Posts Tagged ‘pilsner’

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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