Posts Tagged ‘german beer’

For this week’s post, I had originally intended to review a well-known local microbrewery and brewpub here in Cologne.  At the last minute though, my plans to visit the locale with a friend fell through, so I’ve been scrambling to find something to post for this week.  Therefore, I’m going to do what every good college student does when they’re up against a deadline – find something you did in the past and recycle it!

Well, it really isn’t a complete recycle job.  I’ve been a fan of the Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus for a long time.  However, I’ve only ever sampled their Pils, which is incidentally one of the finest German Pilsners out there.  Just recently though, Rothaus’s seasonal spring beer, their Märzen Export, has started showing up on store shelves.  I figured this would be a good pinch-hitter for this week’s entry.

Like so many other German breweries, Rothaus was original founded as part of a monastery.  In 1791, the abbot of St. Blasien Abbey, a certain Martin Gerbert II, established a small brewery in the upper Black Forest region of southern Germany.  In this economically challenged district, the dutiful abbot wanted his new brewery to help support development in the surrounding area.  The monastery’s brewing activities did not last long though.  In the wake of the Napoleonic invasions, the region was secularized in 1806, and ownership of the brewhouse was transferred to the Grand Duchy of Baden.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the small Rothaus brewery remained confined to this remote and picturesque country.  Through the years, the brewhouse survived revolutions, fires, depressions, and wars.  After World War I the monarchy was abolished, at which point the brewery found itself again under new management – this time the new federal state of Baden.  As a state-owned operation, the brewery didn’t make many waves in the German beer scene.  This all changed in the 1990s, when under the leadership of a former state official the brewhouse doubled its output.  Rothaus, still owned by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, enjoys a sterling reputation that extends far beyond the Black Forest.

So, what about the beer?  As part of my sampling, I was able to snag their classic Pils, their Hefeweizen, as well as their seasonal Märzen Export.  While Rothaus beers are not the kind that are going to turn a lot of heads, there is some really quality in this line up.  Let’s start with the Märzen!  This brew pours a nice deep golden color with medium, somewhat fizzy head.  Sticking your nose in the glass, you get an aroma that is sweet malts with a particularly fruity emphasis.  The taste is mostly the corresponding sweetness including some nice fruity notes, particularly grape. The hop flavors are grassy but subdued with very little bitterness.  All in all, it’s a nice representative of the Märzen.

From the bottom-fermented, we move now to the ale arena and Rothaus’s take on the Hefeweizen.  The appearance on this sucker is a relatively clear orange color with some sediment and a huge, creamy head.  The nose is dominated by the Weizen notes – banana, clove, and some floral elements with a flavor profile that is heavy on the banana on the front end.  In contrast, there is a light, herbal hop bitterness that moved the beer into a crisp finish.  The palate was the most disappoint part of this beer.  The mouthfeel was pretty watery, especially for a Weizen, with a distracting fizzy carbonation.  The brew had some amazing flavors but couldn’t quite deliver on the palate.  Regardless, it was a pretty delightful Weizen.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know that I’m on an ongoing search for well crafted German Pilsners.  Rothaus’s version is one of my favorite brews in this style.  The beer has all of the characteristics of a great Pils.  There’s the classic clear, golden appearance along with the sweet bread and malt aromas.  The taste is sweet with the bread and slight floral elements coming through.  But, there’s also that crisp grassy hop flavor that balances the sweetness very well.  This is definitely the kind of beer that you want to keep stocked in your frig.

I’m a sucker for breweries that have not only quality beer but a long history.  After over 200 years of brewing great beers, Rothaus has proven that they’ve got the stuff.  Although these brews aren’t super flashy, they are definitely quality.  In a country that is slowly loosing its grip of its brewing reputation, Rothaus is steadfast holding the line of good brewing craftmanship.


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The good times keep on rolling in beerland.  I’m in the process of researching a very unique beer locale in my adopted home of Cologne.  On top of that, my family and I are preparing for our first trip back to the States since we moved to Germany a year and a half ago.  Needless to say, my plate is pretty full.  What a perfect time for a new Mash Tun!  This edition explores some beer geek terminology as well as a tasting from a rather famous Munich brauhaus.

