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What is Kölsch?

Everything to know about the beer from Cologne, Germany

It’s light, it’s crisp, it’s delicious. Here’s what you need to know about Cologne’s most beloved export.

Kölsch ist ein tolles bier! Es kommt aus der schönen stadt Köln, Deutschland, und —

Oops, sorry. Got carried away there. But in our defense, it’s easy to forget you’re not in the fine land of Rhineland when you start talking about Kölsch. It’s the official ale of the city of Cologne and the pride of many hearts.

What exactly is Kölsch, you ask? Well, that sounds like the perfect excuse to talk about it! Fantastische!

The history of Kölsch style ale

Beer is more than just beer in Germany. German beer is the cultural fingerprint of the country’s different regions, with sects that comprise states, cities and neighborhoods, each with their own brews they consider to be the best on earth.

Such powerful affections often have roots that burrow through the centuries, sucking nutrients from some medieval or Roman tradition. This is, quite unromantically (but also truthfully), not the case for Kölsch. This beer made its first named appearance in 1918.

German beer was usually darker during that time period. When a strange light beer suddenly appeared, people didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was the subject of raised eyebrows and cautious enthusiasm but was given the name “Kölsch” after the German dialect spoken in Köln.

Such lukewarm love persisted until around the ’60s. Then suddenly, Germans (and the world) decided they absolutely loved the stuff — they couldn’t get enough of it. The year 1960 saw around 50 million liters of Kölsch-style ale produced; by the early 1980s, it was just shy of 400 million. That figure today rests at a respectable 240 million liters per year.

Who makes Kölsch?

The world’s Kölsch is produced by a precious few breweries: 12 in total. The ones you may have heard of include Gaffel, Kölner Verband, Früh and Reissdorf. Kölsch-style beers are found in many places — including some American craft brewers — but the authentic ones are made in this region.

The social importance of Kölsch

Kölsch is not just a beer to Cologners. It’s a statement. An attitude. A manifesto on life. At the end of a workweek, it is the nucleus around which social gatherings accumulate. Friends, colleagues and families come together to enjoy its light, refreshing taste and the friendly, open conversation that is so pivotal to their culture.

To drink Kölsch properly, locals insist it must come straight from the keg. It has a relatively short shelf-life of three months, so small batches are the name of the game. Kölsch typically gets served in smaller Stangen glasses (around 200 milliliters is common).

The waiter should be quite attentive to the levels of guests’ glasses, too. If someone is nearing the bottom of their glass, they’ll typically supply a fresh one. On the beer mat, the waiter places marks to indicate how many beers each customer has had. When each customer has had enough, they’ll place the mat on top of the glass to indicate they’re done.

What food goes with Kölsch?

Kölsch-style beers are light, so really the perfect food pairing is limited only by your imagination. However, if you’re going for the German tradition, you’ll want the Halver Hahn. This is essentially a half-chicken with cheese, rye bread and a plop of tangy German mustard. Raw onion rings usually also make an appearance.

But what is Kölsch exactly?

When you get down to the nitty-gritty of what a beer is, the best starting point is usually the yeast.

Putting aside sour beers made from wild yeast, the two groups are best delineated as lagers and ales. Lagers (like pilsner) get brewed with yeasts that ferment on the bottom at cooler temperatures, while ale yeast ferments on the top (usually at warmer temperatures).

Which one is Kölsch? Drum roll …

… It’s both.

Yes, German-style Kölsch is both bottom and top-fermented. It is a hybrid of ingredients — and though there are many such hybrids out there, it could very well be the case that Kölsch is the best of them. It receives ale yeast fermentation but then wraps things up with a colder-temperature lager-style finish.

Far from being a compromise, Kölsch somehow manages to combine the best aspects of both. They are light and crisp and around the 5% ABV mark. They are supremely sippable and chuggable. They are like a pale ale without excessive hoppiness. They are ever-so-lightly fruity. They’re perfect for warm weather and just fine for any other type of weather.

Find Kölsch beer at Drizly

Drizly is your go-to source for at-home deliveries of the finest alcohol on the planet. Of course, this includes Kölsch. Browse our virtual shelves to find the deepest of the deep cuts, the finest of the Rhine, the dearest of the beer. We’ll have it to you in under an hour.