Beer of Cologne: Koelsch

Kölsch in Cologne, Germany
••• Kölschkranz. Tim 'Avatar' Bartel

You can't get out of Carnival in Cologne without drinking tiny glass after tiny glass of Kölsch. This light beer is a specialty of the region with its own unique traditions. The people of Cologne rarely drink any other beer. In a nation of great beers with storied histories, find out what makes Kölsch, the beer of Cologne, special.

Kölsch Beer

When I say this is a regional beer, I mean that only beer brewed in and around Köln can only be called Kölsch - like champagne.

Known as a PGI (protected geographical indication), the Kölsch Konvention dictates that it must be brewed within a 50 km zone around Cologne. Foreign brewers have become enamoured of this clean-drinking beer, but as they are forbidden by law from calling it Kölsch, you will see it listed as "Kölsch-style".

The beer is like a Pilsner, top-fermented, pale yellow and refreshing. It meets the standards of Reinheitsgebot and is traditionally a warm fermenting beer, not a lager as it is sometimes inaccurately described. It has a gravity between 11 and 16 degrees.

Ordering a Kölsch

Along with the persnickety definition, the serving of this beer from Cologne has its own customs.

Kölsch is served in 0.2 liter cylinder glasses, relatively delicate when compared to other German glassware (ie the Oktoberfest Mass). These are known as Stange and slow Kölsch from growing flat.

These glasses will serve as your ordering system at a Cologne bar or biergarten.

Waiters, called Köbes, are dressed in blue shirts, dark trousers, and an apron and are armed with circular trays (Kölschkranz) of beer to provide prompt refills. Their watchful eyes are trained to spot newcomers to outfit with a glass. There is no need to signal the waiter - certainly don't snap and God help you if you want to order anything other than a Cologne Kölsch.

Köbes are an institution in Cologne and are known for their thick Kölsch dialect and hard-nosed humor.

Once they have put down a coaster and topped it with a full beer, they will mark the beer mat with a tick for each new beer. The Köbes and the Kölsch will keep coming until you place the coaster atop your glass. At that time, be prepared to pay (and tip from 5-10%).

Kölsch Breweries

Only thirteen breweries are authorized to produce authentic Kölsch. Popular Brauhäuser (brewpubs) and brands include:

  • Früh - Located near the Cathedral, this historic brewery is over a hundred years old with a boisterous beer cellar.
  • Gaffel - This brewery and pub provide a great example of classic Kölsch just off from the train station.
  • Reissdorf -  A favorite of locals, this place comes with a bowling alley in the basement.
  • Dom - Popular with visitors and locals.
  • Sion - Destroyed in WWII, this brewery is back to serving traditional Kölsch brew and food complete with biergarten.
  • Brauhaus zur Malzmühle - Open for over 150 years, this is one of the most popular brewhouse restaurants with Cologne specialties.
  • Peters Brauhaus - In the center of the old city, this is the place to be for Carnival.

What to eat with Kölsch

Despite their beers diminutive size, they can pack a punch.

Rather than keeping an eye on your coaster's ticks, balance out your visit with some Cologne delicacies. But beware that these often go by a different name than other parts of Germany.

  • Halver Hahn - While this might sound like the beer hall classic of chicken, it's actually a rye roll with cheese, butter and mustard.
  • Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and earth) - Black pudding (Flönz), fried onions, and mashed potato with apple sauceMixture of apple pieces (heaven) and mashed potatoes (earth)
  • Kölsche Kaviar  - Flönz, rye roll and onions
  • Rheinischer Soorbrode - Traditionally made with horse meat (though beef is usually substituted nowadays), this dish is marinated in vinegar and spices for several days before being served with dumplings and Rotkohl (red cabbage)
  • Hämmche - Boiled pork knuckle 
  • Rievkoche or Reibekuchen - Usually called Kartoffelpuffer in other parts of Germany, these are savory potato pancakes often topped in apple sauce
  • Halber Meter Bratwurst - Can't go wrong with a sausage, especially one that measures half a meter.