The Animator
One of the most storied breweries in the Munich beer pantheon is the Hacker-Pschorr Brauhaus.  This renowned brewer can trace its history all the way back to 1417 when the Hacker brewhouse was founded in Munich.  For several centuries, the two brewing families of Hacker and Pschorr remained distinct entities although they were related through intermarriage.  After surviving world wars, economic crises, and the ever turbulent changes in the beer market, the two houses finally merged in 1972.

I’ve been able to sample a few selections from this famous Munich establishment recently including their Münchener Hell and Sternweisse wheat beer.  The other day though I came across their Animator Doppelbock in the store, so I decided I had to do a write-up about this one.  Their take on the Doppelbock is one of their best rated brews, which meant I had some high expectations going in.

Out of the 500ml bugel bottle the beer poured a reddish-brown, hazy color with only a little off-white head.  The aroma was grainy with some fruitiness and hints of caramel.  The taste was mostly those malted grains with a corresponding sweetness that included some slight hints of fruit (perhaps peach?).  The most disappointing aspect of this beer, in my opinion, was how it sat on the palate.  For a Doppelbock, it seemed a little too watery and light.  Along with very weak carbonation, the mouthfeel didn’t leave much to be desired.  So, on the whole it was a pretty average Doppelbock – certainly enjoyable, but not nearly what I was hoping for from a brewery with such a reputation.

Not Quite NA Beer
I’ve been exploring the vast universe of beer now for about six months.  In that time, I’ve learned that there is a very specialized vocabulary when you’re talking about beer.  Whether it’s phenolic or a growler, if you’re going to be a beer geek, you gotta learn the language.  One such phrase that particularly interested me lately was the term “session beer”.  Usually, you find it a sentence like:  “Wow!  I’ve just downed 4 pints and I’m not totally wasted.  This would make a great session beer!”

BeerAdvocate defines a session beer as “any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.”  The goal of a good session beer is that it permits the drinker to indulge in multiple glasses without the messy consequences of intoxication.  Apparently, the term is rooted in blue collar England where factory workers were only allowed a certain period (or “session”) in between shifts where they were allowed to drink.  Therefore, they would seek out particular beers that could quench their thirst without leaving them shnookered when they returned to their jobs.

From the craft beer perspective, a good session beer needs to be light on the ABV but still meeting a high standard of quality and drinkability – meaning Miller Lite need not apply.  To this point, I’m not sure how many true session beers I’ve come across.  Typically, the high-octane brews are the ones that get the most attention in the craft beer world.  But, the next time I’m at the brew pub with friends, I’ll know what to look for.

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There’s a nasty rumor that has been circulating throughout North America for some time.  Astonishingly, certain misinformed people (I’m looking at you, Labatt) have claimed for awhile that ice beer was invented in Canada.  It seems that anything associated with cold, freezing, or ice can nowadays be pinned on the Great White North.  But, how did this particular scuttlebutt come to be?

To find out, let’s turn back the clock to that magical time known as 1993.  Those were heady days, my friend.  The Canadiens were engraving their names on Lord Stanley’s Mug for the last time.  BKS and Don Cherry were making beautiful music together.  And, a Prime Minister was single-handedly ruining her own political party.  It was also the year of the infamous Ice Beer Wars. In the spring of that year, the Canadian beer manufacturer, Labatt, announced that they had “invented” a process which could increase the body and alcohol content of their beer through partially freezing it.  Labatt Ice was born.  Not to be outdone, Labatt’s main Canadian rival, Molson, releases their own version of ice beer sparking a massive marketing war between the two brewers.

I’m sure any German at the time would have viewed this conflict with a good deal of incredulity.  To this day, Labatt claims to have the original patent to the ice beer process despite the fact that Germans have been utilizing the method for 150 years.  Known in Germany as Eisbock, maximizing flavor and alcohol levels through freezing is, in fact, nothing new on the other side of the Atlantic.

