IS KÖLSCH AN ALE OR A LAGER – WHY IS THIS STYLE UNIQUE?

As the craft beer world is increasingly dominated by hoppy monsters and crazy fruit fermented styles, I find it refreshing to just enjoy a pure, subtle, perfectly balanced brew. I have to admit I have a soft spot for Kölsch. By the way, Kölsch is pronounced [“culsh”/ kœːɫʃ], not [“colsh”], because of its umlaut, you know the funny “¨” on the o that changes the sound.  This beer is outstanding for several reasons. Is Kölsch an Ale or a Lager?

To the beer drinker, Kölsch has more characteristics in common with a Lager: low level of hoppiness, clean, refreshing profile, smooth body, low ABV, noticeable even if subdued sweetness from the malt, in two words – highly drinkable.

To the brewer, Kölsch is an Ale, the softest, palest, cleanest kind there is, fermented at low temperature for an extended period of time, then lagered at an even lower temperature. Technically you may say it’s a hybrid.

In this article we will also look at the facts and background that make Ko truly a great, unique beer style.

Is Kolsh an Ale or a Lager, the City of Cologne
The City of Cologne, Germany

Is Kölsch an Ale or Lager? Or can it be both?

Virtually the entire beer family falls into two main categories. Ale or Lager. Both categories are determined by the type of yeast and the temperature of fermentation associated with each type of yeast.

ALES are made from yeasts known in the scientific world as Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. These yeasts are very common in any region of the planet, versatile since they may also be used to ferment bread and wine, as they are more resistant to changing environments and to higher proportions of alcohol. They ferment at warmer temperatures, between 60°F and 72°F, quicker (between 4 to 6 days) and work on top of the beer. This type of fermentation is easier to conduct and explains why ales are the most ancient style of beer, having been produced for thousands of years. Typically, an Ale offers a fruity flavor profile, a darker color, an overall more robust body and balance, more intense hop character, and a head with nice retention.

LAGERS, on the other hand are made from different yeast strains, referred to as Saccharomyces Pastorianus that can ferment at colder temperatures, between 50°F and 55°F, meaning for a longer period of time (several weeks). These yeasts, unlike ale yeasts, are active at the bottom of the fermentor. The resulting beer possesses a longer stability, is clear, lighter in color, with a crisp, yet sweeter balance due to a more pronounced malty quality, and a lower alcohol contents. Its head doesn’t normally stick around for too long. Lagers have become so incredibly popular and commercial viable that they account today for over 90% of the world’s beer production.

What makes Kölsch unique and unusual is the fact that the primary fermentation is done with an ale yeast, and the secondary stage is done as a Lager. In other words, this is kind of HYBRID beer, combining the character of an Ale where some fruitiness is noticeable, with the purity and dry, refreshing style of a Lager.

The history of Kölsch – fun politics and creativity

Kölsch is a protected appellation, very much like Champagne. It has to be made within a 50 kilometer radius from the city of Cologne. It has to be made in the respect both the method and the ingredients that define this style of beer, subject like all German beers to the Reinheitsgebot (law of purity). It is the only pale barley ale in Germany. Its production and distribution are regulated by the “Kölsch Konvention”.  You may get an overview of the “Konvention” here.

Cologne has been a beer city for over a thousand years. Centrally located in the northern Rhine Valley, it has been an important economic and cultural entity since it was founded in the Roman era.

The production of lager, compared to ale is relatively recent and originated in the late 15th century, when Saccharomyces Pastorianus yeast stains appeared in cold Bavarian cellars. It is thought that a cold resistant yeast might have been brought from South America through the early trans-Atlantic trade and would have transformed Ale yeasts into Lager yeasts.

Instantly the lager style become popular but quality lager was harder to make in relatively warmer locations outside of mountainous European regions, such as Cologne. Because the local guild operated to guarantee beer’s integrity, it passed in 1603 a law prohibiting Lager brewing in their area.

