What is Kolsch Style Beer?

When done right, a good Kolsch style beer will do the trick for just about any occasion. It is a very approachable beer, combining the toastiness of a stout with the crisp, effervescence of a pilsner. Yet it remains a largely overlooked brew. Let’s give Kölsch its day in court, shall we? 

The Origins of Kolsch Style Beer

Kölsch finds its roots in the 18th century Cologne, located in western Germany along the Rhine River. The city observed strict beer purity laws, prohibiting the use of bottom fermented yeast in any part of the brewing process. This became harder to enforce, as the city had to compete with the more readily available and inexpensive lagers using bottom-fermentation techniques. The outcome was a hybrid that used the top fermenting yeast of an ale but the cold conditioning of a lager. 

This hybrid appeared sometime around 1750 but was not formally called a “Kölsch” until 1919. The word is simply the name for the dialect of German spoken in Cologne (Köln in the native tongue). 

Kolsch was, essentially, a loophole against very strict German rules. In an ironic twist, it is now also subject to very strict German rules. There is a name for these very strict rules, by the way. The Reinheitsgebot (RRRRRRINE-HEIGHTZ-GUH-BOT) regulates all the ingredients and brewing techniques allowable for certain beer styles. It’s been around since the days of the Holy Roman Empire and still influences German beer-making. If it ain’t broke, am I right? 

The Kölsch Konvention (est. 1980s and surprisingly NOT a metal band) stipulates that all Kolsch style beer must be brewed within 31 miles of the Cologne city limits. Brewers must also use the methods and ingredients set forth by the aforementioned RHGB.

So, Is There Such Thing As American Kolsch?

We KNOW you’re thinking it, and we’d rather you hear it from us than your trashy friends. TECHNICALLY, there is no such thing as an American Kolsch. Remember the rules? Kolsch must be brewed within 31 miles of Cologne. The beer actually has a Protected Geographical Indication badge within the European Union. 

But this is America, and we don’t need no stinking badges. Kolsch is kinda like the old “Champagne” argument. If you’ve never had anyone correct you by saying, “ACTUALLY, it is sparkling wine,” then I’m really, truly happy for you. But just wait. It WILL happen, and it will probably be someone named “Tyler.” 

Any old who, we’ve mentioned a time or two in the past that the “rules” in America for craft brewing are more like guidelines. We maintain an authentic spirit when it comes to brewing Kolsch, whilst humbly and respectfully flouting the geographical rules. 

What Should A Kolsch Taste, Smell, and Look Like?

Taste: Kölsch style beer offers a delicate balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. It tends to be light-bodied with a subtle fruitiness, often accompanied by a slightly dry finish. The malt profile is typically grainy and biscuity, while noble hops contribute floral and herbal notes. According to the Kolsch Konvention, these beers should be “highly attenuated,” which means they have a high ABV. 

Appearance: you may get away with calling a non-Cologne beer a Kolsch, but you’ll never get away with calling a hazy beer one. Kölsch beers are filtered and crystal clear, with lots of refreshing bubbles. Likewise, they are limited to a pale gold or straw color with a bright white head. 

Aroma: the aroma of Kolsch is inviting and clean, with hints of bread crust, light fruitiness, and an appreciable hoppiness. 

can of Kolsch beer by Diebolt Craft Brewery
Diebolt’s LaBolt Gold Kolsch is considered the Gold Standard of Beer. It says so on the label, which we have zero hand in creating. But seriously, this is summertime in a can: pear, citrus, and cherry blossom with plenty of bubbles and a touch of sweetness. 

Kolsch vs Pilsner

We will concede that Kolsch and Pilsner share certain characteristics. Both are pale yellow with frothy white heads, high ABV, lots of carbonation, and intense drinkability. The MAIN difference is the yeast technicality: Kolsch is an ale and Pilsner is a lager. 

Actually, the two have a distinct taste and mouthfeel as well. Kolsch’s are just smoother, in our opinion. They have a fruity scent and a kind of creaminess to them that the dry Pilsners are lacking. 

The Kolsch Glass

Like most beer styles, Kolsch is meant to be drunk from a specific type of glass. Traditionally, Kölsch is served in a slender, cylindrical 200ml glass called a Stange. This elongated glass showcases the beer’s clarity and allows for easy appreciation of its color and effervescence. The narrow shape also helps maintain the beer’s carbonation and enhances the drinking experience by concentrating the aroma.

That being said, the Stange may not be practical or even readily available in the States. Plus, it only holds a little over 6 oz. If you are pouring from a bottle or can, you don’t want to leave any behind to sit and get warm. You’d be just fine with a standard Pilsner or, better yet, a Teku. You’ll have room for the whole beer plus the head, and the long stem will keep it cool and bubbly for longer.

Kolsch Food Pairings

Kölsch’s light and refreshing character makes it a versatile companion for a wide range of foods. Here are some delicious pairings to consider:

Bratwurst and Pretzels

Now, I know what you’re thinking: JUST cuz it’s a German beer doesn’t mean it goes with German food. But actually, that’s exactly what it means. Bavarian food, in particular, is hearty and filling. The malty sweetness of Kölsch complements the savory flavors of grilled bratwurst, while its carbonation helps cut through the richness. Pretzels help soak up that higher alcohol content and underscore the bready taste of a good Kolsch. .

Seafood

On the other end of the food spectrum, you might be surprised to find that Kolsch lends itself to the more delicate flavors of seafood. But it actually pairs beautifully with dishes such as grilled shrimp, fish tacos, or sushi. The beer’s subtle fruitiness enhances the natural flavors of the seafood without overpowering them.

Salads and Light Appetizers

For a refreshing start to a meal, serve Kölsch alongside a crisp salad topped tangy vinaigrette and grilled chicken or shrimp. The beer’s effervescence and subtle hop bitterness provide a refreshing palate cleanser between bites, and you won’t fill up as quickly as you would with a porter.

Cheese Platter

Create a cheese platter featuring mild, creamy cheeses such as brie or goat cheese, along with tangy varieties like gouda or aged cheddar. Kolsch’s creaminess and carbonation complement the richness of the cheese, while its clean finish prevents palate fatigue.

How Do You Pronounce Kolsch? 

For our final demonstration, we shall teach you how to pronounce the word, “Kölsch.” You see the two dots above the “o?” That’s called an “Umlaut,” and it changes the way you say a vowel in German. Americans usually pronounce it like an “oa” sound, like in the word “coat.” The result is “KOLSH.” Like Sean Connery saying “coals.” 

The correct pronunciation is more like a short “u” sound, like in “umbrella.” Germans call this beer “KULLSH.” We highly recommend this video for further clarification. It is exceptionally helpful and we’re pretty sure the narrator is Nandor from “What We Do In The Shadows.” 

We’d Walk Over Hot Kolsch for a Taste

Up next: the LaCROY vs LaKWWWWAH debate. Oh, and be sure to stop by our place on Mariposa to try LaBolt. Or take some home with you to make it through Easter dinner. Why can’t adult parties have time limits, like they have on kids’ invitations? Like, can you do an Evite for holiday get-togethers? Where: my place. When: March 31. Time: 1pm to 3pm. Bring Kolsch for the host. 

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Heather Kleinman

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