The process involved in creating both Eisbock and the Canadian version is essentially identical.  By cooling beer to just below freezing, you separate out a large portion of water from the alcohol, which has a lower freezing point.  You then skim off the ice crystals from the brew leaving behind a beer that is twice as potent as the original.  The major difference between the two is that typical North American ice beers usually have water added back into the beer in order to keep alcohol levels right around 5 to 6% as opposed to the 12 to 15% found in Eisbocks.

The other significant difference is, of course, that Eisbock has been around for over a century longer than Labatt Ice.  The story of the very first Eisbock is surrounded in myth and mystery.  According to the legend, the discovery of Eisbock was not the work of some ingenious brewer but, rather, a stroke of exceedingly good luck.  It all went down in the region of Kulmbach in upper Franconia in the mid-19th century.  During one particularly harsh winter, a lowly brewers apprentice was finishing up a day of grueling work at his master’s brewery.  Instead of rolling kegs of recently brewed Doppelbock from the courtyard to the cellar, the exhausted apprentice decided to knock off early leaving several barrels of the brew outside overnight.  The next morning, the head brewer was furious when he discovered the partially frozen beer left out by his underling.  As punishment, he forced the apprentice to break off the ice and drink the syrupy residue that remained in the barrels.  Far from being punishment, the dark brown, ulta-malty brew turned out to be a landmark development.

It’s unclear how much of this story is purely fictional.  In any case, the accidental discovery soon created a stir throughout Germany making Eisbock an instant classic.  Nowadays, many Bavarian brewers have taken the accident out of the process and have added Eisbocks to their already prodigious offerings.  The original Kulmbacher brewery to which this legend is linked continues to offer their version of Eisbock.  They are one among many that make the brewing of this beer a seasonal event.  But, perhaps the most unusual version in the Eisbock style comes from the wheat beer brewer G. Schneider & Sohn.  Unlike most other Eisbocks, which are made from Doppelbocks, Schneider’s variant is instead a Weizen giving the beer a unique character.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love Schneider’s Aventinus Weizenbock.  So, when I found out that their Eisbock was essentially a concentrated version of the Aventinus, I knew I had to get my hands on this one.  It turned out that Schneider’s offering was one of the few Eisbocks that I was able to find where I’m at.  At any rate, this puppy would definitely make a superb introduction to the Eisbock style.

So, what about the beer?  This delicious brew pours a deep brown, almost black color with effervescent off-white head.  The aroma, which is rich with dried fruits, yeast, and bread, hits the nose immediately.  The taste is huge in dried fruits, plum, raisin with typical Weizen banana and a big cereal malt flavor.  It’s probably an overstatement to call this beer syrup-like, but it is definitely full-bodied giving way to a hefty malt aftertaste.

Phew!  Is it just the room or is my head spinning?  It goes without saying that the alcohol content of this beer is a significant feature.  With 12% ABV, you’d think that it would dominate the flavor.  Although you get a strong rummy taste with the Aventinus Eisbock, it isn’t overpowering.  In fact, the warming alcohol taste balance well with the huge malt character making the beer very drinkable.  You definitely want to take it slow though.  This sucker will mess you up quick.

I suppose that Labatt and Molson can be excused for their claims to originality.  What gets me though is the overreaching boast of ice beer’s potency.  In comparison, Aventinus Eisbock might as well be Absinthe.  Regardless, the likes of Labatt Ice in no way rob the German variety of ice brewing from its authenticity and ingenuity.  Brewers such as Kulmbacher and Schneider’s will continue to produce the world’s best and truly original ice beer.

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Today I received a new shipment of beer from the Bierzwerg!  So, I’m really looking forward to some of the posts that I have planned in the coming weeks.  It also means that I have a lot of beer to drink as well.  But, before I get into the new batch, I thought I’d throw out another Mash Tun.  This post deals with a curious sign in my neighborhood as well as two classic brews that I recently sampled.