However, since the mid-1840s, a technological breakthrough benefited the brewers of Plzen (Pilsen). Malt could be kilned with indirect low heat, making it possible to produce the first crystal clear, light colored Pilsner that would become rapidly the beer of choice all across the continent and beyond. The brewers of Cologne did not want to be forgotten with their deeper colored, less limpid Ale. Thanks to another industrial advance, the invention of refrigeration systems, they suddenly came up with a fantastic idea: “why not still brew our Ale following our Cologne quality law AND cellar it like a Lager to achieve the sought after clear, clean appearance the market is looking for?”

Kölsh was born. A mixture of tradition and creativity.

Flavor Profile/ Characteristics

I like Kölsch because to me it expresses at the same time purity and delicate complexity. It is very easy to drink, like a session beer because of its lower ABV, yet it is just rich enough to be enjoyed with a variety of dishes such as roasted or grilled bratwursts, coleslaw (no mayo, please!), salads, white fish or chicken grilled or poached with light sauce if any, Asian cuisine should also be a good pairing to the delicate spiciness and grassiness.

ABV Range: 3.5 – 5
IBU Range: 18 – 30
Color: 3.5 – 5 SRM
Appearance: Light gold, perfectly clear
Aromas: Elegant fruit esters, with light notes of mild Pilsner malts and noble German hops
Flavors: Balanced sweet, bread-like (biscuit) delicate pale malt, with only a hint of spice and bitterness
Mouthfeel: Soft, smooth, medium-body, finishing dry and clean.
Carbonation: Lively carbonation with fluffy white head, low retention
Is Kolsh an Ale or a Lager, German Brands
Several German Kölsch are exported to the USA

The more recognized German Kölsch producers include:

Reissdorf – Very pale color, some malty notes, quite soft on the palate, finishes clean and dry.

Gaffel –  Pale, faintly fruity with a crisp, refreshing and delicate hop finish.

Sünner – Light, soft, low alcohol, very enjoyable complexity and finesse, white fruit and elegant spiciness. Smaller production.

Zunft – Fresh, refined, a leaner style with pleasant notes of hop.

Früh – Definitely a light style, with mild malt and hops notes as expected.

Reissdorf, Gaffel and Früh are among the top 5 producers in terms of volume. A special mention should be given to Sünner, the original Kölsch brewer – the first one to use the name “Kölsch”. This producer has been established since 1830 and is still totally family run. My personal tasting notes on this beer that I discovered 3 days ago:

Subtle aromas of honeydew melon, pear, honey, fresh bread-like, pale malt sweetness with accent of very delicate pepperiness and grassiness. This beer strikes with its sense of purity, softness and balance. The flavors are precise and delicious, consistent with the aromatic profile. There’is a elegant and natural feel about this Kölsch that I really like and find interesting. The carbonation is full and festive on the palate, even though the airy white head dissipates rapidly in the glass. The finish is dry, with pleasant, mild hoppy character bringing just enough bitterness to make the beer refreshing and expressive. The finish is fairly long and focused.

Is Kolsch an Ale or a Lager Stange
Kölsch served in a traditional “Stange” glass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are also some of my favorite Kölsch from LOCAL BREWERIES AVAILABLE IN THE CHICAGO LAND AREA :

Metropolitan “Krankshaft”, Chicago, IL – soft and oldworld style.

Schlafly “Kölsch”, St Louis, MO – simple, direct, a fruitier version.

Half Acre “Den”, Chicago, IL – seasonal release, crisp and clean, with Saaz hops for an herbed earth glaze.

Revolution “Ghost Ride Kölsch Ale”, Chicago, IL – crisp, refreshing with some nice complexity and a wine-like quality.

John Palmer describes it as the “California beer of Germany”. I guess, I understand he means by that there is a direct, generous, fruity character along with brightness and more discernible hoppy character that is not the norm in the world of German beers. Rather, it could be considered as a style somewhat bridging classic old world to new world beers.

