Kölsch, also written Koelsch, is a local beer speciality brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is a clear beer with a bright straw-yellow hue, and it has a prominent, but not extreme,hoppiness. It is less bitter than the standard German lager beer, Pilsner. Furthermore, Kölsch is top-fermented at a relatively warm temperature (13 to 21°C, or 55 to 70°F) and then cold-conditioned, or lagered. This manner of fermentation links Kölsch with some other beer styles of central northern Europe, such as the Altbiers of northern Germany and the Netherlands.

Kölsch is strictly defined by the Kölsch-Konvention, an agreement between the members of the Cologne Brewery Association. It is a pale, highly attenuated, hoppy, clear, top-fermenting beer with an original gravity of between 11 and 16 degrees Plato (1.044—1.065). In practice almost all Kölsch brands have a very similar gravity near the middle of this range.

Kölsch should be served at cellar temperature (about 10°C/50°F, not near freezing). It is usually served in long, thin, cylindrical 0.2 litre glasses. This glass is known as a Stange (pole), but is often derisively called a Reagenzglas (test tube), or Fingerhut (thimble). Recently though, many bars have moved to satisfy their more thirsty customers by offering larger, less traditional glasses, (0.3 L or 0.4 L) of the same shape, but connoisseurs would even drink it from smaller (0.1 L) glasses, called "Stößche" (Cologne dialect noun for a German noun "Stößchen" = little push), as the taste of Kölsch, which has no carbonic acid added, is at its best when fresh on draught. Since 1936 Kölsch has also been available in bottled form.


In the year 1396, the Brewer Gaffel signed, with 21 other Guilds, a document called the Kölner Verbundbrief, that set up a new democratic constitution of the free city, which terminated the rule of the nobles over the citizens, and held until 1796, when the army of Napoleon Bonaparteconquered Cologne. The term Kölsch was officially used for the first time in 1918 to describe the type of beer that had been brewed by the Sünner brewery since 1906. This type of beer developed from the similar, but cloudier variant Wiess (White in the Kölsch dialect). It never became particularly popular in the first half of the twentieth century, when the most popular beer was bottom-fermented, just as in the rest of Germany. Before World War II, there were over 40breweries in Cologne, but in the aftermath of the devastations wrought by the war, that number was reduced to two.

In 1946, however, many of the breweries managed to re-establish themselves. During the 1940s and 1950s Kölsch still could not match the sales of bottom-fermented beer, but beginning in the 1960s it rose in popularity and achieved hegemony in the Cologne beer market. From a production of merely 500,000 hectoliters in 1960, Cologne's beer production peaked in 1980, when 3.7 million hectoliters were produced. Due to recent increases in price and changed habits of alcohol consumption, the sale has decreased causing economic hardship for many of the traditional corner bars (Kölschkneipen) and for smaller breweries. In 2005, 2.4 million hectolitres of Kölsch were brewed.

Fourteen breweries produce Kölsch in and around Cologne, the most important ones being Früh,Erzquell (Zunft Kölsch), Gaffel, Reissdorf and Kölner Verbund; the trend is towards consolidation. Kölsch is the only beer that may not be brewed outside the Cologne region, as determined by the Kölsch convention of 1986. There is a grandfather clause for a few breweries in the larger area, for example in Bonn, that were already established as of 1986. In 1997 Kölsch became a protected designation of origin, expanding this protection to the entire EU and several countries outside the EU. Nevertheless many brands are brewed abroad on a small scale - especially in the U.S. and Japan. While the labeling of these brews as Kölsch may be legal in local law, it is certainly misleading, as Kölsch-style beers brewed outside the Cologne area are not guaranteed to use the same ingredients and brewing processes, and might therefore differ in their flavor and aroma profile. Further, they may not be compliant with the Provisional German Beer Law, the current implementation of the Reinheitsgebot.

Culture of Kölsch consumption

Kölsch stands in direct competition to Altbier, the production of which is centred around Düsseldorf. The difference between the two types is indeed technically slight, Altbier being fermented at slightly higher temperatures than Kölsch and using dark malt, harder water and far more bittering hops, resulting in a nuttier, firmer and drier taste. The rivalry between the cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf, bitter in the past but today mostly a humorous matter, is often expressed by the preference of one of these types of beer, and ordering the wrong kind in the wrong city has in fact resulted in abuse and even violence in the past, although today a couple of jokes about "immigrants" or "foreigners" is probably all that would result. Another interesting sociological point concerning Kölsch is that its consumption is deemed acceptable by women to a much greater extent than other beers in Germany, and also that it is often drunk in groups of rather mixed social standing — exclusiveness is frowned upon by the Kölsch drinking culture, and there is a deal between the breweries that no Kölsch will be sold with any extra titles like "Premium", "Special", "Extra high quality" or some such. Karl Marxonce famously remarked that his revolution could not work in Cologne, since the bosses went to the same pubs as their workers. Kölsch waiters (Köbes) in traditional pubs are allowed, and indeed expected, to speak the local dialect and to use fairly rough, unrefined language, which might include crude jokes with the customers. In keeping with serving tradition, the Köbesin such pubs will also continue to exchange empty Kölsch glasses with new ones unprompted until customers leave their glass half full or place the beermat upon the glass to signal that they no longer wish to be served.