NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Kolsch is now Style 5B in Category 5 Pale Bitter European Beer which describes German-origin beers that are pale and have an even to bitter balance with a mild to moderately strong hoppy character featuring classic German hops. They are generally bottom-fermented or are lagered to provide a smooth profile, and are well-attenuated as are most German beers.
Kolsch is a modern style of beer which commercially has only a very limited distribution. That said, it is still one of the major beer styles of the world.
The Kölsch style is a clean, crisp, and delicately balanced beer with very subtle fruit flavors and aromas, and subdued maltiness. The Kolsch Konvention simply defines the beer as a “light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear top-fermenting Vollbier.”
Kölsch is one of the few beers styles with a regional appellation, similar to the appellation d'origine contrôllée for wines in France. Only about two dozen breweries, located in Cologne and its immediate vicinity, may legally call their beers Kölsch.
Its maltiness leads to a pleasantly refreshing tang in the finish. To someone not used to the style, this beer is often mistaken for a light lager, a subtle Pilsner, or maybe a blonde ale.
The beer is not consumed in Germany in great quantities except in the region in which it is brewed in Köln (Cologne) where when you say "Ein Bier, Bitte" (One beer, please), you will by default receive a Kölsch.
It has become popular with homebrewers and brewpubs because it makes a nice substitute for the light lagers most consumers want. It is one of Germany's palest beers.
In Germany, the beer is served in a tall, narrow 6-3/4 oz. (0.2 liter) glass called a “Stange.” (which means stick, pole or rod).
Just as the British pale ale is an outgrowth of the former dark British ales, the style has ancient roots in the older, darker Altbier style. The lightly kilned malts used to make this beer didn't exist until recently, so if you were brewing an ale in the Cologne area, it was based on the dark malt style of ale known now as Altbier.
When Bavaria outlawed summer brewing, it basically became a lager-only brewing region. The fathers of Cologne however, wanted to preserve the older indigenous ale-style beers.
In 1603 they issued an ordinance that all brewers were only permitted to brew top-fermented beers. So, from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, most of the production in Cologne and neighboring Düsseldorf, was a beer called Keutebier. It was a mostly-wheat based beer similar to a Belgian Wit except without the spices.
As time passed, the wheat in Keutbier was replaced by barley and the Keutbier disappeared completely. In its place was the all barley beer now known as Kolsch.
So the modern Kolsch style was developed from both the Altbier styles of Düsseldorf, which added a little dark Munich malt, and the whitish colored wheat-based Keutebiers brewed in Cologne and surrounding areas at that time.
The breweries in Cologne created a formal association in 1948 called the Kölsch Konvention, which was established to preserve the quality and uniformity of the style and keep it from being brewed elsewhere.
To brew a Kolsch style beer, be careful that you don't leave too many fruity esters from fermentation. To keep the esters low, use a Kolsch yeast and ferment at a very cool 60°F (16°C).
In my experience using the Kolsch yeast, I found I needed a diacetyl rest to allow the yeast to clean up all the byproducts of fermentation that I didn't want in the finished beer.
You also need to allow for at least a month of cold lagering to mellow the flavors and allow the yeast to finish cleaning up the beer.
Due to its delicate flavor profile, Kolsch tends to have a relatively short shelf-life. Older examples can show some stale flavors from oxidation. Be aware of this and only send the freshest beers to competition.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the page on Kolsch from The German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.
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