Kölsch as a Test of Mettle

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

Kölsch, the native beer style of the city of Cologne, is subtle at best, and bland at its worst.

One of our earliest self-imposed challenges back in 2007 was trying to perceive any difference between Kölsch and other pale German ‘lagers’, and to identify any differences between the various brands. (Excuse our naive references to ‘ale’…)

We were interested to hear, therefore, that London brewery Meantime uses Cologne as a proving ground for their beer-sommeliers-in-training. This is an excellent idea, and makes perfect sense for a brewery which specialises in rather tasteful German-style beers.

Until recently, we would have said that there was no point in drinking Kölsch anywhere but on its home turf. On the way to the UK in kegs or bottles, it generally seems to lose whatever slight magic makes it worth drinking, especially when dumped into a pint glass.

Thornbridge Tzara has changed our minds. Having enjoyed it by the pint at the Craft Beer Company in Brixton on a hot summer evening last year, we didn’t hesitate to order a case during the Derbyshire brewery’s recent free shipping spree (12 bottles for £23.80). We dug out a couple of dainty 200ml glasses and have demolished most of that case in the last fortnight.

If we’d been mugged by Tzara, our description wouldn’t help the police at all: it has no especially distinguishing features that would, on paper, set it apart from most other decent, balanced lager beers. It is a pale yellow, hinting at green, and has a fluffy white head. There are some bubbles. If we try really hard, we can perhaps detect some fresh herb (mint?) and soft-fruit (strawberry) aroma, and also maybe a reminder of crisp pizza dough.

What it is is completely, perfectly, gleaming clean; and as fresh-tasting as if it had just been hoisted up in a barrel from the cellar of a wood-panelled beer hall in the shadow of the Kölner Dom. All the ‘hints’ and ‘notes’ in the world can’t beat that.

Kölsch, then, is a test for the palate, a challenge for the technically minded brewer, and yet, at the same time, a rather uncomplicated beer that can be enjoyed for £2 a bottle. What’s not to like?

21 replies on “Kölsch as a Test of Mettle”

I reckon if you know what it is, you can perceive the difference between Kölsch and bottom-fermented lagers, but I accept you might struggle to tell one from the other in a blind test.

I thought a while back that Young’s London Gold was not entirely unlike Kölsch.

We thought the same — that is, as close as the UK had a few years back, especially straight from a fridge.

I had a tzara in the Blue Moon the other day, and it definitely wasn’t a lager, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why not. A little sweeter perhaps. It was nice, but I’d probably drink other things ahead of it. I’d certainly recommend it to lager drinkers looking to experiment in very tentative steps.

I always enjoyed the slight wild strawberry notes on draught Kuppers at the White Horse a few years back, that was when Kolsch started to make sense, while with Tzara I got a light lemony sweetness, so they do have a difference, but as is noted above a blind tasting might be a challenge. Damn, I so want to go to Cologne this afternoon!

Hmmm…having been totally underwhelmed by the lager-like beer in Cologne I’ve been giving this beer a miss. I suppose I’ll have to try a bottle next time I see it now.

I’ve had Tzara and it’s good. But drinking Koelsch really is the theatre of the pour and the zeitgeist. You really have to be in Koeln. Then if you don’t get it your beer drinking soul is severely beyond help.

Opening a bottle just doesn’t cut it. But maybe it will tell you “Get thee to Cologne”

True, drinking from a bottle at home isn’t anywhere near as good as drinking in Cologne, even though the beer itself might be on a par.

Here’s a thought, though: ‘world beer’ is more exclusive and elitist than ‘craft beer’ — if you can’t *really* drink Koelsch, Alt, Gose and so on anywhere but in Germany, and you can’t afford a week off work, train tickets, hotels, etc., they’re beyond your reach. A pint of the poshest double IPA in a craft beer bar in London might set you back £6, but that’s cheaper than Eurostar and three nights in even a chain hotel.

What utter tosh. I know it’s St. Valentine’s Day but there’s no need to overly romanticise a beer. Next you’ll be saying one can only enjoy a Cornish pasty in Cornwall. Kölsch ist koelsch.

I imagine they probably are better in Cornwall but I doubt that it has anything to do with “the theatre of the crimp” or any other flowery nonsense. I’m sure it’ll have more to do with that fact that they’ve been making them for donkey’s years and are now really really good at it.

Bailey – I agree, except that your pint of poshest double IPA is likely to set you back about £9.

Matthew: It may be tosh, but it is true tosh. And it isn’t the beer I’m romanticising, but the time and the place. That’s the problem with too many people. If you detach beer from time and place, you might as well not bother drinking it in my view.

And tosh is us beer bloggers stock in trade I’ll have you know.

“If you detach beer from time and place, you might as well not bother drinking it in my view.”
Let me get this straight…
Is it the same with books or food or anything else for that matter?
There’s no point in reading To Kill a Mocking Bird if you’re not in Alabama while doing so, I suppose you would say.

Thanks for the review of Tzara. This is exactly how I want people to interpret the beer. This beer is all about being delicate and the subtleties within its structure. Freshness is key. We work hard to keep the oxygen levels as low as possible and eliminate astringency at every part of the process. For me, when brewing a beer like this, there is no need for the brewer to use exotic USA hops or some other craft twist. I just like the beer to speak for itself.

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