It’s over 30 degrees Celsius every day of my weekend in Cologne. People walk around dazed and damp, unsure about what to do with this embarrassment of summer riches. They stumble into bars, take off their sunglasses, and look over expectantly at the barman. And every time, he responds with the same phrase. He doesn’t ask what they’d like, nor make small talk. (This is Germany, after all.) Without fail, the barman simply says, “Kölsch?”
That’s because in Cologne, there is no other beer. Crisp, light, delicious, kölsch is both the name of the local beer and the dialect of German spoken here. Some promotional materials refer to it as “The only language you can drink,” which makes sense, if only in a tourism pamphlet kind of way. Here is a postcard from Cologne: it’s a glass of kölsch with a wreath of hearts around it. That’s it. Here’s a jokey how-to guide on drinking kölsch, next to a postcard of the Rhine at night, and the Gothic cathedral, and the lovelocks on the Hohenzollern Bridge. You’ve never seen a city as in love with its own beer as Cologne, and I’m here to figure out why.
There’s been a brewery at this site for over 700 years, although you wouldn’t know that by looking at it—the original building was decimated in World War II. What the building lacks in external aesthetics it makes up with, um, quirk. There are literal wax figures of the three generations of Sion brewers in the brauhaus, in Carnival fancy dress, kept behind glass like an extremely specific museum exhibit. Hans Sion, the patriarch of the family, is considered one of the pioneers of kölsch in the city, not least because of his involvement in drawing up the Kölsch Convention. (He’s behind the one wearing a wedding dress.)
The Kölsch Convention, signed in 1986, basically boils down to this: a kölsch is a top-fermented, light-colored beer that is brewed in accordance with the German Purity Law. It’s a protected geographical indication, much like Champagne or Parma ham, and one of few German beers to enjoy such a status.
That means that, despite what some American brewers claim, it’s only a kölsch if it’s made in Cologne. The one Sion makes is well-balanced, with a surprisingly long finish that pairs particularly well with the crispy potatoes I order on the side.
Gaffel am Dom
My next stop is to visit the breweries “am Dom,” clustered around the base of the biggest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. It’s so tall that the top spires are still bathed in golden light when it’s been shady on the ground level for an hour.
With stained glass panels in the ceiling, enough seating for a few hundred people, and a bar boasting a wall full of backlit bottles, at first glance Gaffel doesn’t look that different from your average beer hall in Munich or Hamburg. But instead of the hearty beer mugs you might expect to be crashed about in this environment, here you’ll see the beer being served in dainty 200-milliliter glasses. These are called stange, and it’s the only way to serve kölsch. That’s a legal statement, not an aesthetic one. (Remember our friend, the Kölsch Convention? The original document is apparently housed in Gaffel’s basement.)
Because kölsch isn’t as heavily effervescent as other beers, these small servings keep it from going flat, or warm; but they aren’t going to do much to touch sides on a hot day. (Indeed, people say that taking longer than seven minutes to finish one is a mortal sin.) The Cologne solution is to assume that you are never satiated. Once you order your first beer, it officially becomes an opt-out system: the waiter will keep bringing you refills upon refills, marking each round with a tally-mark on your coaster, which then becomes a kind of rough bill. The only way to make them stop is to signal otherwise by putting your coaster on top of your empty glass.
So much for the history. But beer drinking is a social activity, and I’m getting a bit melancholy as I bounce from one bar to the next alone. It’s also hard to avoid the sense that, here in the old town, everyone drinking kölsch is either a tourist or over 50. Where are the youngsters? What are they drinking?
This question takes me, naturally, to Instagram, which takes me to Joode Lade. It’s a long and sticky walk out to the Belgian quarter, but I can tell I’m in the right place by the gold ram’s head on the wall, the vaguely hipster decor, and, crucially, a large, illuminated “kölsch” sign up on the wall. It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday, so for now it’s just me, the barlady, and an old guy reading his paper in the corner. She tells me, as she pours me a Gaffel, that she prefers it this way, and I agree—a quiet corner, with metal name tags marking regulars’ seats at the bar, and a slow fan turning. Much more my speed than the Friday nights when, as Instagram is keen to prove, the kölsch-drinking youngsters spill out onto the street.
In the south of Germany, where I live, the Sabbath reigns supreme: you’ll struggle to buy toilet paper on a Sunday. Things are different here, but not by much. Still, the bigger breweries remain open on Sundays, Päffgen among them. As it turns out, this is a good thing: rather than fighting through the infamous “swimming pool” that forms on a Friday or Saturday, where the back courtyard fills up to capacity, visiting on a Sunday means you can avoid the crowds, and enjoy having some space around your elbows.
It’s much too swampy to eat hot food, so I order the halve Hahn, or “half chicken,” which is nothing of the sort. What arrives is a rye roll, with a big hunk of cheese, and raw onions. Despite looking like a bit like prison food, the earthy flavors go fantastically with sips of the slightly fruitier kölsch.
I’m on my way home when I see Peter’s Brauhaus, with a handsome gold sign above the door, and go in on a whim. This turns out to be the best choice I’ve made all day. There’s a friendly crowd at the standing bar, so I chat with the Albanian barman, and hear about a German-American couple’s romance. (It was college; they had their first date at that exact corner; now they have three kids.) They tell me a fantastic story about making a deckel rund, which is where you drink enough kölsch that the tallies go all the way around your coaster. Then they paid, hid the coaster, and she met his parents for the first time.
I came home that evening convinced that Peter’s is the city’s best kölsch, and I tried to back this up with facts in my tasting notes. Here’s what I wrote: “It’s a kölsch, and a damn good one.” I won’t pretend that those are the notes of a sober journalist, but perhaps that's more true than I realized at 2 a.m., after my reflexes weren’t speedy enough to beat the bartender with his endless refills. You could say that Cologne is so obsessed with kölsch because of its history, icons, texts, eccentric rituals, the subtle nuances of bitter against sweet, the late night conversations with new friends. But maybe—as many Kölners told me over the weekend—it's just because it’s a damn good beer.