Star of Brewing
Just down the street from our apartment, there is a traditional Kölsch tavern called Em Golde Kappes.  With a history going back to the 1910s, this brewhouse is a fixture in the cultural of my neighborhood in Cologne.  Along with Kölsch and great bratwurst, this biergarten has some very interesting symbols, images, and emblems that harken back to the city’s brewing history.  One such symbol is hanging above the main entrance in front of the brewhouse.  Suspended from an awning above the door, there is a large gilded cabbage (Em Golde Kappes means “At the Golden Cabbage”) above which is, what appears to be, the Star of David.

Ever since we moved into this neighborhood, I have wondered what the origins were of this curious symbol.  What, if anything, does a Kölsch tavern have to do with Judaism?  I decided recently to do a little research surrounding this symbol, through which I found out that it has nothing to do with the Jewish Star of David at all.

It turns out that the six-pointed star, or hexagram, is one of the oldest symbols of a brewing guild.  In medieval Germany, local aristocrats would issue licenses (for a small fee, of course) to brewers granting them the right to brew and serve beer.  In order to notify customers that a licensed brewer was operating, taverns would post so-called tapping signs at their entrances.  The hexagram became one of many tapping signs common throughout Germany.  For more information, I highly recommend a great article discussing the history and significance of these signs.

It’s Wheat, It’s Bock…It’s Delicious!
G. Schneider & Sohn is quickly becoming one of my favorite German breweries.  Wheat beer is the name of the game for these guys.  This exclusively wheat beer brewery, which is the oldest in Munich*, has one of the best Weizen line-ups in the world.  Awhile back I got to sampled their classic Hefeweizen, which got me curious to delve more into their beer offerings.  Much to my joy, I found in a local supermarket a few bottles of perhaps their most famous brew – the Aventinus Weizenbock.

I find the whole idea of the Weizenbock just plain awesome.  This beer definitely delivers with a beautiful marriage between the fruit and spice flavors of the Weizen and the caramel and bready goodness of the Doppelbock.  The beer pours a rich, opaque dark brown color with a light, effervescent head.  The aroma of caramel and yeast if evident but not overpowering.  With the taste you get a whole range of flavors.  The front end is dominated by the banana and clove typical for a Weissbier which is then followed by the powerful caramel and cereal flavors.  Robust and full-bodied, this brew is a real heavy hitter.  I love this beer.

*Note of Correction:  The G. Schneider & Sohn brewery is no longer located in Munich.  From 1872 to 1945, the brewery was indeed the largest and oldest wheat beer brewer in the city.  However, an Allied bombing raid in 1944 completely destroyed their production and brewing facilities.  After the war, the brewery relocated to Kelheim, Germany where it still operates today.

Ever since my trip to Belgium, I’ve had it as a goal of mine to sample every Trappist beer out there to enjoy.  The seven official Trappist brewers produce, by my count, 25 individual beers.  So far, I have gotten my mitts on 7 of them including brews from Westvleteren, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay.  This past week I added Westmalle to my list.

Specifically, I was able to sample Westmalle’s Tripel.  Now, this was my very first forray into the world of Tripels, so I was going on minimal experience in my tasting.  But, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed in this beer.  I was expecting a complex brew with a range of fruit flavors and a good malt-hop balance.  What I got instead was a one-sided flavor profile with some malt sweetness and fruit notes along with very little hop character.  I’m not sure if I got a bum batch or if it just went over my head, but I found this beer no match to either an Orval or Rochefort.  However, with the outstanding reputation that Westmalle has in the beer world, it’s very likely that I simply didn’t get it.  In any case, I’m planning more samplings in the Tripel style, so hopefully I’ll be able to get more of a grasp on it.

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The beer market in Germany today is slowly becoming a monopolistic beast.  The dominance of the top ten brewing companies in the country effectively limits the availability of smaller, regional breweries anywhere else besides their particular area.  Living in Cologne where the undisputed king of beer is Kölsch makes it even more difficult to acquire brews from other parts of the country.  Because of this limitation, every time I make a trip to another area of Germany, I try to find a good Getränkemarkt in order to pick up a few bottles of the local speciality.

