Tag Archives: kölsch

The Diversity of Beer, 200 Years Ago And Now

You’ve probably heard the complaint before: craft beer is becoming monotonous, it’s all about IPA, most breweries just brew hazy bois with a few fruited sours and pastry stouts sprinkled in between, and if they feel extra special, a West Coast IPA. This is usually refuted with the argument that brewers just brew what pays the bills, it’s what people want to drink, etc., which is again countered with lamentation that other beer styles are dying out (ok, a bit hyperbolic) because nobody brews them anymore.

This is not a new phenomenon.

150 to 200 years, German beer and brewing experienced a massive shift. Small breweries were previously mostly brewing relatively small amounts of beer solely for the local market using little to no automation, brewers were organized in guilds, not interested in scaling out their businesses, and sometimes even bound by local law to brew and sell their beer on a rota (Reihebrauen). Then the industrial revolution came and destroyed a lot of these structures.

In some cases it was young brewers with an entrepreneurial spirit taking over from their fathers and looking to expand and grow it using modern technologies, in others it was simply trained brewers backed by money to start entirely new brewing companies with all the latest equipment and scientific knowledge to brew excellent beer.

Bottom-fermented beer became fashionable, and due to how it was produced and stored (at cold temperatures with a yeast that increased the sulphur content of the beer, two factors contributing to a more stable beer) the beer became more suitable for export. Export in this context simply meant shipping it further than what was the common “local” area, but innovations like the railroad made it possible to ship beer quite a bit further, and with the invention of ice waggons, some breweries were even able to establish proper cool chains (a famous example for that is the Dreher brewery in Kleinschwechat near Vienna which shipped ice-chilled lager beer from their brewery to the Paris Expo 1867, one delivery took just 5 days and was kept at a constant 4°C). The beer tasted clean, fresh and properly quenched the thirst of beer drinkers.

People started craving this fashionable beer, so naturally, the market adjusted to it, beer legislation was liberalized, and more brewers had the opportunity to enter the market and brew bottom-fermented beers. At the same time, the old-time breweries where “local beer for local people” had been brewed for hundreds of years, didn’t have the money to upgrade their equipment to brew these new-fangled beer styles, or even to make smoke-free malt like the new lager breweries were doing it.

Within just a few decades, a lot of small, local breweries simply shut down because they couldn’t compete, and local beer styles (German brewing literature at the often spoke of Lokalbiere) simply went extinct because nobody wanted to drink them anymore. A lot of these beers we only know by name these days, a few have been preserved in the form of recipes, though a lot of details like how specific malts were prepared are not so well documented, leaving more questions than answers.

When we look at Germany, which beer styles are prevalent (because craft beer is really just a teeny tiny 1% segment of the whole market) and which of these beer styles are from before the industrial revolution, it becomes apparent how bleak it really is.

To the best of my knowledge, the list is really short: Berliner Weisse, Bavarian Weißbier, Altbier and Kölsch (I like to group them as Rhenish Bitter Beers or Top-Fermented Lager Beers because they are more similar than different though people from Düsseldorf and Cologne may hate me for that), Leipziger Gose, and Bamberger smoked beer, and some of them did not fare too well in the last 70, 80 years and were only just rescued from dying out.

Berliner Weisse was still brewed by a few breweries in both East and West Berlin after World War 2. The biggest shock was probably when Schultheiss stopped brewing their traditional unboiled mixed-fermented version. Berliner Kindl Weisse, a very industrial beer brewed by fermenting a low-alcohol beer normally and blending it with another batch that was just fermented with lactic acid bacteria and then sterile-filtrated, thus became the only available brand on the market. In Berlin, the style was really only rescued by a few craft brewers, such as Andreas Bogk, BrewBaker, Lemke, Schneeeule, Berliner Berg, Vagabund, and others, who specifically intended not to let this piece of beer history die out.

Bavarian Weißbier was already a niche product when it again became permitted for private Bavarian brewers to brew with wheat again, and it only survived because of a relatively small group of connoisseurs, until the 1960s when it suddenly somehow became more fashionable again and thus had its revival.

Altbier and Kölsch were not particularly popular during the interwar period, and really only regained popularity after World War 2: Kölsch as it was marketed as a genuinely local beer, appealing to the hyperlocal patriotism in Cologne, while Düsseldorfer Altbier apparently only regained popularity in the 1960s. Münstersches Altbier, another Altbier style, really only exists in the form of one brewery, Pinkus Müller.

Leipziger Gose was actually functionally extinct from the early 1960s when the last Gose brewery shut its doors until the mid-1980s, and it could only be rebrewed and revived to its original taste because the East German brewers producing it could have it taste-tested by beer drinkers who still remembered it from before the 1960s.

