I love Kölsch. Kölschy-Kölsch-Kölsch. In fact, judging by the increasing frequency with which the style is popping up across the country, most beer-drinkers do, too. Yet, despite its undeniable popularity, most consumers don't know much about what actually constitutes the German-originating hybrid.
Traditionally brewed with a unique, top-fermenting Kölsch yeast at warmer temperatures (as an ale would be), the beer is later conditioned at colder temperatures like a lager. The result is a light blonde beer -- served in a tall, cylindrical "stange" glass -- that's as clear, crisp, and clean as a lager, but possesses the fruitier notes of an ale. First brewed by Sünner in 1906, German breweries such as Reissdorf and Gaffel are still the two largest producers of the stuff, but American brewers have caught on to the beer style, and can't let go.
One of the first to popularize the style in the States is The Saint Louis Brewery, makers of Schlafly Beer. According to Ambassador Brew Stephen Hale, Schlafly has a special connection to the style: Co-founder Thomas Schlafly's wife, Ulrike, hails from Cologne, Germany; when she introduced her husband to (sadly, recently deceased) Gaffel CEO Heinrich Becker, the two beer moguls became fast friends. In the mid-'90s, Becker gave Schlafly a keg of Kölsch ("that was quite the FedEx bill," Stephen Hale assures), who began using the centuries-old yeast strain for his own take on the style.
Though the American brewery already had plenty of drinkable blonde beers available at the time, Schlafly's Kölsch bridged the gap between lager and ale. It also added something new to the mix: it was slightly fruitier than their pilsner, less wheaty than their Hefeweizen, and less assertive than their Dortumunder. And "keep in mind," Hale adds, "the climate in St. Louis for much of the year is hot and humid. So having a selection of refreshing beers to enjoy is pretty important."
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Schlafly Kölsch was, indeed, originally a seasonal release for warmer months. But when production ceased for the year, fans would insist that their beloved hybrid become available year-round. "We listened to our customers," Hale says, and Schlafly's Kölsch went on to win the Gold Medal for Best German-style Kölsch in the World Beer Cup in 2010. "I'd heard that the German beer judges were trying to figure out which of the next two beers would be silver and bronze, both of which were beers from Germany," he proudly recalls.
But just like Champagne -- a carbonated beverage officially authenticated only by its provenance -- Kölsch carries a protected geographical indication from the EU. A true Kölsch must be from Cologne, Germany; any brew modeled after the category made elsewhere must be labeled "Kölsch-style." Only thirteen breweries produce Kölsch in and around Cologne, and Hale will be the first one to make this distinction, with great respect for the German brewing tradition and heritage.
So if Kölsch has been around for over a century, why has it taken so damned long for American drinkers to finally become enamored of the style? "Because brewers have [already] brewed a lot of other things," Hale reasons. As we become more accustomed to a wider range of beer flavors and aromas, cycling through styles ranging from barrel-aged to sour, our palates have expanded and become more sensitive to subtler profiles. And now, after having explored the furthest reaches of extreme beer, brewers have come back to this delicate, balanced, and "long-ignored style," as Hale calls it.
Well, ignore no longer! Below are five other American takes on the style you should try right now:
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Kansas City, MO
There's no question about where this Kölsch-style ale comes from, with its provenance directly referred to in its name. The golden beer has a deliciously bready aroma, thanks to European pilsner malt and malted wheat (though rare, an authentic Kölsch may include up to 20% wheat in its malt bill), and a citrusy, spicy, slightly herbal flavor from all-European hops.
Formerly known as Captain's Kölsch, the first ever non-ale brewed by Captain Lawrence Brewing has -- like Schlafly's Kölsch -- since made it into the brewery's year 'round lineup. Brewed with Columbus and Crystal hops, and Canadian 2-Row & German Vienna malts, this is a truly balanced German-American hybrid, optimized for effortless sipping.
This hazy-colored hybrid of styles and nationalities is brewed with American malts, cool fermented, and finished with exotic Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. It's a subtle and subdued, light-bodied brew that's impossibly crushable and refreshing. It ain't easy to come by, but it's worth hunting down!
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The floral German hops (including Tettnang and Hallertau-Mittelfreuh) used in Karbach's Love Street give the beer an authentic edge. But the can clearly indicates it's a merely a "Kölsch-style blonde," and the hippie-dippie name and label art (honoring Houston's famed former psychedelic nightclub, Love Street Light Circus Feel Good Machine) are anything but German traditionalist. If you're an equal fan of the beer and live music, check out Karbach's first annual Love Street Music Fest on May 21st!
Mother Earth Brewmaster Josh Brewer (yup…real name) claims that the Kölsch is "hands down" his favorite beer style -- thanks, in part, to being "crisp, tangy, and light on the palate." His Endless River is no exception to the category. This grassy, slightly fruity North Carolinian brew is readily available throughout the state.
Note: Karbach Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.