On Tap: A Good Kolsch is Hard to Find, but It’s a Fine Beer for Summer
A cruel irony of summer is that it is a season when beer consumption is perhaps at its highest, and yet the options become less interesting.
Light lagers have never really appealed to me. Most are better for drowning slugs than drinking. And really, how many more wheat beers do we need? I like them every now and then, but there are so many on shelves it’s a wonder there’s enough grain leftover to keep the bread aisle stocked.
There is no perfect beer for summer, but if I had to choose one, it would be light-bodied, clean, crisp, slightly fruity and served in a tall skinny glass.
Specifically, I’m talking about Kölsch, a delicate and refreshing German beer that is easy drinking, though deceptively complex, and best enjoyed after mowing the lawn or while tending a barbecue grill.
For whatever reason, Kölsch has been largely overlooked in the U.S. as an option to slake the thirsts of us hard-working Americans during the summer months. This is no small source of aggravation to faithful devotees of the style. My friend Rich, a homebrewer, became so frustrated that he began making his own.
To be fair, Kölsch can be a tough beer to pin down. Similar to a pilsner, Kölsch has modest alcohol levels, between 41/2 and 51/2 percent, is golden in color, and typically light bodied. It has a snappy hop bitterness and goes down easy. But it is also slightly fruity, sometimes with aromas of apple or pear. This comes not from the addition of actual fruit, but rather from the yeast. Kölsch is made with ale yeast, which ferments at warmer temperatures than lagers, and is then stored cold like a lager to mellow out the flavors. In this sense, it is a hybrid style, occupying territory of its own.
The granddaddy of Kölsches, Rich assured me, is Reissdorf Kölsch. The problem is that you can’t get it around here. At Norwich Wine & Spirits, I was able to find Fruh Kölsch, also a well-known benchmark for the style that I found to be pretty tasty.
It would be impossible for an American brewer to make a true Kölsch, which like “champagne” is an appellation. The beer originated in Cologne, Germany, as a response from local brewers to the Bohemian pilsners that were gaining favor in the late 1800s. To this day, real Kölsches come from roughly 20 breweries around Cologne. The rest are all pretenders.
While perusing a few local groceries last week, I came across Goose Island’s “Summertime,” as well as limited edition beers from Saranac and Dundee that claimed to be Kölsch-style.
Harpoon Brewery in Windsor is among the few Twin State brewers that make a Kölsch-style beer. Its version, called simply “Harpoon Summer Beer,” has been in production since 1999.
When Harpoon first began making “Summer,” the landscape for craft beer was more narrow, and a lighter, slightly fruity beer could still stand out. The industry has since broadened its horizons and become adventurous, in many ways for the better. Still, Harpoon brewer Scott Shirley believes his peers are missing an opportunity by overlooking Kölsch.
“As craft beer produces bigger, hoppier, higher alcohol beers, this still fills that gap of a beer that is easily approachable for any beer drinker,” Shirley told me. “I think the craft beer industry is losing sight of that now.”
Harpoon has recently begun selling its Summer Beer in cans, which if you haven’t noticed, has been a trend in packaging, particularly for summer styles. Cans are a lot easier to carry while hiking and camping.
However, a true Kölsch snob (and there are a few) would tell you that the only real way to drink it is from a “stange” — that tall skinny glass I mentioned earlier. It looks like a hollow pole or runner’s baton. Indeed, every time I drink a Kölsch, I’m reminded of the gap in my glassware collection.
If I can round up a few more Kölsches this summer, perhaps I’ll finally buy one.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.