I’m ashamed to admit it, but for a long time, we couldn’t really see what the fuss about Koelsch was. I know it’s technically an ale, but I couldn’t taste it.
It probably didn’t help that the only examples we’d been able to try were several bottles of Meantime’s “Cologne Style Lager”, a pint (a pint!) of Kupper’s on tap, a bottle of Frueh, and a bottle of Dom. One was, clearly, not authentic, and the others had travelled a distance, and were reckoned to be among the blander examples, too.
So, we took advantage of our visit to Germany in the spring to answer the burning question once and for all: does Koelsch taste any different from lager?
The first Koelsch we had was on the way out to Bavaria, when we stopped off in Aachen for a night. Aachen isn’t a big beer town – they just don’t seem that interested – so the only Koelsch we found was Dom, which we drank at The Golden Swan. It was welcome as the first beer of our German trip, but wasn’t terribly exciting. It really did taste like any other lager.
The next day, we trekked down to Bavaria, where we spent almost two weeks drinking every type of beer we could get our hands on. I can only assume our taste-buds got more refined and more used to distinguishing subtle differences, because there was a magic moment in Nuremberg when we suddenly *understood* Koelsch.
Oddly enough, this happened while we were drinking a pilsner. Neumarkt Lammsbrau’s pils came in the standard pilsner stem glass. It looked like a standard pilsner. But the minute I put my nose in to take a sip, I was taken aback. “It smells slightly like an ale,” we both said, simultaneously. And it tasted a bit like an ale, too. Not a pint of London Pride, exactly, but somehow fruitier and riper than most lagers. “It’s like a Koelsch,” we agreed, and then little lightbulbs appeared over our heads. “So that’s it – that’s what a Koelsch tastes like.” We started to look forward to our imminent 24 hour stint in Cologne, on the way home.
In the afternoon and evening we had there, we did nothing but hunt Koelsch, but this time, each one tasted different.
- Reissdorf was distinctly fruity, with some wine-like flavours.
- Pfaffen – a spin-off from Paffgen, the result of some kind of family feud – was noticeably dark and more bitter, and tasted very strongly of honey. Reminded me of Fuller’s much-maligned Honey Dew.
- Paeffgen – a spin-off from Pfaffen, the result of some kind of family feud – was very similar, but lighter in colour and hoppier, reminiscent of an English summer ale.
- Frueh, which had tasted more-or-less like Fosters when I drank it in London, also had strong fruit flavours, and was obviously an ale, although fizzier and tamer than some of the others we tried.
- Dom, too, tasted noticeably like an ale, but still struck us as “middle-of-the-road”. Beautiful glasses and a very cool logo, though!
As night began to fall, we retreated to the student district, walking the streets looking at pubs for signs which would tell us which Koelsch they served. We ended up going to some very weird bars, just because they had one we wanted to try.
- Gilden was light, spritzy without being fizzy, and had a subtle but distinct flavour of strawberries – it would make a great replacement for champagne at a beer-bore’s dinner party. Probably my favourite.
- Gaffel was very like a pilsner, with no real ale flavours.
- Sion was the dullest of them all – just like a helles, though perhaps drier.
- We finished with a humdinger, though, at Heller’s brewpub on Roonstrasse. Their three beers were all interesting. The Koelsch was particularly special, tasting malty and rich, and reminiscent of toffee-apples. The unique “Wiess” (“veece”, not “vice”) was, in effect, the same beer but unfiltered. It tasted entirely different – apples, again, but this time with lemons, and a really obvious “ale” flavour, perhaps from all the swirling suspended yeast. Remarkable.
So, Koelsch isn’t just lager, but pasteurising, filtering and lagering soften out the ale flavours, and made them hard for us to spot. The fault wasn’t with the beer, as such, but with our ability to pick out subtle flavours, which is the downside of drinking crazily powerful IPAs, Imperial Stouts, ESBs and so on the rest of the time.