Ever since Seattle area brewers introduced Mr Fueled by Beer to the Kölsch style as the perfect ale for warm summer days he has been wondering: is it a pale ale or is it a pale lager? During our recent trip to Ghent, Belgium we found ourselves just 170 miles from Cologne: no brainer, it needed a field trip…
In a country dominated by lager the German cities of Dusseldorf and Cologne have somehow managed to maintain brewing traditions that were universal across Europe before those pesky Czechs and Bavarians conspired to flood the world with fizzy yellow liquid. In Dusseldorf there’s Altbier – literally “old beer” – a malty, lightly hopped top-fermented amber ale whose closest relative in the world of beer today is probably English bitter.
Meanwhile 25 miles up the Rhine, in the city of Cologne, Kölsch – literally “of Cologne” – is produced. Kölsch is quite different to Altbier being a very pale top-fermented ale with little or no malt character and only slight hoppiness; there should be some discernible hop flavor but never any bitterness.
In addition to its different flavor profile Kölsch is also filtered and cold-conditioned, or ‘lagered’, which results in something that looks like a pilsner but whose flavor has a more fruity, less bitter character. In technical terms you could say today’s Kölsch is both an ale and a lager – it is in reality a hybrid of the two.
Kölsch brewing is so important to the Cologne region that it has been protected – like Champagne – with a kind of Appellation Controlee. The Kölsch Konvention, consisting of Cologne’s 16 Kölsch breweries, defines what Kölsch is, how it must be made, who can make it, and how it may be sold. This is unique in the beer world.
How to be Fueled by Beer in Cologne
For our trip we used the Haus Vorst Park & Ride, one of many that ring the outskirts of the city. Conveniently located on Cologne’s westside close to the intersection of the E40/E31 motorways (Google map). We left our car here and took the Line #7 U-Bahn into Cologne (Heumarkt) to begin exploring on foot.
A word about ticketing: a day ticket for up to 5 people, which provides unlimited travel on the KVB network (Cologne’s transit system), currently costs only €12.10 – a heck of a deal. However be aware that the ticket machines at stations and on the trams accept only coins. We learned the hard way that what looks like a card slot is only for Cologne’s transit smart card – the machines do not take debit or credit cards.
There is a customer service centre located in the underground station at Neumarkt but if you board the tram at Haus Vorst, intending to buy a ticket when you get to Neumarkt, you run the risk of incurring a penalty fare – ticket inspectors can and do board the trams quite frequently.
Other than this shortcoming of the ticket machines the Köln transit system is first rate. Trams are clean, frequent and they get you where you want to go with the least amount of fuss. The trams run above ground in the suburbs and below ground in the city centre. If you’ve ever used San Francisco’s Muni light rail system you’ll feel very much at home.
For more information about Cologne’s public transit system: KVB website
Our Kölsch Experience
One of the things Mr Fueled by Beer most looked forward to as an integral part of the Kölsch experience was how the beer is supposed to be served. Waiters at a traditional Kölsch Brauhaus are known as “Köbes” and as soon as you sit down they bring your first round – always Kölsch – that’s all there is – in a small 0.2 litre glass called a Stange (German for “pole”).
When you finish, your empty glass is automatically replaced with a fresh Kölsch until you place your coaster on top of your glass, signalling that you’re done. The Köbes keeps tally of the number of beers served by marking off each one on your coaster then totaling them up at the end. During this whole process the Köbes is expected to interact with customers in an off-color, brusque, even rude manner, and invite similar responses from customers.
Unfortunately our experience fell far short and was extremely disappointing. At almost every stop we encountered waiters who were completely disinterested and frankly performed a disappearing act after serving the first round. More than once we wanted to order food and left the bar after a single round with no choice but to leave some Euros on the table covering what we believed we owed.
Perhaps it was because we were in the overly touristy Altstadt district of Cologne but except for our first and last Kölsch stops service was universally crap. As for the Kölsch itself, there didn’t seem to be much variation between brands in terms of flavor, etc. They all seemed pretty generic and, to Mr Fueled by Beer’s tastebuds at least, actually no better than Washington-brewed Kölsch from the likes of Hales, Chuckanut and Icicle, just to name three.
However after enjoying an excellent dinner, perhaps the best Kölsch of the day, and much better service – at Peters Brauhaus located along Muhlengasse near the Alter Markt – we took a tram out to the University district (line #9 to Universität).
Here we found a typical suburban bar with Bayern versus Kaiserslautern on the telly, a boisterous crowd watching the game, attentive service, and several un-Kölsch German beers on tap. Mr Fueled by Beer and The Navy Son both took tall glasses of dark, malty Paulaner Dunkel to round out the evening.
At the end of the day we left Cologne feeling disappointed with our Kölsch experience and actually somewhat surprised that something so important to the city’s image is so poorly promoted in the area of the city where most visitors are likely to be.
And perhaps therein lies the problem: visitors to Cologne are unlikely to be seen by the Kölsch breweries as potential long term customers and therefore not worthy of their time and effort. Well, one thing’s for sure: if I was ever on the fence about Kölsch before now I’m definitely off it. It won’t bother me at all if I never have another Kölsch again.
In fairness to Cologne and its Kölsch beer, it’s true to say that Mr Fueled by Beer’s personal preference always leaned towards Altbier, which leads me to the obvious question: what will our experience be if/when we make a similar Fueled by Beer field trip to Dusseldorf?
Unless you’re a serious Kölsch fanatic (which Mr Fueled by Beer is not – even less so after this visit) don’t bother to make a special trip to Cologne. If you have a hankering for some Kölsch – rather than a citrusy New Zealand-hopped English golden ale, then by all means find a bottled Kölsch somewhere close to home and enjoy it in front of your own Sky Sports with some Brats, German mustard and sauerkraut. All you’ll miss is the Köbes but going by our experience you won’t be missing much. 😦