, AK
Very malty and sweet with darker color and a slightly syrupy finish. Pleasant citrus ester aroma, but poor head retention. The heaviest beer of the group.
Hale’s Ales Brewery & Pub, Seattle, WA
Pilsner-like bitterness and carbonation, low sugar content, yellow color. Soft feel with an unimpressive head. Deep ale fruit of a Cologne specimen largely absent, but the most authentic of the bunch nonetheless.
High Country Kölsch
Mt. Begbie Brewing Company, Revelstoke, British Columbia
Affordable by British Columbia standards, an easy-drinking beer with a bitter hoppy aroma and a crisp finish. Much sweeter than a Cologne kölsch, particularly after it warms up.
Double Mountain Brewery, Hood River, OR
Unfiltered and slightly more hoppy than its German counterpart, the Double Mountain Kölsch is refreshing year-round. Hits just the right balance of subtle malt sweetness and a crisp, mildly bitter hop profile.
Schooner Zodiac Kölsch
Snoqualmie Falls Brewing, Snoqualmie, WA
An unfiltered ale in the style of a Cologne wiess beer with some wheat in the grist. Sweet floral aroma reminiscent of honeysuckle, and a powerful fruity taste. Not very authentic, but the best all around beer in this sampling.
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