And finally smoked beer. Even in Bamberg, this is kind of a niche product. Of the more than 10 breweries that are still around, only two still make their own smoked malt to brew their very own smoked beer, Brauerei Heller (Schlenkerla) and Brauerei Spezial. Greifenklau stopped their own kilning operation in the early 1970s, but fortunately is still around. Nowadays, they brew some smoked beer as a seasonal product, but their owning malting and kilning operation is long gone. And Polarbär brewery, which I like to call the fourth Bamberg smoked beer brewery isn’t operational since the 1950s or so.

And yet, none of these beer styles are truly extinct or even remotely in danger of going extinct. Why? Simply put, thanks to craft beer. Starting in the US, but now really all over the world, there are countless beer nerds who truly care about these old beer types, some rebrew them at home, others brew them commercially, making these beers that were definitely at the brink of extinction better known to beer drinkers all around the world.

Yes, there is some truth that IPAs and hazies are taking over, and yes, some breweries certainly struggle with that problem, because it’s what pays the bills. “The customer is king”, and it would not make sense economically to brew a beer that would not be as popular and thus not sell as well. In the end, IPAs keep the other styles afloat, as the money earned through them gives brewers some freedom to also try out other styles. Styles that used to extremely local to just small regions of Germany have now gained worldwide fame. Even 50 years ago, this probably would have been mostly unthinkable.

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.

Interview with Franz Pozelt about Kölsch

A few days ago, I interviewed Franz Pozelt about the topic of Kölsch brewing and its history. Franz learned the trade of brewer and maltster at Sünner brewery in Cologne, is an avid homebrewer, active in the local homebrewing scene in Berlin, and running the beer and brewing group of Slow Food Berlin. So naturally, he knows a lot about Kölsch, and so I asked him to share his knowledge in an interview.

You did an apprenticeship as brewer and maltster at Sünner in Cologne. Can you tell me something about the apprenticeship?

This was a while ago, I started my apprenticeship in 1969. A few weeks ago I met someone by coincidence who, maybe about 10 years ago, maybe a bit earlier or later, also was an apprentice at Sünner. The frightening thing is, it hasn’t changed so much since then, that means, an apprentice was primarily manpower. During my apprenticeship I was mostly working in the fermentation and lager cellar, my acquaintance in kegging. At the same time Sünner also have a tradition of apprentices achieving good grades at exams. During my time, the apprenticeship respectively working in the brewery was physically very exhausting. It could well happen that you had to change from the lager cellar at 4-8 °C (the whole room was cooled, not individual tanks) to the brewhouse, removing the spent grain from the lauter tun (“Austrebern”). Austrebern means that you’d climb into the lauter tun, had to remove the remaining spent grains, and clean the lauter tun using a water hose. I don’t know how warm and wet it was in the lauter tun, but I think quite a bit over 40 °C. After that you’d have to go back to the lager cellar.

But there were also rituals that don’t exist anymore. As an apprentice your first work duty of the day was to take a sample from the lager tank (“zwickeln”). Beer from the tank was filled in a 1 liter jug, the jug including content was warmed to a pleasant drinking temperature, a bit warmer than in pubs and restaurants. After the beer has reached its drinking temperature, it was drank directly from the jug together by all attendees. As far as I can remember, this was the job with the greatest responsibility for an apprentice, the beer couldn’t be too cold or too warm, and we didn’t put a thermometer into the beer. These drinking rituals or the cold meals together on Friday afternoons were pleasant experiences that caused a feeling of togetherness. During my “Lehrzeit”, the terms “Ausbildung” and “Auszubildender” were legally only introduced in 1971, I also tried to brew beer at home, and we drank the results within the family, but it wasn’t convincing enough to try it a second time. Most of my work during the apprenticeship was cleaning lager tanks and fermentation vessels, putting up and stacking kegs, and occasionally polishing the copper vessels in the brewhouse. What have I learned? The basics of the malting and brewing process, that Germans drink a lot and make the best beer. The Belgians (North Rhine-Westphalia, as is well known, is bordering on Belgium) do absolutely terrible things, use unmalted grains and sugar, you get headaches from that. In Bavaria other beer was brewed, at that time Bavaria was still deemed as very backwards and exotic, and we had our Kölsch. I accomplished my exams, both the practical and the theoretical part, with “Good” [the second-best grade in the German school system], I just looked at my school report. If I remember correctly, I was one of the best apprentices.

Which beer styles did you brew at Sünner? What was the most popular?

We mostly brewed Kölsch, occasionally also Pils, and at that time very seldomly also Export and “Malzbier”. Kölsch was the most popular beer type, measured by the drinking rituals mentioned earlier the other beers didn’t exist. What was maybe also interesting, we mostly produced keg beer, the share of bottled beer was tiny. At that time Küppers-Kölsch (belonging to Wickühler), the market-dominating bottle beer brand, wasn’t available in kegs or only in such small amounts that I never noticed it.

You once told me that Pils was a very common beer style in Cologne. How did it get to that, and why and when did Kölsch become synonymous with beer in Cologne?

Already during my apprenticeship it was whispered to me that Kölsch didn’t use to be the main beer. I did some research on this, here are my findings and assessments.

