The Struggle Between Top- And Bottom-Fermented Beer In Cologne

This was supposed to be an article about Wiess, the legendary white beer predecessor of Kölsch. In a discussion with my friend Ben a few months ago we came to the topic of how little is actually known about Wiess and its history. So I tried my hands at researching it, and couldn’t really find anything through my usual sources. My next step was to go the Schultze-Bernd library at VLB Berlin, a vast collection of historic material about beer and brewing, curated by Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwesens (GGB; lit. “Society for the History of Brewing”). I got to talk with their librarian, and she told me that she had done some research herself, but wasn’t really able to find much. I nevertheless tried to see what I could find. I didn’t find out much, either, but instead, I was able to dig up some interesting details about the history of brewing in Cologne during the 19th and early 20th century, including the struggle between top- and bottom-fermented beers in the city.

When the guilds were disbanded in Cologne in 1798 and the occupying French introduced freedom of trade, breweries in the city started exploding, from 52 in 1794 to 128 breweries in 1828. The city also grew massively, and the conflict from before the freedom of trade of outside brewers trying to sell their beer in Cologne was less noticeable as the demand in beer increased massively, as well. And while outside breweries were seen as a nuisance in the 1830s, they were of little significance: in 1839, only 2190 hl of Bavarian beer were imported into the city, from places like Bamberg, Kulmbach and Würzburg.

The first attempt of brewing bottom-fermented beer in Cologne was conducted in 1831 by a Bavarian Jewish brewer named Rothschild. The brewery failed, though, and was turned into a sugar factory only 6 years later. The second bottom-fermenting brewery was owned by a brewer called Ehemann, and formed the foundation for the later Adler brewery. In total, bottom-fermenting only grew slowly in these times, with two breweries in 1850, and four in 1869.

A major issue for them was to build reliably cool lagering cellars. Already the top-fermenting breweries had similar issues. To keep the cool air somewhat in, beer cellars were only opened during the night. Some of the beer still got sour. When it was an early stage of souring, it actually was a popular drink, and got sold under the name Steckenalt. Beer that got too sour was unrecoverable, and sometimes had to be poured out, causing substantial losses to some brewers.

Proper ice cellars only started being built in the 1850s, and in winters with very little ice, ice was brought to Cologne from as far as Norway.

From 1870 to 1900, the beer market was consolidated, and the number of breweries fell from 135 to just 68. This was due to technological improvements in beer brewing, giving an advantage to the more mechanized and automated breweries and those who could produce their own ice through the use of artificial refrigeration. Bottom-fermented beers were so successful that even some of the largest top-fermenting breweries in Cologne switched to bottom-fermentation. For some time it looked like top fermentation in Cologne was doomed.

Interestingly, the smaller brewers managed to overcome their crisis by introducing some automation and refrigeration on a smaller scale, while the growth of bottom fermentation stopped around 1900, and large breweries now faced the issue that their breweries were oversized for the production amounts, causing increased production costs.

This actually gave the small top-fermenting breweries a slight advantage: they managed to slightly cool their cellars by putting ice in containers hanging down from the ceiling, producing the perfect conditions to store top-fermented beers. Through that, they got rid of much of the dangers of beer spoilage, could brew weaker beers even during the summer (that otherwise would have spoilt), had a shorter turnaround time on their beers (virtually no lagering), and were able to achieve a more consistent quality.

Beer taxation was reformed in the early 20th century, and that had some impact on brewing in Cologne as well: the brewing tax law of 1906 introduced consistent beer taxation for all of North Germany. It contained some provisions that were helpful to the small breweries of Cologne, in particular a progressive tax based on the amount of malt used by the brewery. The law also introduced a prohibition of “malt surrogates” (such as unmalted grains, sugar or other starch sources) for bottom-fermented beers. Suddenly, the large bottom-fermenting breweries couldn’t use some of their classic ingredients like rice, maize and sugar, which at the time were cheaper than malted barley. One local beer type in particular, Knuppbier, a bottom-fermented beer sweetened with sugar, couldn’t be brewed the same way and had to be switched to top fermentation, so some of the breweries had to set up separate top-fermenting brewing departments just for that beer type.

World War I changed everything again and brewing ingredients were strictly rationed. The malt surrogate prohibition for bottom-fermented beers was still in effect, while for top-fermented beers, artificial sweeteners, food colouring and non-beer-derived CO2 for carbonation were allowed. The restrictions were tightened several times which made brewing even weak beers entirely unprofitable, so several small breweries ceased operations.

The detrimental effect on top fermentation in Cologne was noticeable after the war: while in 1913, 41% of all the beer brewed in Cologne was still top-fermented, that share had dropped to just 6.7% in 1922. Of 53 top-fermenting breweries before the war, 29 had shut down after the war, while 4 had switched to bottom fermentation. The main reason why not more of these small breweries folded was often the direct connection of the brewery with a brewery tap, a pub of sorts that only sold that brewery’s beer as well as food, of course with the idea that people would drink even more if they had something to eat with it. These pubs were often set up to look rustic, which combined as their status as small Hausbrauerei gave it a certain charm that attracted the people of Cologne.

Of course, credit where credit is due: this article is mostly based on the PhD thesis of Hans Trinius at the University of Cologne, written in 1924. Not only does it give quite detailed insight into the brewing industry and its ups and downs from the 19th century up to ~1922 (it also contains lots and lots of statistics related to production, import&export, taxation, etc.), it also very obviously influenced a number of other books and publication surrounding the topic of beer and Cologne.

3 thoughts on “The Struggle Between Top- And Bottom-Fermented Beer In Cologne”

  1. Thanks for the article Andreas! I haven’t read too much about brewing history in Köln, but I’m curious about why they kept top fermenting the beer, why they resisted the trends. And also, I imagine that before Kölsch, they brewed all sorts of beers. Prost!

  2. Did you find any mention of the pale Dortmund Lagerbier making a splash in Cologne? And what kind of Lagerbier/bottom-fermented beers where brewed during its short occurence?

    Is it an ~accurate assumption to say that 100+ year old breweries/congolomerates (outside Franconia) fall in two categories.
    1) ‘Hausbrauereien’ with large venues driving considerable beer demand (possibility with a supporting leg in local distribution) and
    2) breweries of scale having undergone several mergers to grow to serve large metropolitan areas, states or even distribute nationally?

    It seems this were the two model offering enough financial and production flexibility to weather the changes of the 20th century. Would love to see a bit more about the role long family ownership/leadership in breweries has played – most which is written are hagiography-like accounts.

    Thanks for the post, Andreas!

    1. No specific mentions of Dortmunder Lagerbier, but some “imports” from surrounding places. Cologne has always tried to fend that off, though, and reached a point where it could fully cover its own demand. Style-wise, I couldn’t find a lot. Knuppbier was a style that at some point was bottom-fermented, and that seems to have been a strong dark beer with some additional sweetening. Other than that, no mention of particular styles, unfortunately.

      As for Hausbrauerei vs large stock companies, I’d say that up to the 19th century, the former were the norm all over Germany. In a step of modernization, the latter then took over the bulk of the business and most small breweries died out because they couldn’t afford to modernize and expand. Cologne seems to have been able to resist that, the exact reason for that I don’t exactly know, but I read the thesis that lower production costs and quicker turnarounds may have made a big difference. But the distinction into these two main categories definitely crystallized during the 19th century.

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