Last month, while my parents were visiting us from the States, I took a day trip with my father up to Lower Saxony to check out my family’s ancestral castle (yeah, that’s right…we have a castle).  Now, Lower Saxony isn’t known nowadays for its beer.  In fact, outside of Bavaria, Franconia, and few other isolated pockets, the German beer landscape is surprisingly dull and monochromatic.  But, there is one brewery in Lower Saxony that has a good reputation, a rich history, and the beer to back them up – I’m talking about the Einbecker Brauhaus.

This modest regional brewery has a rather outrageous boast.  On the back of each of bottle they claim that the sleepy town of Einbeck is the home of Bockbier.  Their official slogan reinforces this boast reading “Without Einbeck there would be no Bockbier” (Ohne Einbeck gäb’s kein Bockbier).  In light of Bavaria’s well-known association with Bock, especially the delectable Doppelbock, such a claim seems a little far-fetched.  But, in actuality, the lineage of the beer we today call Bockbier can be traced to this small community.

The area that is today the federal state of Lower Saxony was not always a beer wasteland.  Long before Oktoberfest and the Reinheitsgebot, the region extending inland from the North Sea was the center of the brewing world.  Varieties like Hamburg’s wheat beer or Mumme from the city of Braunschweig, known throughout the Western world, were exported far and wide.  Much like Belgium today, every town had their own unique style of brewing.

Einbeck brewing at the time was actually a collaborative effort of almost 100 breweries in the city who were organized into a powerful guild which made it the most significant economic force in the region.  Fortune smiled on this small town in two ways that helped propel it to such prominence.  In 1368, the small town of Einbeck entered the Hanseatic League.  Membership into this powerful trading bloc guaranteed that Einbeck’s most important commodity became a household item by the 16th century.

On top of that, Einbeck was located in a region known for hop cultivation.  At a time when hops were replacing spices as the primary preservative in beer, Einbeck found itself uniquely situated.  The intense hop profile in Einbeck beer made it easier to preserve and therefore able to be exported great distances.  By the 16th century, Einbeck’s beer could be found as far as Jerusalem.

The Einbecker art had one particularly interesting patron.  Martin Luther was known to be a big fan of beer.  He once jokingly wrote that, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”  It is said that on the evening of Martin Luther’s fateful meeting at the Diet of Worms, he received a special gift from the Duke of Braunschweig – a pot of Einbecker.  Although he preferred home-brewing (apparently, his wife, Katharina von Bora, was a heckuva brew master), Luther had a special fondness for Einbecker beer (great article on Luther and beer).

The destruction of the Thirty Years War and the subsequent downfall of the Hanseatic League ensured the end of Einbeck’s dominance.  Without the powerful backing of the League, the ability of Einbeck to export its brand quickly diminished.  But, they had one more part to play in German beer history.  When Duke Maximillian I of Bavaria realized that his supply of Einbeck’s finest was running dry, he brought the city’s chief brew master, a man by the name of Elias Pichler, to Munich in 1612 in order to develop the Einbecker speciality for himself.  Within a few years, the brewhouses of the city were churning out a decent version of the Einbeck original.  The word bock is, in fact, derived from the Bavarian pronunciation of Einbeck, or Ainbocker.

While the bock name grew to be associated with Bavaria, Einbeck and her beer sunk into relative obscurity.  By the end of the 19th century, only two breweries were operating in the town having only a modest reach in the region.  In 1920, these two breweries merged to form the modern Einbecker Brauhaus that we have today.  This is not all that changed either.  The modern Einbeck brewery eventually adopted the Bavarian lager method of brewing Bock.  The original medieval version, which was probably more akin to a Belgian Abbey Ale, has been lost to history.