1906, Sünner brewery released a pale top-fermented beer to the market, that started to be called Kölsch from 1918 on. Until Kölsch would become a market-dominating drink in Cologne, it took a few decades, initially it was a niche product. In the 1950’s the ratio of Pils to Kölsch was 80 : 20, today Kölsch has a market share of 90%. This development started after World War 2, and I think it’s related to a clever marketing strategy of the small to medium-sized “craftmanship” breweries. In the 1970’s there were 27 breweries in the Cologne region, one of them a large industrial brewery. The Kölsch beer style changed in the 1950’s to a less-hopped, highly attenuated, foam-stable beer. According to literature, top-fermented beers in Cologne before World War 2 were even dry-hopped. Back to the marketing strategy, the Cologne brewers understood to counter the Pils trend with a top-fermented copy, and to load the beer with regionalism. Why this local identity in Cologne plays such a big role would be a topic for a socio-cultural essay. Today there are still nine Kölsch breweries in the Cologne brewery organization, one of them, the Haus Kölscher Brautradition (Radeberger-Gruppe) which brews 11 Kölsch brands.

What constitutes a Kölsch was defined in 1985 in the Kölsch-Konvention. Do you remember whether Kölsch used to be brewed differently, or were there other deviations to what Kölsch is officially since 1985?

I wouldn’t call it different, but the taste of Kölsch has become more uniform. I remember that earlier, beginning of the 1970’s for example, Päffgen tasted somewhat more bitter and wasn’t as heavily filtered. According to the information that I’ve got, Kölsch nowadays is predominantly hopped with Perle, there is one maltster (Schill) that produces a Kölsch malt, all that contributes to the unification. The Kölsch-Konvention limited Kölsch brewing to Cologne and breweries outside Cologne that had traditionally brewed Kölsch before the Konvention has taken effect, like for example Bischof Kölsch in Hürth (1000 hectoliters/year) or Erzquell Brauerei Bilstein (100,000 hectoliters/year), and thus prevented possible copies of Kölsch through large breweries outside of Cologne. However all the upcoming brewpubs couldn’t call their Kölsch a Kölsch anymore, as it was unfiltered. Braustelle Köln (an early microbrewery, from 2001) advertises their Kölsch (which is not allowed to be a Kölsch) like that: “Helios is a Wieß, the original form of Kölsch, brewed from 100% barley malt, top-fermented and hop-accentuated.”

When homebrewers discuss Kölsch, often “Wieß” as unfiltered, cloudy beer style that is close to Kölsch is mentioned. What did it use to be in the past, respectively what is it like today, was it a niche product, or relatively common?

In the 19th century, there existed up to 100 home breweries with attached pubs in Cologne, there Wieß was drunk, a cloudy unfiltered beer with a share of wheat malt in the grist. This Wieß (in the Cologne dialect “wieß” means “white”) is considered to be the predecessor of modern Kölsch. Braustelle and Gasthausbrauerei Heller, which nowadays also offer bottled beer, brew Wieß. The assumption that it would have been the most common beer in Cologne is misguided, though. At the end of the 19th century the number of home breweries went down by a lot, and several large breweries arose which brewed bottom-fermented beer types like Bräu, Pilsener, Export, Märzen, Bockbier, Lager, Brillant and Kristall.

When you brew Kölsch at home, do you have a standard recipe, or do you vary your recipes? What does a good Kölsch recipe look like for you?

I mostly vary, as a homebrewer I’m not forced to brew a consistent product, and so I always try to optimize. The guideline for the optimization of Kölsch is to brew a beer with high drinkability that still has a character on its own. So far, I’ve always used floor-malted Weyermann Pilsner and wheat malt, sometimes also CaraHell, more recently also Vienna malt and chit malt. Regarding hops, I’ve always tried something new, like Liberty, Perle, Saaz and most recently Bramling Cross, most often in combination with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh. I brew Kölsch with WLP029 yeast. There’s also a Kölsch yeast from Wyeast, and from Schnapsbrenner you can buy a Kölsch yeast from yeast bank Weihenstephan.

Are there any other tips that you can recommend to homebrewers that want to brew Kölsch?

Bestmalz offers a Heidelberger malt and Heidelberger wheat malt with a very low color, between 2.5 and 3 EBC, I would like to try that. Both White Labs and Wyeast specify a recommended minimum temperature of 18 °C for the yeast. I wouldn’t ferment at a higher temperature than that. Fermentation temperature in Kölsch breweries is usually at 14 °C, at most 16 °C. According to an article by Dipl.Ing. Heinrich Becker, “Technologischer Werdegang des Kölsch seit 1900” on the website of the brewers organization of Cologne, pitching temperature is between 11 and 13 °C, and the racking temperature between 12 and 15 °C. The yeasts by Wyeast and White Labs are purported to be yeast from Cologne breweries, so they should be able to deal with these temperatures.