Kolsch is a modern style of beer which commercially has only a very limited distribution. That said, it is still one of the major beer styles of the world. Just as the British pale ale is an outgrowth of the former dark British ales, the style has ancient roots in the older, darker Altbier style. The lightly kilned malts used to make this beer didn’t exist until recently, so if you were brewing an ale in the Cologne area, it was based on the dark malt style of ale known now as Altbier.
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.
When Bavaria outlawed summer brewing, it basically became a lager-only brewing region. The fathers of Cologne however, wanted to preserve the older indigenous ale-style beers. In 1603 they issued an ordinance that all brewers were only permitted to brew top-fermented beers. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, most of the production in Cologne and neighboring Düsseldorf, was a beer called Keutebier. It was a mostly-wheat based beer similar to a Belgian Wit except without the spices.
As time passed, the wheat in Keutbier was replaced by barley and the Keutbier disappeared completely. In its place was the all barley beer now known as Kolsch. So the modern Kolsch style was developed from both the Altbier styles of Düsseldorf, which added a little dark Munich malt, and the whitish colored wheat-based Keutebiers brewed in Cologne and surrounding areas at that time.
To brew a Kolsch style beer, be careful that you don’t leave too many fruity esters from fermentation. To keep the esters low, use a Kolsch yeast and ferment at a very cool 60°F (16°C). In my experience using the Kolsch yeast, I found I needed a diacetyl rest to allow the yeast to clean up all the byproducts of fermentation that I didn’t want in the finished beer. You also need to allow for at least a month of cold lagering to mellow the flavors and allow the yeast to finish cleaning up the beer.
- Aroma: This beer has very low to no malt aroma, but when present it has the pilsner malt character. Kolsch beers present a pleasant, subtle fruit aroma from fermentation (apple, cherry or pear), although it may not always be present. A low noble hop aroma is optional but not out of place (it is present only in a small minority of authentic versions). Some yeasts may give a slight winy or sulfury character (this characteristic is also optional, but not a fault).
- Appearance: Kölsch beer is a very pale gold to light gold in color. Authentic versions are filtered to a brilliant clarity. It has a delicate white head that may not persist.
- Flavor: The beers have a soft, rounded palate with a delicate flavor balance between soft yet attenuated malt, an almost imperceptible fruity sweetness from fermentation, and a medium-low to medium bitterness with a delicate dryness and slight pucker in the finish (but no harsh aftertaste). The noble hop flavor is variable, and can range from low to moderately high; most are medium-low to medium. One or two examples (Dom being the most prominent) are noticeably malty-sweet up front. Some versions can have a slightly minerally or sulfury water or yeast character that accentuates the dryness and flavor balance. Some versions may have a slight wheat taste, although this is quite rare. Otherwise very clean with no diacetyl or fusels.
- Mouthfeel: A Kölsch style beer is smooth and crisp with a medium to medium-light body as well as a medium to medium-high carbonation. These beers are generally well-attenuated.
- Overall Impression: The Kölsch style is a clean, crisp, delicately balanced beer usually with very subtle fruit flavors and aromas and subdued maltiness throughout. This maltiness leads to a pleasantly refreshing tang in the finish. To the untrained taster, this style is easily mistaken for a light lager, a somewhat subtle Pilsner, or perhaps a blonde ale.
- Comments: Served in a tall, narrow 200ml glass called a “Stange.” Each Cologne (Koln in German) brewery produces a beer of different character, and each interprets the Kolsch Konvention slightly differently. Allow for a range of variation within the style when judging. Drier versions may seem hoppier or more bitter than the IBU specifications might suggest. Due to its delicate flavor profile, Kolsch tends to have a relatively short shelf-life; older examples can show some oxidation defects. Some Koln breweries (e.g., Dom, Hellers) are now producing young, unfiltered versions known as Wiess (which should not be entered in this category).
- History: Kolsch is an appellation protected by the Kolsch Konvention, and is restricted to the 20 or so breweries in and around Cologne (Koln). The Kolsch Konvention simply defines the beer as a “light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear top-fermenting Vollbier.”
- Ingredients: German noble hops (Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt or Hersbrucker). German Pils or pale malt. Attenuative, clean ale yeast. Up to 20% wheat may be used, but this is quite rare in authentic versions. Water can vary from extremely soft to moderately hard. Traditionally uses a step mash program, although good results can be obtained using a single rest at 149?F. Fermented at cool ale temperatures (59-65?F) and lagered for at least a month, although many Cologne brewers ferment at 70?F and lager for no more than two weeks.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.044 – 1.050 FG: 1.007 – 1.011 IBUs: 20 – 30 SRM: 3.5 – 5 ABV: 4.4 – 5.2%.
- Commercial Examples: 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.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, the page on Kolsch from The German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.