Impressions of Cologne: one beer, but it’s more complicated than that

Welcome to Dark City. Welcome to Gotham. The two serrated spires of the Dom, trademark and waymarker, slide across the horizon as the train circles the drain at Köln-Deutz. From train to tram and over the Rhine where large barges slide by, knickers drying on their rotary lines. Side streets, cornershops, dive bars with flyblown window papers, IKEA-grey cafes with airs and graces. And all the time, green parakeets make their bombing runs between the apartment blocks.

A lantern advertising Zunft Kölsch

We couldn’t find a comprehensive list of all the Kölsch brewers. Anthony Gladman put together a great summary of the issue in 2020 including a plea for more information. He linked to the same primary source we used for our trip – the Kölner Brauerei Verband (Cologne Brewers Association) – but it falls apart when you test it in the field. It definitely isn’t up to date. For example, Brauerei zur Malzmühle has recently taken over Sünner. There are some breweries brewing what seems like traditional Kölsch, and serving it in a traditional way, that aren’t on the list, such as Pfaffen. Furthermore, there are two breweries listed, Bischoff and Erzquell (Zunft), which seem to be located well outside Cologne. We did see a Zunft van in town and got excited for a moment but we never spotted an outlet that was open or trading.

Barrels of Kölsch on a serving counter.

From outside, it’s a post-war, post-Luftangriff bunker. A breeze block. Grey as an October sky. Inside, it’s 1902, or a simulacrum thereof. There’s a stained glass skylight in convincing Jugendstil, wood panelling by the mile, and hat pegs for all those hats nobody wears these days. Catch a glimpse of the right Köbes – one with a moustache and a paunch, still clinging to the strings of the regulation blue apron – and it could be the past. The 1980s, perhaps, if not quite the turn of the 20th century. A soft black pencil scrapes the edge of the beer mat, scratches the table top, laying it on thick.

A Köbes uniform on display in a shop window

They’re struggling to recruit in Germany. Every shop, cafe and beer hall was advertising for staff. Most beer halls were training new waiters. The grizzled veteran Köbes looked awfully young – you can’t make an old one overnight, we suppose – and there seemed to be many more women working as Köbes, too. We spent quite a bit of time wondering what might be going on and concluded that it was probably about 50 different things all at once, including older people deciding, post-COVID, that they don’t want to work until they drop if they can possibly help it. Hardest game in the world, beer hall work.

A neon sign of a man drinking Reissdorf  Kölsch

I’m sorry, this table is actually reserved. I’m training a new colleague, you see, and he didn’t know he was supposed to put the signs out. You can sit here until six thirty. That OK? Are you Dutch? Oh, I could have sworn you were Dutch. I speak pretty good Dutch, but my English is better. Well, it’s a long story. You see, my best mate’s mum was from Oxford, “Nice cup of tea, love?” and all that, and then I worked in an Irish bar for three years. You know what to do when you don’t want any more beer, yeah? Just pop the beer mat on top of the glass. Two more, comin’ right up.

A neon sign advertising Gaffel Kölsch

We decided on a rule: you need a minimum of three beers per pub on a Kölsch crawl. The first one will taste weird because it isn’t the same as the last you were drinking. You gulp that one down. Get the city scum out of your throat. The second, as you acclimatise, allows you to pick up distinct aromas and flavours. How is it different? Why is it different? The third allows you to appreciate what’s in front of you in its own right, and decide whether you want to turn this into a real session. Or walk on. Because you’re never far from another.

A quiet beer hall with a handful of customers.

In the afternoon lull, between lunch and dinner, the Köbes loosens his tie and takes a plate of something hot to the quietest corner of the beer hall. Collapsing into the seat, he looks up at the ceiling and blows out his cheeks in a long sigh. He winces as he rubs his calf. I’ve got my 10,000 steps in already, that’s for sure. He lines the plate up on the table and places his cutlery. Then he crosses himself, casts his eyes to heaven and kisses his thumb. Finally, he falls on the food, twirling his fork like an Italian.

