What Is Kölsch?

A Guide to Buying and Serving Kölsch

Früh, Gaffel und Reissdorf Kölsch Party beers

Marco Verch / Flickr.com / CC by 2.0

Kölsch (or koelsh, pronounced K'ul sh) is a German pale ale brewed in and around the city of Cologne (Köln). This top-fermented beer uses an ale yeast, noble hops, and light pilsner malt. The beer is fermented at warm temperatures to impart a fruity aspect, then spends a few weeks at colder temperatures, a method used in lagers. This duality means kölsch is often considered a hybrid beer. The cold temperatures give kölsch a crisp, dry quality while the ale yeast contributes some fruity and bread-like aromas and flavors not normally found in lagers.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 4.5–5.5%
  • Bitterness: 15–30 IBU
  • Color: 3–6 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Kölsch and Pilsner?

Kölsch is an ale while pilsner is a lager, and kölsch was designed to compete with its famous German counterpart. The modern version of kölsch arose out of the brewers' needs directly after World War II as well as their desire to return to the simpler beer brewed by their predecessors. Lager brewing arrived much later in Cologne than the rest of Germany, and it wasn't until the arrival of refrigeration that the style really took hold. Using the older ale yeast with modern brewing methods, including refrigeration, the brewers developed their so-called hybrid beer style.

Though they use different yeast, the two beers look very similar, with a brilliant straw yellow to pale golden color and snowy head. Pilsners tend to have a drier profile, while kölsches are creamy and soft; both have a crisp finish attributed to the cold lagering process.

In the mid-1980s, brewers gathered at the Kölsch-Konvention to define the style. It must be a pale, top-fermented, hop-accented, and filtered ale and have a gravity between 11 and 14 degrees on the Plato scale. When Germany joined the European Union, kölsch was granted a Protected Geographical Indication that limits production to Cologne. Though this is strictly adhered to in Germany, American craft breweries have adopted kölsch.

In Germany, kölsch is brewed according to Reinheitsgebot. This 500-year-old German beer purity law states that only barley, hops, water, and yeast may be used in beer. The ale yeast is unusual for a beer that is fermented like a lager. The general style is characterized as lightly hopped with subtle fruits and malts and a crisp finish. From there, breweries add their own spin. Some produce fruitier beer, others feature peppery or herbal notes, and a few are grassy.

In the U.S., kölsch is even more varied, often stronger and hoppier, with some breweries adding wheat and other nontraditional ingredients. It's most often produced as a summer seasonal.

How to Serve Kölsch

The way that kölsch is served at a Brauhaus is almost as important as the way it is brewed. Köbessen (or köbes) are the traditionally male servers who work the pubs in Cologne. Their very specific uniforms consist of long blue linen aprons, plain white or blue shirts, and a leather money purse. They are famously direct with dry humor and only serve kölsch, so it doesn't help to ask for any other kind of beer. The beer is carried to the table in a specially made tray and the köbes automatically bring a new one as needed, marking a tick on the coaster each time. Placing the coaster on top of the glass tells the köbe that you're done.

Kölsch is served in a very specific glass, called a stange (meaning "rod" or "stick"). It's tall and narrow and, much like a pilsner glass, is designed to show off the beer's clarity. The glass holds just 200 milliliters (about 7 ounces) because kölsch is best served chilled (38 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) and fresh for the maximum sparkle. With these small servings, there is no opportunity for a warm, stale beer when drinking kölsch.

Food Pairings

The agreeable nature of kölsch means that it will get along well with many foods. The real challenge with this style is to pick a dish that won't overwhelm it. Simple foods like nutty cheese, German sausage, and bratwurst with sauerkraut make great companions for the German ale.

Best Brands

For an authentic taste of kölsch, German brews are the best choice. Though distribution is limited outside of Germany, they are available. American-brewed kölsch is rather easy to find and a few breweries are particularly noted for the style. They are often labeled "German-style kölsch" or "kölsch-style ale" as an acknowledgment that they're not German-brewed.

  • Boulevard Brewing (Missouri)
  • Double Mountain (Oregon)
  • Früh
  • Gaffel
  • Malzmühle
  • Päffgen (or Pfaffen)
  • Reissdorf
  • Saint Arnold Lawnmower (Texas)
  • Sion