There are some people out there—and by “people” I mean social-media types—who say that I’m pedantic. Just a grumpy old brewer with a religious adherence to the style guidelines. Honestly, though, I have a pretty laissez-faire attitude when it comes to those guidelines. I see them as more of a canvas, a starting point rather than the rule of law that every brewer must follow or off with their heads.
Of course, there is one exception to this attitude. And that exception is Kölsch.
I love Kölsch. More importantly, I love Köln. Suffice to say, it is my second home after Milwaukee. The people are kind and generous, and the atmosphere is chill and laid back. It is, in my opinion, an Upper Great Lakes city in west-central Germany. It is warm and welcoming, proud of its rich Catholic heritage, eager to show the world its beauty. The city is Kölsch. The brewers there could have bowed to their pilsner and helles overlords in the north and south. They could have shrugged their shoulders and made yet another lager. Instead, they came together as a community and preserved a beer that resembles their culture, their people, and their home.
Kölsch is and will always be brewed only in Köln and the surrounding areas. I will die on that hill alongside the brewers of that city. I hesitate even to call it a style; to do so ignores the significance of the city’s history and culture in its development. Kölsch as we know it today would simply be a German pale ale without Köln’s rich and diverse culture to back it up. Everything I love about the beer—the glassware, the surly köbes who serve it, the tallying of each stange on the coaster—are as important to Kölsch as the beer itself. You can’t separate it from its culture.
However, this doesn’t mean that we as brewers and drinkers in North America and around the world can’t have some fun trying to re-create the best beverage in the world. So, allow me to step off my pulpit, if just for a little while. I have poured myself a Kölsch—I think it only appropriate you do the same if you have one handy—and we can sit and chat about some of the secrets I’ve learned to making something close to authentic.
Secret No. 1: Water
What’s that you say? Water? Not malt? Or yeast? You read that correctly: Water. The secret to the “snap” of a great Kölsch is its water. Köln’s water, much like the water of my beloved Milwaukee, is hard, contrary to popular belief. More importantly, it is high in temporary hardness. To get a similar profile at home or in your brewery, treat your water accordingly by adding some baking soda, since the bicarbonates in Köln are in the hundreds of ppm. My water is similar, so I don’t do much to treat it. (Psst. This is also true of the water in Düsseldorf.)
Secret No. 2: Malt
Another key to a brewing a great Kölsch-style beer is high-quality German pilsner malt. Keep it simple. I’ve read anything from adding Vienna or Munich malt to adding a large portion of wheat—the latter being the most common misconception about Kölsch. While there are one or two brewers in Köln who use wheat malt in their Kölsch, it is not 20 percent of the grist. If you must use wheat, keep it to around 5 percent of the grist or lower. My own Kölsch-style uses German pilsner malt and a touch of Carapils—that’s it—for a nice bready aroma with a touch of honey.
(If we were sitting in Köln right now, the köbes already would have brought one or two stangen to quench our thirst. But I digress.)
Secret No. 3: Step Mash
The beauty of Kölsch—and the reason it is, in my opinion, the hardest beer to make—is its delicate balance. Because this style is highly attenuated, there must be a hint of sweetness to it. I personally do a three-step mash, but this is one area where a brewer can play around. Do whatever works for you. I used to be a die-hard single-infusion brewer—149°F (65°C) or die! And the result was good enough, even for the good people of Köln who happened to be visiting. I might never have changed it, except I started doing step mashes for other beers, and I liked the results. So, if you can do only single-infusion, keep the mash temperature between 148–150°F (64–66°C). If you’re eager, mess around with some step mashes. I think you’ll be glad you did.
The Final Secret: Hops
Anyone who tells you Kölsch isn’t hoppy hasn’t been to Köln. There are several breweries in the city that make a wonderful and hoppy Kölsch. Up until recently, much of the beer sent to the United States would lose that floral aroma by the time it reached our market. This has started to change as more breweries in Köln send beer overseas. The key to Kölsch’s hop character is restraint. Use German Noble hops or similar, such as Perle. To keep it close to authentic, avoid newer varieties with a citrus or fruity character. These flavors overpower the delicate dance among the malt, hops, and yeast. However, don’t be afraid to add some later-addition hops to liven things up.
There. We made it.
As a Kölsch evangelist, it’s time I got back up on my pulpit because after giving you all these secrets, and telling you what makes a great Kölsch, I must conclude by preaching about what is truly the secret to Kölsch.
The secret to this beer isn’t necessarily the water, or the malt, or the mash regimen, or how hoppy it is or isn’t. It is the community that surrounds it—the culture that brings it life. What makes Kölsch great is the life given to it by the city of Köln. More broadly, then, the secret to this beer is the secret to every beer: It’s not necessarily what’s in the glass, but the people with whom you share it.
To paraphrase the great Don Younger, “It’s not about the Kölsch. It’s about the Kölsch.” And to that I say, Prost!