Wreaths of hops and carved cherubs on the ceiling of a beer hall

The best time to hit one of the big city centre beer halls is late afternoon on a weekday. You’ll be able to find a decent seat and then enjoy the buzz as it fills up with post-work drinkers. Oddly, the service is slower when it’s quiet because the Köbes can’t get into his rhythm. He has to get the right number of beers for each round rather than just filling his Kranz and patrolling, handing them out to whoever wants them, on repeat. When it’s quiet, you also risk getting a beer that’s more than a few hours old. We think this happened at Päffgen where our first beer seemed noticeably rougher than the fresher ones that followed. When it is really busy, as Gaffel am Dom was on both occasions we tried to visit, you need to remember that you, the customer, are just another piece of the puzzle for the Köbes – a nugget for the machine to process.

Two people in plain coats walking against a plain wall

…why the fuck would you sit there, this whole area is reserved, that whole area is free, why the fuck would you sit there, yes, I speak a little Spanish, yes, English too, Senf, does the sausage come with Senf, oh, bread, sure, yes, no problem, I’ll make it happen, just two people, that’s a table for four, eating or just drinking, I’ll find you a better table, yes, over there, underneath the big TV, speak to my colleague, that’s his section, yes, noch zwei, don’t you worry, I’ll keep ‘em coming, yes madam, English menu, no problem, yes sir…

A barrel of Kölsch on a serving counter

We don’t have a favourite Kölsch. Every time we go, we find different things to enjoy about the beers from each brewery. On our very first trip, more than a decade ago, we liked Gilden the best. That now seems to be practically extinct. And back then, we found Früh dull – it was just lager, wasn’t it? On a subsequent trip, we declared Peters our favourite. Then the Päffgen brewery tap seduced us. On more recent visits, though, we’ve come to appreciate the simple delicacy of Früh. This time, Pfaffen was the stand out, hitting the sweet spot between characterful and clean. Päffgen, Peters and Malzmühle struck us as the most distinctive. Reissdorf, which didn’t interest us much at all in the past, also won us over: a little lemon, a touch of elderflower. Sion, too, seemed much better than we remembered, hinting at the bitterness of Pils. Has it improved, or have we?

A selection of stickers covering the wall of a bar.

Little bars on back streets and side streets have bartenders, not waiters. They’ll deliver your beer but only because they don’t have far to go. A lonely man sits at one bar rocking on his stool, checking the price before he accepts another Kölsch. He stops at three, counting out the right coins from a featherlight velcro wallet. His jacket is at least thirty years old and he isn’t wearing socks with his faux-crocodile skin shoes. In another bar, bathed in red light and plastered with anti-racist anarchist punk stickers, the barperson is an ageing punk with pink fingernails. They serve glasses of perfect Kölsch to extravagantly individualistic students: one neat, identical beer after another.

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We’re idiots: of course we hadn’t dün Düsseldorf

While in Cologne we woke up one morning and decided to go to Düsseldorf for the day. It was one of the best decisions of the holiday.

We have been to Düsseldorf before, in January 2008, and we wrote five posts about the experience, concluding that…

“the alt itself would not be the key draw… It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.”

If we’re honest, we were probably of the view that we’d ‘done’ Düsseldorf, but that just goes to show how daft you can be.

For a start, there are a bunch of new Altbiers to try, and some of them definitely add something to the mix.

The Alter Bahnhof is a lovely brewpub and garden in the upmarket suburb of Oberkassel, over the river. The Gulasch Alt is coppery, earthy and bitter, with a hint of piney hops. There was a pungent hop-tea flavour at the end which added interest without making it seem gimmicky or anything other than a traditional Altbier. We stayed for a couple here.

Also on that side of the river was Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, which is part of a bigger chain. We visited the Hamburg branch many years ago. Their Alt was almost like some of the Rotbier we’d been drinking in and around Nuremberg. It was also rather murky and earthy. Fine, but… Actually, maybe not even fine. Bearable. Certainly not worth going out of your way for unless you’re an obsessive ticker.

