A little over a month ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of judging the New York State Fair Homebrew Competition, headed up by the fine folks at the Salt City Brew Club in Syracuse, NY. Always fun as well as educational, this year the results were alittle more “special” than usual, because the Best In Show beer wasn’t a rich Barleywine, a hoppy IPA, an inky Stout, or a fruity Belgian Ale. In a contest where much of the time the big beers flex their muscles and flick the lighter beers off like a bad case of the fleas, to my delight a Kolsch took the top prize. Brewed by Michael Reda of Long Island, an excellent homebrewer who focuses on German styles and has multiple awards from competitions around the state under his belt, his Kolsch was truly a masterpiece (I was lucky enough to have judged/scored it as well). So there’s no time like the present to talk about why YOU need to give Kolsch a chance.
History of Kolsch
Much like Champagne, Kolsch is Appellation Controlled, and defined as well as fervently protected by the Kolsch–Konvention, meaning that only beers brewed in the Koln (Cologne) region of Germany may bear the name. Just as strict as the Reinheitsgebot (The German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which states that beer may only be made from water, barley, hops, and yeast), Kolsch is a top-fermenting ale brewed at higher temperatures, then cold-conditioned giving it some characteristics of a lager. The first time the term ‘Kolsch’ was used was in 1918, to give a name to a beer brewed by the Sunner Brewery originally in 1906. At the time, most of the beers people gravitated towards in Germany were bottom-fermented lagers, and Kolsch never gained much popularity. The devastation caused by World War II didn’t help matters, and it took some time for the breweries to re-establish themselves. The production of Kolsch in Cologne topped out in 1980, and since then has dipped a little, but now there are 14 breweries in and around the region producing the beer, 3 of which I have had and are more than worth seeking out.
Characteristics of Kolsch
The aroma of Kolsch is a clean, pleasant, slightly fruity one, with a low hop aroma and possibly some pils malt floating around. There may also be a small whiff of some yeasty, sulfury notes as well. They can appear very pale gold, to light gold, and many of the authentic versions are filtered to achieve a brilliant clarity. The head may or may not persist, but if it does it will be slightly sticky and be as white as white gets. When it comes to flavor, delicacy is the #1 hallmark of Kolsch. Its palate is a soft, well-rounded balance of malt and a barely noticeable fruity sweetness with a slight bitterness and a dry, slight pucker in the finish. Again, look for that little zing in the swallow, but it shouldn’t be harsh or sharp. The noble hop flavor has a wide range, with some examples having a minerally or sulfury water or yeast character that will showcase its dryness and balance, but above all this beer is meant to be smooth, crisp, and refreshing.
Kolsch Food Pairings
Being very similar to, and often mistaken for, a Pilsner or a Blonde Ale, Kolsch is very versatile with food on the lighter side of things. Salads of any kind, fish as long as it’s not too heavy or oily, and pretty much any type of shellfish find a perfect partner in Kolsch. It could easily replace a mimosa at Sunday brunch, pairing well with eggs, ham, sausages, and bacon. Monterey Jack, brick, or a similar light, nutty cheese is on point to pair with Kolsch. Next time you’re thinking of popping open a bottle of Riesling or Gewurztraminer to pair with your meal, try a fresh bottle of Kolsch and see how well it complements things.
Garrett Oliver nailed it when he said that Kolsch is “A lawnmower beer with flavor.” It is yet another beer style that sometimes seems designed for hot weather, and is too often ignored (I feel like I say that a lot). In the past I’ve always gravitated towards wheat beers as my go-to summer session beers, but Kolsch and its delicacy has truly won me over recently, and is becoming a favorite to grab out of the fridge this time of year. Cheers!
[techtags:KOLSCH, SUMMER BEERS, BEER REVIEWS]