Does Koelsch taste any different from lager?

hellers.gifI’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.

cologne2.jpgIn 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.


9 thoughts on “Does Koelsch taste any different from lager?”

  1. This is a great arti­cle, guys. I too haven’t been able to grasp what the fuss is about kolsch, but then my expe­ri­ence is very lim­it­ed.

    Great excuse for a pub crawl, though!

  2. I agree – crap­py ¶lsch resem­bles lager. More Helles though than Pils.

    ¤ffgen is an excep­tion, more bit­ter. My favourite. Pfaf­fen is a spin-off of ¤ffgen, by the way, not the oth­er way around. It’s a con­fus­ing sto­ry and one I only know in out­line.

    You real­ly need to drink ¶lsch fresh straight from the bar­rel to appre­ci­ate it prop­er­ly. In bot­tles, it’s usu­al­ly just bland.

  3. Ron – I’ll amend the post to take into account your com­ment re: Pfaf­fen and Paef­f­gen. I sus­pect you’re bang on the mon­ey re: bot­tled Koelsch.

Comments are closed.