Kolsch in a Stange at a Brauhaus: Tradition With Cologne’s Official Beer
Photos by John Roberts
I love the simplicity of Cologne and its native beer-drinking tradition.
No beer menu to pore over or big chalkboard featuring dozens of craft brews flavored with fruits and nuts. Cologne makes it so easy on its beer-imbibing visitors and populace. Just wander in to a brauhaus (brew house), pull up a chair and order a beer (or just sit there, and the beers will start to arrive). What you get is a Kolsch: a pale yellow, cold, crisp and delicious beer that tastes a bit like a lager.
Kolsch is unique, however. Cologne at one time had the most breweries of any city in Germany, and the local beer variety, Kolsch (meaning "of Cologne"), was so popular that city leaders found a need to protect the brew's integrity.
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In 1986, the Kolsch Convention was drawn up to ward off imitation beers crafted outside the Cologne area. The Kolsch Convention, which was signed by managers of 24 breweries, states that a beer is only Kolsch if it's brewed in the Cologne metro area, is a pale color, accented with hops, top-fermented, filtered and is between 11 percent and 14 percent sugars and solids (the good stuff; the rest is water). This standard is a nod to the 1516 German Purity Law.
OK, enough of the technical stuff and history. What we're left with when we visit Cologne is a smooth-drinking beer, enjoyed in rowdy beer halls. I'm telling you, you can't beat settling in after a day of touring the city, exploring the vibrant waterfront along the Rhine River and poking around the massive and historic Cologne Cathedral (the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe).
You're soaking in the culture of Cologne when you spend time in its brew halls. There are no TVs with sports playing. No TVs at all, in fact. Just a lively din of conversation. Your Kolsch beers are delivered by Kobes, who are rough-and-tumble sorts of men. They wear blue aprons, white shirts and ties and put on an amazing number of miles whirling about the brauhaus, nimbly carrying carousels full of Stanges.
Ah, the Stange. These are your Kolsch conveyances. We typically think of German beer halls and associate them with enormous steins. The Stange, however, is a thin, tall glass of about 7 ounces and specifically designed for Kolsch. The glass is so small because Kolsch gets flat quickly and is best when enjoyed cold.
So, as you might imagine, those Stange can be emptied quickly. And with an alcohol content around 5 percent, you'll be feeling good in no time. Once you settle in at a brauhaus, the Kobes will keep the Kolsch coming (at about 1.75 euros per glass). If your glass is empty, it will be replaced without you asking. If you need a break or decide that you're at your limit, you place your drink coaster over your glass. The Kobes also use that coaster to keep a running tally of your drink total, using a pencil or pen to track your brews. Once you get the hang of it, you'll relish the fact that you're participating in a fun tradition, dating back centuries.
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Each brauhaus will serve its own variety of Kolsch, and you can find Kolsch at regular pubs, alongside a traditional array of beer flavors, too. But to truly get a feel of Cologne, you need to try the real deal how it was meant to be enjoyed. Prost!
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