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Kölsch (also spelled Koelsch) is a local specialty beer brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is clear with a bright, straw-yellow hue, has a prominent but not extreme hoppiness, and is less bitter than the standard German pale lager.
Kölsch is warm-fermented at around 13 to 21°C (55 to 70°F), then cold-conditioned, or lagered. This style of fermentation links Kölsch with some other central northern European beers such as the Altbiers of western Germany and the Netherlands.
Kölsch is strictly defined by an agreement between members of the Cologne Brewery Association known as the Kölsch Konvention. In practice almost all Kölsch brands have a very similar gravity midway between 11 and 16 degrees.
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In 1396 the Brewer Gaffel and twenty-one other guilds signed the Kölner Verbundbrief setting up a new democratic constitution for the free city of Cologne. It terminated noble rule over the citizens and held until 1796, when Cologne was conquered by the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The term Kölsch was first officially in 1918 to describe the beer that had been brewed by the Sünner brewery since 1906. It was developed from the similar but cloudier variant Wiess (white in the Kölsch dialect). It never became particularly popular in the first half of the twentieth century, when bottom-fermented beers prevailed as in the rest of Germany. Prior to World War II Cologne had over 40 breweries, reduced to two in the devastation and its aftermath.
In 1946 many of the breweries managed to re-establish themselves. During the 1940s and 1950s Kölsch still could not match the sales of bottom-fermented beer, but beginning in the 1960s it rose in popularity and achieved hegemony in the Cologne beer market. From a production of merely 50 million liters in 1960, Cologne's beer production peaked at 370 million liters in 1980. Recent price increases and changing drinking habits have caused economic hardship for many of the traditional corner bars (Kölschkneipen) and smaller breweries. By 2005 output had delined to 240 million litres.
Thirteen breweries produce Kölsch in and around Cologne, anchored by Früh, Gaffel, Reissdorf and Kölner Verbund. In adherence to the Kölsch convention of 1986 Kölsch may not be brewed outside the Cologne region. A few outlying breweries were grandfathered. About ten other breweries in Germany produce beer in Kölsch style but do not call it Kölsch because they are not members of the convention.
In 1997 Kölsch became a protected designation of origin, expanding protection to the entire EU and several countries beyond it. Exports of Kölsch to the United States, Russia, China and Brazil are increasing. Exported Kölsch does not need to strictly comply with the Provisional German Beer Law, the current implementation of the Reinheitsgebot.
|Brewery||Established||Annual output in hectolitres|
|Gaffel Becker & Co||1908||500,000|
|Cölner Hofbräu Früh||1904||440,000|
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|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2008)|
Kölsch stands in direct competition to Altbier, the production of which is centred around Düsseldorf. The difference between the two types is indeed technically slight, Altbier being fermented at slightly higher temperatures than Kölsch and using dark malt, harder water and far more bittering hops, resulting in a nuttier, firmer and drier taste.
There is a deal between the breweries that no Kölsch will be sold with any of the extra titles that are popularly used with other German beers, like "Premium", "Special", "Extra High Quality" etc. Karl Marx once famously remarked that his revolution could not work in Cologne, since the bosses went to the same pubs as their workers.
Kölsch waiters (Köbes) in traditional pubs are encouraged, and indeed expected, to speak the local dialect which is called "Kölsch" as well and to use fairly rough, unrefined language, which might include crude jokes with the customers. In keeping with serving tradition, the Köbes in such pubs will also continue to exchange empty Kölsch glasses with new ones unprompted until customers leave their glass half full or place the beermat upon the glass to signal that they no longer wish to be served. Waiters carry filled glasses of the beer around the beer hall, in special circular trays called a Kranz, as shown in the photo above, ready to replace any empty glasses immediately.
Kölsch is usually served about 10°C/50°F in long, thin, cylindrical 0.2 litre glasses. This glass is known as a Stange (pole), but is sometimes also derisively called a Reagenzglas (test tube), or Fingerhut (thimble) because they are a lot smaller than the beer glasses used in most of the rest of Germany. Recently though, many bars (especially outside central Cologne) have moved to reduce the waiters' work load and to satisfy their more thirsty customers by offering larger, less traditional glasses, (0.3 L or 0.4 L) of the same shape. Connoisseurs would even drink Kölsch from smaller (0.1 L) glasses, called "Stößche" (Cologne dialect noun for a German noun "Stößchen" = little push), as the taste of Kölsch deteriorates rather quickly while it is sitting in the glass. Since 1936 Kölsch has also been available in bottled form, and nowadays some brands are even sold in cans, much to the chagrin of traditionalists.
Wieß ("white" in the Kölsch language) is a cloudy, unfiltered version of Kölsch. It had virtually disappeared from the market during most of the 20th century, but has seen a small resurgence in recent years.
See also 
- Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers (Boulder, Colorado: Brewers Publications, 1996), 127-8 and 136-9.
- Bolsover, Catherine (1 October 2011). "Cologne's favorite beer, Kölsch, makes new friends abroad". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 1 October 2011.