It is always fun to delve into the history of a particular style of beer. Particularly if that beer is a bit obscure to begin with. Lately I have become fascinated with several German styles of beer. Coming from a very Bavarian background, I thought it only fitting to dig a little deeper into the traditions of my forbearers and learn more about German beer styles. And so, I begin my little trip down the cobbled stones of ancient brewing with a look at a style that is emerging in the United States as an approachable, drinkable, and decidedly refreshing style: Koelsch.
Now to understand Koelsch you will need to have a basic understanding of the two categories of beers; lagers and ales. Do not confuse these two categories with beer styles. Styles reside within these two categories. The difference between these two broad categories is the type of yeast used during fermentation. Ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures and are sometimes called “top fermenting” yeasts. This is because the yeast tends to stay towards the top of the tank during fermentation. Lagers yeasts conversely ferment at cooler temperatures and tend to stay towards the bottom of the fermentation tank. Another major difference between these two categories of beer is that ales tend to have more yeast driven flavors then lagers. Ale yeasts lend complex spicy and fruity flavors to beers that the cooler fermenting lager yeasts do not.
Now that you know the difference between ales and lagers, it is time to learn some history. Sherman, set the dials on the Way-Back machine to the closing years of the 1300’s in Cologne, Germany. A group of Guilds gathered and peacefully over-threw the noble-run government with a more democratic style of governance that allowed more freedom to all and ended a tradition of class segregation in the city that still holds true today. The reason this is so important to the history of the Koelsch style beer is that it proved that the people of Cologne were free-thinkers and strove to be different from other German cities.
At that time the German beer landscape was dominated by what is now called an Altbier or old beer. These beers were ales that used top fermenting yeasts. In the mid-to-late 1500’s though, a wave of lagers began to take over the German brewing world. Altbiers started to be replaced by the new lager styles until only a few ales remained. The city fathers of Cologne recognized that these ales were quickly dying out and, in 1603, issued an ordinance that outlawed the brewing of all but top-fermented beers within the city limits of Cologne. Thus, bottom-fermenting beers were proscribed from Cologne which led to the beginnings of modern-day Koelsch.
From that day in 1603 until the early nineteenth century, Cologne became known for its Keutebier, or white ale similar in style to Belgian wit beer, but without the addition of spices. Keutebier was a beer that used mostly wheat as its main grain. As tastes changed over time though, more and more barley was used until wheat completely disappeared from the beer and the first Koelsch was brewed in 1906 by the Sunner Brewery. But, it wasn’t until 1918 that the name Koelsch was officially used to describe this new style.
At first the style did not gain any momentum. But, after two World Wars, the style began to catch on. In the mid-1940’s, breweries that had been devastated during the Wars began to re-emerge. Lagers were still firmly in control of the beer-drinking world, but Koelsch was making in-roads. In the 1960’s Cologne’s beer production was a mere 50 million liters, or roughly 13 million gallons. In contrast, as the style began to rise in popularity, Cologne’s beer production peaked at over 370 million liters, or almost 98 million gallons. In recent years that number has dropped down a bit, but if the resurgence I have noticed in the style holds, Koelsch could well be on its way back up the charts.
Significantly, as with Champaign, the beer can only truly be called Koelsch if it is brewed in Cologne. In 1985 the Koelsch Convention established that only breweries within the city limits of Cologne could brew Koelsch beers. All others are to be called Koelsch-style beers. In 1997 the European Union gave further protection to the style allowing only 14 breweries the right to label their beers as Koelsch. As with most German beers, this style also adheres to the Reinheitsgebot or German purity law that prohibits the use of any ingredients in beer other than water, barley, hops, and yeast.
A Koelsch beer should be the color of straw and have a rather thin mouth-feel. The official guidleines state that this style should be between 4.4 and 5.2% ABV. The flavor should be slightly sweet with little or no hopiness and practically no fruitiness. All of these characteristic combine to make this an exceedingly refreshing beer when served at about 40 degrees. This is especially true on a hot summer day in Florida when the sun is beating down with the intensity of a blast furnace.
Some Koelsch and Koelsch-style beers to try are: Reissdorf, Gaffel, Harpoon Summer Beer, and Samuel Adams East-West Koelsch. And if you are looking for a locally brewed Koelsch-stylre in Jacksonville, FL, look no further than Intuition Ale Works and their deliciously refreshing Jon Boat Ale.
Until next time,
Long Live the Brewers!