So, what about the beer?  Right up front, I’ll say that none of their beers are going to win any awards.  That being said, their Bock offerings are really nice brews that certainly hold their own.  Along with their Bock beers, Einbeck also brews two types of Pilsner (of which, their Premium Feinherb is decent) as well as a Dunkel lager, all of which are not really worth going into.  So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the beers that were truly noteworthy – the Bock.

In harmony with the Heller Bock style, Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Hell has the best hop profile of their Bock line up.  It pours a pleasant crystal clear, golden color with a medium, off-white head.  The aroma really stands out with this beer.  Full of herbal hops and sweet malts, it hit my nose before I even finished the pour.  The flavor profile of this beer was pretty straight forward – nice malty sweetness with notes of cereal and citrus which is balanced very well with a dry, grassy hop bitterness.  The only compliant I had with this one was that there was a little bit too much alcohol flavor for a beer clocking in at only 6.5% ABV.  Regardless, this was my favorite of the batch.

Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Dunkel is the brewery’s nod to the original Bock beer.  This brew pours a very nice dark brown color with medium head.  The nose is a little weaker than the Heller, but pleasant nonetheless with a nice roasty sweetness.  The taste is fairly sweet with a significant dose of roasted malts and flavors of cereal and caramel with only a slight floral hop character to back it up.  The medium- to full-bodied palate leaves a nice and long-lasting sweet aftertaste.

Finally, I had the pleasure of sampling Einbecker’s winter seasonal beer, the Winter-Bock, which is their sole Doppelbock offering.  With a rich, dark brown pour and a hefty nose of fruit, caramel and roasted grains, this beer has a lot in the initial presentation beckoning you to taste.  Where it counts though – the flavor – it doesn’t match up to its famed Doppelbock cousins from Bavaria.  The taste is fairly simple – almost like a amped up version of the Dunkel.  Sweet roasted malts and caramel dominate the flavor along with a slight nuttiness and grassy hop bitterness in the finishing.  This is a great beer that is exceptionally drinkable.

Like I said, these beers are probably not going to be winning any awards.  But, what they lack in complexity, they make up for in essential quality and drinkability.  They are wonderful beers in an ever-growing sea of mediocrity.  The overall quality behind their brewing combined with the rich history of the city makes Einbecker one of my favorite German breweries.

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In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some arduous research as part of an in-depth look into a renowned German brewery.  By “arduous research”, I mean drinking a lot of  beer.  It’s a tough assignment, I know.  So, I probably won’t be able to publish my next major post for another week or so.  In the meantime, I figured this would be a good opportunity to put together another Mash Tun.  This edition will include a look inside the ingredients end of the brewing process as well as a lament for the German beer industry.

For our vacation last summer, my wife and I spent a week relaxing along Lake Constance in southern Germany.  While we were out and about one afternoon, we drove past a whole bunch of farms that had these strange vines on massive wooden trellises. For the life of us, we just couldn’t figure out what they were growing on these things.  Our best guess was that it was some sort of grape-vine, but it was unlike any grape cultivation we had seen before.  For months, it remained a mystery.

Well, the mystery was solved this past week.  While browsing around on the internet, I came across this picture.  It turns out that these farms were growing hops!  The Lake Constance area is a major producer of the Tettnang variety of Noble hops.  The region exports this valuable commodity to breweries all over the world.  Because of its rich floral aromas and low bitterness, this hop is most commonly found in German Pilsners, wheat beers, and many American lagers.  These puppies are the ultimate aroma hops producing a refined, flowery aromatic.

In retrospect, I’m a little bummed that we didn’t realize what we were looking at.  It would have been cool to explore a little more while we were in the area.  I found out later that there’s even a hop museum near the town of Tettnang that’s supposed to be pretty amazing.  As I grow more interested in the subtlties of the beer world, it’s seeing stuff like this that really fascinates me.

Poor German Pilsner
In recent years, the German beer scene has been in decline.  Sure, there are still amazing breweries in Germany that are making some of the world’s best beers.  But, for the most part, the trend in Germany since the 1990s has been consolidation with an accompanying decrease in quality.  Most major German brewers have abandoned brewing starkbier in favor of flavored products such as lemon beer (Radler) or the awful Cola-beer mix.  You can’t blame them though.  They are simply following their market research which says that their most important consumer – young people – are moving away from traditional beers to sweetened varieties.

