History of the German Kolsch beer

As someone who is lucky enough to live in the Golden Age of beer in the US. It’s interesting to watch craft beer culture here. For example, in Germany, there are many regions. Each brewing their own distinct style of traditional beers out of a comparatively limited set of ingredients. And we’re starting to see that fragmentation here in the US.

Kolsch is a regional beer from Cologne, Germany. And like almost every German beer style it has a rich tradition. Kolsch captures the true spirit of independence as a beer in a country full of great lagers and strongly flavored ales. For more interesting history about beer check our Beer as Medicine- Beer during times of Disease.

Kolsch beer from Cologne

Kolsch stands defiantly being the only traditional pale barley ale in Germany. Even its brewing technique is unusual. The beer is warm fermented using traditional ale yeast. A very traditional start to this beer. But then is cold conditioned that gives the beer a crystal clear appearance and perfectly balanced taste. Featuring great barley malts and delicious German hops.

Such a unique brand of beer could only come from the city of Cologne. A community that weathered over a thousand years of outside invasions oppressive rulers and all-out war. Cologne is a city in the western German state and was founded as a Roman fort and trading post in the years of 38 BC. The name translates roughly to the colony.

A stainless steel tray filled with glasses of Kolsch beer on a wooden table.
Credit: https://vinepair.com/articles/10-fantastic-kolsch-beers/

The thriving trade and industry in Cologne made it the de facto capital of the Rhineland. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century it had a thriving brewing industry.

For nearly a thousand years monastic brewers controlled beer production in Cologne and turned out great traditional brew based on ales. But while the power of the church was beginning to decline in Germany. By the year 1400 new secular brewers began popping up. And they were looking for a bit of change.

Brewers Guild

In the north of Germany, a new style of ale infused with hops rather than a spice mixture was becoming popular. The secular brewers were quick to adapt to the style. Today we think of the brewers guild here in the US as much more of an advocacy and marketing group. But back in the age of limited technology and health regulations guilds acted as quality control groups. They’re responsible for maintaining the quality and reputation of beer.

Subpar beer was absolutely unacceptable to the guild in an age without health inspectors. It was much harder to cold condition beers in the warmer Rhineland region of Germany than the more cold and hilly southeast. In order to protect the reputation of quality beer in Cologne bottom-fermenting beers or using lager yeast was outlawed in 1603.

The modern city of Cologne Germany
Credit: https://www.pdxmonthly.com/eat-and-drink/2015/07/beers-stories-koelsch-fest

Kolsch becoming popular

Up until the 19th-century beers from Cologne had more in common with traditional ale beers. One invention would change all that. In 1818 the indirect heat kiln was invented and this allowed maltsters to dry and color malt in a much greater range than before. Suddenly pale malts were all the rage across Europe. And with the pilsner being first brewed around the 1840s in Bohemia. It became clear that light-colored crystal clear lager beers were the next big thing in European brewing.

Because lager beer was still illegal in Cologne the local brewers faced a bit of a problem. Luckily early refrigeration technology was becoming available. The creative brewers of Cologne started making delicious traditional Weiss beer ale. And then cold conditioned it like a lager. To avoid a centuries-old brewing law and make something fantastic. A beer that still has a strong pale malt flavor of a Weiss beer but with a clarity and lighter mouthfeel of a lager.

A glass of Kolsch beer in front of a wooden background.
Credit: https://learn.kegerator.com/kolsch/

Wars and destruction

Until the late 1800s, the word Kolsch didn’t mean a particular style of beer. It was an adjective to describe something from Cologne. By the year 1900, the new style of beer was so delicious and popular. Just as the beer was beginning to establish an identity in the rich world of German beer. The brewers of Cologne faced their greatest challenge yet.

World War I led to severe grain rationing and many brewers didn’t survive the quotas and severe taxation that followed. World War II would deal an even greater blow. Cologne being along Germany’s Western Front was leveled by bombs. it lost 90% of its population and took most of its brewery workers as soldiers. By 1946 there were only 3 breweries left standing.

A Kolsch is a light almost sun-bleached in color. It has a high degree of clarity with a medium white head. The aroma will be that of delicate fruit esters produced by the yeast with a little bit of malt in the background. the beer should have a medium-light body with a healthy bit of carbonation. It should feel crips. Kolsch is becoming a very popular style in the American craft industry. It’s often considered a summer seasonal here in the US. Cheers.

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