Is Kolsch an Ale or a Lager Kolschocal Midwest
Three Excellent Midwest Kölsch

Brewing Kölsch at home – the 5 mistakes to avoid

Kölsch is one of favorite beers, period. I love the genuine purity, simplicity about it. It’s definitely one of the most popular beers among home brewers, but making it right can be tricky and requires a certain practice.

Since a true Kölsch is a very simple beer in essence, meaning based on the most basic composition of ingredients, water, one or two styles of malted barley, noble German hops only (remember that Reinheitsgebot?), it’s all about balance and purity/ clarity.

1. Mashing without reaching enough attenuation. Knowing your malt or malt extract. You want to be around 80% apparent attenuation. Know your malt and follow the proper starch conversion schedule. A Beta-amylase conversion around 150°F, in infusion for 60 minutes will work to produce a drier beer. A higher temperature will perform a less fermentable wort, resulting in too much sweetness.

Beginners: extract brewing is advised. Chose a Pilsner Malt extract.

2. Boiling for 60 minutes with all-grain. A 90 minutes boil should be performed to help reduce DMS (the sulfur compound produced during fermentation) off flavors.

3. Hopping with varieties that are too aggressive, such as American hops, too bittering, citrus and spicy. Stick to noble German-like types. Saaz, Hallertau, Tettnang or Spalt are classic examples. Acceptable alternatives include Fuggles, Liberty, Mt. Hood, Willamette hops.

4. Not fermenting at the correct temperature. You want to ferment as cool as possible between 60-65°F with the proper yeast. White Lab WLP029 German Ale/ Kölsch and Wyeast 2565 Kölsch are recommended. This will produce a well attenuated beer with little estery character.

5. Bottling too early. Remember, after the primary fermentation has occurred,you are now lagering your Kölsch. This requires patience. 4 weeks around 45°F is the minimum if you want to obtain nice balance and flavors.

Suggested sustainable brewing practices

  1. Consider using organic malts, perhaps yeasts and hops too. BENEFITS: Better for your health, better for the earth, better for the farmer
  2. Recirculate your wort cooling water in an ice tub. BENEFIT: Saving water

What’s your experience of Kölsch?

I hope your enjoyed reading this post. I welcome any comments or questions you may have as I invite you to use the space below to share, in particular I would be interested in learning from you –

In your opinion, is Kölsch an Ale or a Lager? Why?

What’s your favorite Kölsch?

Also, do you have any Kölsch recipe you really like and any tips you would like to share about brewing this style of beer?

 

To our health, cheers!

 

Vincent

2 thoughts on “IS KÖLSCH AN ALE OR A LAGER – WHY IS THIS STYLE UNIQUE?”

  1. Hi! Just came by and can’t resist to comment: Kölsch (btw only allowed to be brewed in Köln/Cologne from what I heard) is a top fermented and lagered BEER. I stayed in Germany for quite a while, and if you ask a common german what he or she thinks ale is – no one will know. I think Ale as a terms was and still is only used in English speaking countries.

    Awesome post Vincent.

    Regards!

    • Hey Jordan,

      You are correct “Ale” is the English term, in Germany, and generally in Europe, to classify or describe a beer, it seems like people will speak of:

      the color – “Weiss (white), Helles (light), Dunkel (dark), Schwarz (black)”; 

      or the season when the beer is brewed or released – “Märzen (March), Frühling (Spring), Weihnacht (Christmas); 

      or the region/ town where it’s from – “Kölsch (from Cologne), Dortmunder (from Dortmund) …”

      or the classic beer category – “Bock, Pilsener …”

      but almost never of the technical process that has been used to produce the beer, “lager/ ale”, perhaps beer connoisseurs will speak of “top fermented (obergäriges) – or bottom fermented (untergäriges) beers”.

      I really appreciate your great comment.  Thanks and “zum Wohl!”

      Vincent

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