No other style has taken more of a beating than the Classic German Pilsner.  This once proud tradition was the unquestioned conqueror of the entire beer world.  However, the unfortunate consequence of this dominance has been a gradual decline in the overall quality of Pilsners that are produced.  Most German Pilsners barely fit the traditional characteristics of the style being mostly generic, pale lagers.

A few months back, I set out to find  brewers in Germany who were still brewing quality German Pilsners.  I sampled most of the national brands like Warsteiner, Bitburger, Radeberger, and Krombacher as well as some regional varieties.  Most of the national producers – beers we normally associate with German imports in the States – were rather disappointing.  However, among all of the weak, watered-down Pilsners, a few national brands stood out as brews that were upholding the Pilsner tradition.  I specifically enjoyed the offerings from Jever and Flensburger both of which had a really nice malt character balanced by a light but fine herbal hoppiness.  Despite these two decent showings, the real German Pilsner is nowadays found among the local and regional companies – breweries like Rothaus, Schwelmer, and Waldhaus.  It has given me impetus to continue my search for authentic examples of this much-maligned style.

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On October 5, 1842, beer history was made.  The brewer magnates of the small Czech city of Plzen gathered around a cask for a sampling of what would become a beer revolution.  On this day, the Pilsner was born.  This straw-colored, amazingly clear lager was something beer lovers of the time had never seen before.  Although lagering and bottom-fermented brewing methods had been introduced in Bavarian centuries before, this new brewing art proved to be a sensation compared to the heavy, complex ales and cloudy, dark lagers of the time.  The new art created such a stir that within years it had spread all across Europe.  With the invention of refrigeration making the lagering process easier, the revolution was complete.  Today, over 90% of all beer produced in the world is the Pilsner style.

One unfortunate consequence of Pilsner’s conquest was the rapid decline of regional varieties of beer production.  Local styles were quickly displaced by the exploding popularity of the Pilsner.  In fact, by the turn of the 20th century, you would have been hard pressed to find any sort of commercial ale production in Germany.  The absolute conquest of the pale lager is quite astonishing.

Well, there was at least one area of Germany where the Pilsner onslaught in the end did not prevail.  In the lower Rhineland region of the country, a persevering commitment to the ale brewing of old won out.  In Düsseldorf, this old style, bitter brown ale is known as Altbier, which literally means “old beer”.  A few kilometers south of Düsseldorf in Cologne, Germany an even more unique ale tradition now holds sway – Kölsch.

Now, I am not a beer expert.  However, if there’s one area of beer knowledge that I’m familiar with, it’s Kölsch.  This is mainly due to having lived a significant chunk of my adult life in the city of Cologne, and the first type of beer that I drank on a regular basis was the city’s own brew, Kölsch.  I love the city, its people, and its beer

The word Kölsch does not simply refer to the fermented beverage.  Kölsch is actually a language, a culture, and an attitude.  Contained within the city of Cologne and it’s outskirts, Kölsch is an island of unique cultural expression that has no parallel in the rest of Germany.  In contrast to the stoic and emotionless stereotypes of German people, Kölsch is laid back, tolerant, and boisterous – so much so that many Germans call Cologne the Italy of the north.  The people of Cologne love life, and they express that love every day in their openness to all that the world has to offer.  The ultimate expression of this  is the local Kölsch dialect that is still spoken by a large number of native Kölner.  It is said around here that Kölsch is the only language that you can also drink!  The tongue is so exceptional that many times native Germans from other parts of the country are unable to understand it.

Above all, Kölsch is egalitarian.  All of the Kölsch brewers in the city long ago agreed to refrain from using such marketing phrases as “premium” or “limited” in their advertising.  Cologne was also one of the first cities in Germany where it was social acceptable for women to drink beer along side of men.  Karl Marx once remarked that his socialist revolution would never succeed in Cologne because all of the factory owners went to the same pubs as the workers.

