Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Part 8a - Köln & the history of Kölsch

After our day in Düsseldorf, we drove half an hour to what would turn out to be my second-favorite city on the trip, right after Prague. Köln was beautiful and the architecture interesting.  And the brewing history there is just about as fascinating. Probably most notable is that the Köln brewers have organized in various forms for over 700 years as a way to protect their industry from governmental interference, black-market brewers (those damn homebrewers!), and external competition.

Kölsch wasn't a style until recently; it's a relatively new style whose form as we know it today is less than 100 years old. It wasn't even a prominent style in the city until after WWII. Its predecessors, though, have an interesting history. Gruit (beer bittered with herbs) was the prominent style in Köln up through the 1400s. A heavier, maltier beer bittered with hops called "keutebier" from the north started gaining popularity around that time, but the Köln breweries disallowed production of this style as a way to protect their products. At the same time, taxation on beer was based on the strength of the beer and new taxes on hops were introduced; this heavy taxation solidified Köln brewery resistance against brewing keutebier. In 1495, however, brewing gruit became illegal and breweries turned to making a lighter version of the popular keutebier to stay in business while avoiding high taxation.
Köln cathedral at night

In the 1800s, when the indirect heated kiln was invented and maltsters were able to kiln malt at high temperatures without heavily roasting or smoking the grains, brewers started making a pale, hoppy, unfiltered pale ale called "wiess" ("veess"... rhymes with "fleece"). Filtered, they called it Kölsch. And a style was born.

Fast forward through French occupation and their dissolution of the brewers' guilds, two world wars, the destruction of several of Köln's breweries, commercial competition, the loss of most of the city's brewers, quickly-expanding love for Pilsners across Germany and Europe, and you have a pretty big threat to Köln's identifying brew. Rebuilding Köln's brewing culture took a few decades, but included the emergence of the Association of Köln Breweries and the Köln Brewers Corporation. In 1986, the Kölsch Konvention declared Kölsch the official beer of Köln and protected it under an appellation. That's why you'll often see "Kölsch-style ale" (rather than "Kölsch") on beer made outside the Köln area.

So with its origins in gruit, keutebier, and unfiltered wiess, we now have Kölsch. We'll get into its modern incarnation next, and I haven't really done the style justice, but I find its history interesting. If you want to find out more, check out Eric Warner's book on the style.

And next... on to the beer itself and some of the breweries that make it.

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