In the latest BJCP Style Guidelines of 2021, Kölsch can be found as style 5B – Kolsch under Category 5 Pale European Beer which describes german-origin beers that are pale in color and have an even to bitter balance with a mild to a moderately strong hoppy character using traditional German hops. These beers are generally bottom-fermented or are lagered for a smooth profile, and are well-attenuated as are most German beers.
Although all the information below was correct at the time of writing, it is advisable to check out the latest BJCP Guidelines on their website if studying for the judging exams.
Kolsch is an incredibly popular style of beer that originates from Germany.
Kolsch style beer became popular when top-fermenting beer makers tried to compete with the bottom-fermenting beer market in Cologne, Germany.
You can enjoy this crisp, bubbly, light, delicious beer in the summer heat.
Traditionally Kolsch is served in tall, thin glasses known as stange or rods. Given protected status by the 1986 Kolsch Konvention, for a beer to be officially recognised as a Kolsch it should be produced in a brewery in or around Koln (Cologne).
The Konvention simply defines the beer as “a light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear, top fermenting Vollbier”.
Although technically a Kolsch beer has to come from Cologne, that hasn’t stopped many American craft brewers from brewing their own Kolsch-style beers and labelling them as Kolsch.
Kolsch is now such a popular beer it is produced in almost every corner of the world where craft beers are enjoyed.
The beer is not consumed in Germany in great quantities except in the region in which it is brewed in Köln (Cologne), where, when you say “Ein Bier, Bitte” (One beer, please), you will, by default, receive a Kölsch.
It has become popular with homebrewers and brewpubs because it makes a nice substitute for the light lagers most consumers want.
The History of the Kolsch Beer
Kolsch-style beer first appeared in the early 1900s in Germany, but its history starts long before that.
In the 1600s, there was a rift between the top and bottom-fermenting brewers. Germany, which already had beer brewing laws, added a ban on the sale of bottom-fermented beer.
Fortunately for us, those 17th-century beer mandates allowed Kolsch beers to survive in modern times.
People liked the bottom-fermenting type of beer so much that the top-fermenting breweries had to make changes. They started making hybrid top-fermenting beer that they aged after making.
This new process gave us more types of beer, like cream ales, blonde ales, and of course, Kolsch.
The German beers grew in popularity in the early 20th century, up until World War II. After the war, many of the breweries that made Kolsch never reopened.
But there remained a small market for the Kolsch, and it still competed against the more popular bottom-fermented beers.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the drink was recognized as a protected geographical indication. This process created rules for the making and distributing of the beer and firmly cemented Kolsch in German beer history as well as modern beer culture.
Kolsch in the 20th Century
There is a good chance that the Kolsch beer you drink today isn’t an official Kolsch. Even though there is a solid market in that region, many of the exports aren’t official Kolsch beer by the official standards.
American craft brewers make a Kolsch-style beer that uses many of the same procedures and methods as the Cologne breweries, but they are located all over America, not Germany.
For a long time, these brewers tried to replicate the process entirely to give people the authentic taste of the regional favorite. Soon, they started to play with the process, adding flavors and tastes that could help them market the beer to new audiences.
Today it remains a favorite summer beer among craft beer connoisseurs. They have added more fruit flavors, different malts, and, even occasionally, coffee flavors.
All these experiments help keep this clean-drinking beer fun, exciting and intriguing to brew and taste.
The Taste Profile of a Kolsch
When enjoying a Kolsch, the most immediate taste you should be getting is from the malt. There should also be a slight sweetness, often with a fruit taste to it. As you finish, you should get the bitterness which helps give it a clean finish.
The Kolsch fermentation process produces a beer that is usually a light to medium body drink. It has plenty of carbonation. It is a very easy-to-drink beer that doesn’t try to hit you over the head with bold flavors.
These beers are not alcohol-heavy, coming in between 4.4 – 5.2%. For bitterness, they usually have an IBU of 20 – 30, which makes them more bitter than a Bud but less bitter than most pale ales.
When you smell this beer, you will first notice the smell of fruit, a product of fermentation. This is usually cherry pear and apple in most Kolsch.
The avid craft beer drinker will also sense hints of the malt and hops, but that can change depending on the brew. Occasionally you may also get notes of the yeast.
A delicate flavor should feature a good balance between the malt, fruitiness, bitterness, and hops, with a clean attenuated finish. The medium-low grainy maltiness may have slight notes of breadiness or honey.
The fruitiness can have an almost imperceptible sweetness. Medium-low to medium bitterness. Low to moderately-high floral, spicy, or herbal hop flavor; most are medium-low to medium.
May have a neutral-grainy to light malty sweet impression at the start. Soft, rounded palate. The finish is soft, dry, and slightly crisp, not sharp or biting. No noticeable residual sweetness.
While the balance between the flavor components can vary, none are ever strong.
Medium-light to medium body; most are medium-light. Medium to medium-high carbonation. Smooth and soft, but well-attenuated and not heavy. Not harsh.
|IBU||18 - 30|
|SRM||3.5 - 5|
|OG||1.044 - 1.050|
|FG||1.007 - 1.011|
|ABV||4.4 - 5.2%|
Food Pairings with Kolsch
A Kolsch pairs best with hot and sticky days and doesn’t need food to enhance the experience.
If you feel like having a snack or meal while enjoying this beer, light meals like salad and fruit can enhance the beer’s fruity flavors.
If you are looking for something a bit more filling, this beer style pairs best with nutty cheeses, bratwurst, and bread. If you want something sweet to enjoy, light fruit-based desserts like tarts and fruit pies can pop with the Kolsch fruity tasty.