With all of this culture and history surrounding Kölsch, it was surprising for me to learn that Kölsch beer as we know it today was a relatively recent development.  Cologne and its environs actually were, like the rest of Europe, lager territory for a long time.  The present Kölsch style didn’t emerge until around 1900, and it didn’t achieve the market dominance it enjoys presently until the 1960s.  But, since that time Kölsch beer has been synonymous with the vibrant culture of its native city.

So, what about the beer?  The brew has a rather narrow profile which makes differences between the various individual brewers difficult to discern sometimes.  By definition, Kölsch is a top-fermented ale that is lagered or conditioned at cold temperatures.  It is light yellow or straw-colored with a light-bodied crispness.  The taste is generally sweet with a medium hop flavor and low bitterness.  Notes of wheat and a fruity subtlty is frequently evident as well.  It is a refreshing beer that tastes amazing on a warm summer afternoon.

Like Champagne, Kölsch is actually an Appellation Controlée meaning only brewers producing in the city of Cologne (or the region around) may legally bear the designation Kölsch.  This arrangement was solidified in the Kölsch Convention, which lays out specific guidelines and protections for the 24 brewers producing Kölsch.  This makes sampling the best of the style particularly easy for one who lives in Cologne, which is exactly what I decided to do.

As I mentioned, the profile of Kölsch is pretty narrow, which means that the actual difference between the various brands of the beer is minor.  So, in an effort to avoid a long-winded rundown of each individual Kölsch, I figured I would present a few of my Kölsch awards based on my tasting of 13 different brewers.  Without further ado, my first award is:

LSB’s Yum-Yum Award – These are the best of the best.  If you ever find yourself in Cologne, these Kölsch are a must  have.  This honor goes to two outstanding brews: Mühlen Kölsch and Päffgen Kölsch.  Mühlen is the sweeter of these two, and probably has the best body and finish of any Kölsch.  Having more hop bitterness, Päffgen is the more rounded flavor-wise of the bunch.  Both are awesome.

Color Me Surprised Award – This award goes to the Kölsch that most surpassed my expectations.  Here the honor falls on Sünner Kölsch.  To be honest, I always thought that this Kölsch was the Billy Bob Thornton of the bunch – abrasive, cheap and low brow.  But, it was surprisingly very enjoyable.  What made it stand out was that it had one of the most unique flavor compositions of all the Kölsch I tried.  Along with the typical wheat and sweet malt flavors, I detected a bit of sour apple and fruity hints, which made this beer quite nice to drink.  And, I later found out that Sünner has the strongest claim to being the original Kölsch.  It was the first brewery to use the name to refer to its beer back in 1918.

Plain Jane Award – This is the award for all of those average joes – the ones that you would certainly be allowed to grace your refrigerator but they won’t necessarily make your toes curl in beer drinking enjoyment.  They are good solid Kölsch that you gladly drink on a regular basis.  And, they are Reissdorf Kölsch, Gaffel Kölsch, and Früh Kölsch.  These three dominate the largest market share of Kölsch sales in the city.  They are the brewers you see most often in the restaurants, Kneipen, and grocery stores.  While not exceptional by any means, these brews are more than merely drinkable.

I Just Couldn’t  Finish It Award – There are very few beers out there that were so weak that I couldn’t finish the bottle.  Unfortunately, there is a Kölsch that made its way on that short list.  Sadly, the award goes to Peters Kölsch.  The beer was watery and thin, and it barely had any of the distinguishing marks of Kölsch.  What was most disappointing was this beer came in a handsome 330ml beugel bottle making me think that I was in for something sophisticated.  You just can’t judge a beer by its bottle, I guess.

Well, there you have it.  The world of Kölsch neatly summarized.  If only it were so easy.  In truth, it’s a culture and a beer that I will be getting to know for many years to come.  It is the people and their history that give this brew its beautiful character, and I’m glad that I get to experience them on a daily basis.

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