History, Science, and Germany’s Kolsch Style – The Best of Both Beer Worlds?
Ales and lagers. The primary division between all beers, right? To most casual beer drinkers, one has very little to do with the other. The thought is well rooted in the various myths about the two: lagers are always light colored, light bodied, and hardly bitter at all; ales are always dark, heavy, and sipping an ale turns the unexpecting person’s face all ways of twisted as they exclaim “wow, ugh, bitter!”. Of course, these myths are just that, myths, are hardly true, and we could go through lots of beer style examples to dispel them. But that’s another article. What about a beer that has a little bit to do with both lagers and ales? What would that look like, taste like, and how does a beer actually come to straddle the line between two worlds that at least seem so far apart?
Take a little resistance to change, add a bit of newly found know how, and you end up with a style that does just this – the German Kolsch. They’re not overly easy to find but worth it if you can – especially now that summer’s here – they are known for their refreshing taste. To understand how the Kolsch came to be though, a little history and science is needed – as it always is with understanding better beer. Or is it better beer understanding??
Now, if you don’t already know the true difference between ales and lagers, very simply, it comes down to the two different kinds of yeasts that cause the fermentation in beer making, and the environments each works best in. As either the lager yeast or ale yeast feed on sugars within the water soaked grain that will eventually become beer (along with the hops of course), they produce two generally different tasting types of beer. However, lager yeast (or bottom fermenting yeast) works best in cooler environments, such as the caves German brewers used to store their beer, and the ale type (top fermenting) works best in warmer environments. When stored this way and allowed to work, lager yeast produces a mellower and somewhat clearer beer. Perhaps more importantly though, as German brewers began to better understand this method of fermentation and storage, one more benefit became clear – that a more consistent product came from the cold storage method. Ales were tougher to manage, from a temperature standpoint, were hard to keep bacteria out of and therefore to keep at all, and out of this knowledge, summer brewing was eventually outlawed in Bavaria. This moved German brewers more fully towards the predominant use of lager yeast, and the roughly five hundred year history of producing the golden clear lagers that the nation is now known so well for.
Here’s where a bit of rebellion sits in. Two cities in Bavaria refused to go the way of the lager yeast however, one of which being Cologne, or Köln, who not fifty years after the summer brewing ban went into effect, inacted their own ordinance – there was to be only the brewing of top fermenting beers in the city. So the use of ale yeast in Bavaria would survive, at least in a couple spots. Now throw in one more piece of the puzzle, this one courtesy of the English. At the time, even the cold stored, mellower beers that were growing in popularity by leaps and bounds were still using grain that was malted, or heated, by the use of wood fires. Again, temperature was an issue as it was hard to control steadily, and often, toasting, roasting, or burning of the grain occurred, resulting in a darker malted grain, which resulted in varying degrees of flavor at the least, and a darker, more roasted, and sometimes smoky tasting beer when one wasn’t always the intention. Enter a new level of quality control. Details of just how it happened aside, German brewers began adopting new drying techniques developed by the English which produced a more consistent, lighter colored, and more mellow (less roasted) flavored malt. The resulting paler beers would give what the English needed for their pale ales, what the Czechs needed for their famous pilsner, the Germans what they needed for the classic German lager look, but would also eventually give the brewers in Cologne the look for the beer for which the city is known for – Kolsch. A top fermented (remember, the ordinance!), but cold stored (as a lager would be done, due to the law) beer using pale malts (from the English).
The result is a beer straddling the two worlds of beer, while dispelling myths along the way. A classic Kolsch ale is light in body, refreshing, and unusually subtle – featuring a light, biscuit like toasted flavor from the pale malt, fruity ale flavors from the yeast that have been very much mellowed by the cold storage, all the while showing off a clear, golden color. It all makes for an underappreciated and perhaps somewhat difficult to find beer, but one worthy of the search. After all, you’re able to drink good beer while tasting something born of both beer worlds. It’s also timely, since it’s become known as a darn good summer thirst quencher (but with taste!).
Some noteworthy Kolsch examples are Stoudt’s Karnival Kolsch, Reissdorf Kolsch, 32/50 Kolsch from Coast Brewing in Charleston SC, and my personal favorite: Blue Mountain’s Kolsch 151 (Afton, Va).
www.coastbrewing.com www.bluemountainbrewery.com www.stoudtsbeer.com