The lightness of this beer, paired with how easy it is to drink, makes it work well with almost any food you want to enjoy.
What Makes Kolsch Style Beer Different
Kolsch is a hybrid of the speed of top-fermenting beers and lagering that gives bottom-fermenting beers their taste.
In some ways, this gives Kolsch the best of both worlds. You can get a lot of the great taste and crispy nature of bottom-fermenting, but make it quicker and easier.
The lagering process of aging the beer does add some time, but it is not as much time as a traditional bottom-fermenting beer takes.
Less time put into the beer usually makes it a little less expensive for the eager public to buy.
Serving a Kolsch Beer
The proper way to serve Kolsch is in stang. If you are doing a tasting in their native region, visit a craft brewery. Servers will bring these glasses to you on circular platters called Kranz or wreaths.
Ordering in traditional German taverns isn’t necessary. When your beer is empty, you get a new one in front of you. The server adds a mark on your coaster.
After you finish your last Kolsch, place the coaster on top of the stang, and then you pay for your beers. Now, that’s excellent customer service!
You can experience this tradition at some bars in America, especially around beer festivals and large German heritage communities.
How to Brew Kolsch-Style Beer
Brewing Kolsch-style beer is deceptively easy. The recipe is very straightforward. However, due to the light body of the beer, even the slightest mistake by the beer brewer is amplified.
When you are picking your malt and hops, you want to stick with continental flavors. Avoid the citrus hops from America. Noble German hops like Spalt and Hallertau are great for your hop selections.
Single pale malt is preferred for first-time brewing. You can enjoy some variation, especially as you become more comfortable with the process.
Some recipes also add wheat to get a more pronounced head on the beer, but it’s not very common.
The yeast is vital for this style of beer. Use the type of yeast suggested in most recipes to get the flavor you are looking to taste. Ale yeast is the preferred yeast for Kolsch-style beers, with European Ale yeast leading the pack.
You may want to lager or age the beer in a cold location to help get the clarity you expect.
Adding variation to this summer classic isn’t done as often as it is with some beers. The first attempts to change this beer were met with pushback from craft beer fans, but over time people have become much more open to new flavors and styles of Kolsch.
Now you can find more fruit-forward Kolsch options, as well as brews that add more and differing hops to give it new tastes. Brewers can add flavors like coffee and vanilla. Some recipes add wheat malt.
Many of these variants haven’t developed specific names yet, so you have to read about new Kolsch beers to see what they have done to the brewing process.
One of the few things that don’t tend to change is the type of yeast. The yeast selection is extremely limited to get the flavor people expect in a Kolsch.
Which Brand Should I Try?
Due to its easy-drinking nature, breweries love to add a Kolsch-style beer to their menu. Its popularity among craft beer producers has led to a lot of choices when it comes to enjoying a Kolsch.
To get an idea of what you should be aiming for when you brew this beer yourself, here are some of our favorite Kolsch beers you can try from independent breweries.
Best Kolsch From the Cologne Region: Fruh
There are many options to try a classic Kolsch beer, but Fruh beats out some of its bigger rivals to be the best-tasting Kolsch beer from the region.
The beer presents very malt-forward, which helps bring an explosion of flavor with every sip. You can taste the yeast, which many people love about this style of beer.
In the end, you get a nice bitter finish that rounds out the whole taste.
Best American Kolsch: American Kolsch, Boulevard Brewing Co.
This beer takes all the classic flavors that you love about Kolsch beer and replicates them. The only thing American about this Kolsch is where it is brewed; Kansas City, Missouri.
When you drink this beer, you notice how well-balanced the malt and hops are. It’s a very light beer that brings out the flavors of the yeast, with a little bit of vanilla to add sweetness.
It is an excellent recreation of the original while adding intriguing notes.
Best Fruit Kolsch: Tart Peach Kolsch, Ballast Point Brewing Company
If you like your beers to have a very fruit-forward experience, the Tart Peach Kolsch by Ballast Point Brewing Company, a well-established west coast brewery, is a great way to enhance the natural fruit flavor of the beer.
The base for this beer still has the bready yeast overtones you have come to enjoy in a Kolsch. The added fruit doesn’t overpower the taste, and it doesn’t make it too sweet.
Instead, it adds a tartness that helps make an already refreshing brew even crisper.
Best Unique Flavor Kolsch: Koffee Kolsch, Huss Brewing Co.
When you want to try something with a Kolsch base that adds new and unusual flavors, the Koffee Kolsch is an intriguing option.
Huss takes its classic German-style Kolsch and steeps it in caramel and hazelnut coffee beans. The result is a hybrid coffee drink with an incredibly smooth finish.
This Kolsch is a perfect drink to add to a morning tailgate at those late August football games. You get everything you need in a drink in one fun package.
Other Commercial Examples include Available in Cologne only: PJ Früh, Hellers, Malzmühle, Paeffgen, Sion, Peters, Dom;
Import versions available in parts of North America: Reissdorf, Gaffel;
Non-German versions: Eisenbahn Dourada, Goose Island Summertime, Alaska Summer Ale, Harpoon Summer Beer, New Holland Lucid, Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower, Capitol City Capitol Kolsch, Shiner Kolsch.
Whether you want to brew your own or you’re just looking for a new beer to enjoy on a hot day, Kolsch can be an intriguing option.
It is an easy beer to drink and make, but it is hard to master. Brewers made the beer to compete against popular bottom-fermenting brews, but it soon gained a following of its own.
You can add a ton of flavors to Kolsch to make it your own, or you can enjoy the classic and have a crisp drink with notes of sweetness.
It could very well be your next favorite craft beer!