COLOGNE, GERMANY — The name of this city leaves little doubt what it’s best known for — eau de cologne, of course. Cologne is where the toilet water with the strong, characteristic scent originated but these days it’s another intoxicating “water” that has made Koln, as the German call this city, famous worldwide.
Cologne, you see, is he home of Kölsch, the beer that is to Germany what Guinness is to Ireland. And just like Guinness, Kölsch tastes best in the city where it’s brewed best.
This city is so enamoured with its Kölsch, there’s now dozens of brauhauses — a traditional German pub — where the beer is brewed and perfected. I can attest to that first hand.
While on a river cruise, we drop anchor in Cologne and I rush off to explore three brauhauses that specialize in Kölsch. It’s a Friday night and the places are packed — the lively chatter in each is close to breaking sound barriers. Over the noise, a waiter gives me a quick history of Kölsch.
While you might think Kölsch, like everything else in Europe, is centuries old, it’s actually a relative newcomer in Germany’s beer history. Although some reports indicate that Cologne’s brewing history may have started as early as the 1100s, the official introduction of Kölsch as a style of beer didn’t happen until 1906.
Above: Being the home of the popular German brew Kölsch, Cologne is a tempting place to visit.
After World War II, though, Kölsch’s popularity rose, especially with the formation of the Kölsch Konvention, a coalition of 24 breweries that came together in 1986. They agreed that Kölsch must be brewed within the city limits of Cologne and defined the beer as “light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear, top-fermenting Vollbier.”
Kölsch was also only allowed to be brewed in accordance with the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which states that beer can only contain water, yeast, barley and hops, and its alcohol percentage must remain low, generally around 4.8 per cent.
Differences between the beers stem from how much of each ingredient a brewery uses, some winding up sweeter, some a little hoppier. But the end goal is the same.
“We like the beer to be as smooth as possible,” says Mohamed Kusserow, my tour guide and a Cologne native.
My adventure starts at Braurerei Zur Malzmühle, which dates back to 1858 and remains one of the city’s most beloved brauhauses. Fortunately, my group has snagged a table where we’re greeted by a burly waiter who looks more like a lumberjack, a stature that serves him well not only for fighting the crowds but slinging beer.
For starters, the servers — although I don’t see one woman serving that night, I’m told they have broken into this once male-dominated profession — are called köbes. Taking beer orders is easy: A simple raise of the hand indicates which of us are drinking Kölsch.
In no time, the köbe is back, carrying a round metal tray, a kranz, with 12 tall, narrow, 200-millilitre glasses called stanges. The speed at which he delivers them, usually two at a time, tapping them together as he thrusts them at us, is stunning. Even more impressive? Not one drop is spilled.
My stange doesn’t take long to empty, especially when the alcohol by volume is so low, but the small glass holds a purpose.
Above: Many brauhaus in Cologne are located in historic buildings and feature playful stained-glass windows.
“It’s the best way to ensure that the beer stays cold,” Kusserow says. And fresh, too, which is key for Kölsch. In fact, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program, Kölsch is so delicate that its character can quickly fade with age.
Here’s where the fun begins. Your köbe will automatically assume you want another beer — and another, and another, and so on — until you cover your glass with your coaster. In other words, an empty glass signals another beer (just don’t commit a party foul by turning your glass upside down to say no more, as I’m told köbes don’t take kindly to that). And yes, clinking the bottom of your drinking companion’s stange before you sip is a must.
That means pacing is key. I’m three glasses into the evening — “you could easily drink 10 of these in a night,” Kusserow says — when I pull the trigger. I put my coaster on my glass, and sure enough, the message is received. When you consider each glass of Kölsch costs just over over one euro, it’s hard to stop.
The next stop is a brauhaus that’s been around since 1883, Brauerie zum Pfaffen, and interestingly, the front entrance is the door that once was reserved for people with little honour, who were allowed to drink beer but not eat. That may explain why the front room houses only high-top tables —the restaurant is in the back — but it also features beautifully stained-glass windows, including many depicting men drinking Kölsch.
Päffgen is my final stop, and it’s a nice way to end the evening, considering the brauhaus’ location overlooking the Rhine. My group squeezes around a wooden barrel on the massive patio, one of the only spots open.
Another Kölsch? I raise my hand, and the kobe wastes no time in bringing me one. When in Rome, er, Cologne, right? http://www.germany.travel
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