Then it was back into town to check in with Uerige, our favourite from last time, to calibrate our tasting notes against an acknowledged classic. It’s as bitter as we remember, but there are also subtle hints of plum, or maybe blackberry. It reminded us on this occasion more of a British winter warmer than a trad bitter. Great stuff, multi-layered, and hard not to just keep drinking.

Brauerei Kürzer was also new to us. It had a lovely smell of brewing when we came in but was otherwise a little cold, both literally and in terms of atmosphere. Their Alt had smoky notes which was an interesting twist on the style… though we weren’t certain it was deliberate.

Finally, we revisited Schumacher on the way back to the station. This Alt has a strong barley sugar flavour – not sweet, as such, but leaning into the caramel and malt. And the Oststraße tap is also a great pub, regardless of the beer. It has brown wood, murky stained glass, and a fascinating mix of customers.

Overall, there is clearly more to Altbier than our IPA-addled palates were able to detect more than a decade ago. We got back on the train determined not to leave it 14 years until the next visit.

Franconia Germany

Impressions of Nuremberg: red beer, grey stone

A proper dodgy station, like all proper cities have, its plaza reeking of urine and scattered with beer bottles. Old hands rummaging in its bins, searching for treasure. Have fun in our city, the gateway says – have a drink or two, by all means – but don’t let it take you. Under the ring road, through the old city wall, and into a party on the move. Is it the last night of the year for a T-shirt, or the first for scarves and gloves? Wegbiers there and here. Döners here and there. Cream-coloured taxis nosing through crowds forced out into the street from hot bars with hot red lights. Cut back, cut in, head upward by alleyway and rat run, until you reach fresh air and hear the running of the river.

The front of the Altstadthof in grey stone.

The Altstadthof is important to us. It’s where we first got really excited about beer. Where we first thought we might be learning something, and testing our limits. This Rotbier, we said, is exciting. But why? It didn’t smell of pine or peach. It wasn’t funky, sour, or smoky. There was some completeness, some understated complexity, that shook us. Maybe it was just the magic of being on holiday, we thought, and so made a point of going back a little later, in 2008, when we imagined ourselves to be more worldly and critically astute. It still thrilled. Now, 14 years on… well, we liked it, we suppose. It’s chewy and round in the mouth but a little mucky, too. More Hamburg brewpub amber than we remember from before. Lesson learned: never look up your first love.

Wild hops

Hang on – is the river called the Rednitz, the Pegnitz or the Regnitz? All three are right. The Pegnitz joins the Rednitz to form the Regnitz at Fürth. You can walk to Fürth along the Pegnitz, past bike lanes, flood plains and barbecue bins; past football training grounds and surfers on the weir; past wild hops having their way with industrial ruins. River path becomes suburban park, with beer gardens, bandstands and hangry geese. Somewhere in the distance, a brass ensemble is playing the kind of strident striding-out march that you might have thought had gone out of fashion in Germany. Everyone is drifting towards the sound, into town, following the smell of smoke and candyfloss.

Crowds against a funfair with smoke in the air.

We didn’t plan to go to Fürth during Michaelis-Kirchweih, St Michael’s Fair, but we’re glad we did. It’s not a beer festival except insofar as any festival in Bavaria is bound to be. Between fairground rides and shooting galleries there were temporary bars and beer halls selling every local brand. It was all wonderfully tacky but, crucially, not insincere or exploitative. We ate fried potato pancakes to line our stomachs and then found a corner of a table in an Olde Rusticke hut that wasn’t there a week before. We were impressed by Grüner Vollbier Hell, a local brand now brewed by Tucher (Radeberger). Pale and grainy, flowery and fresh, wholesome and just clean enough to wash away the smoke from the grill that made the town centre feel like a Napoleonic battlefield.

An underground station in Nuremberg with orange and white tiles.

Nuremberg is, in some ways, an American city. As in, you’re never more than six feet from an American, or a party of them. Loud Americans Facetiming over their lunch, checking in with the folks back home: “We just got in from Vienna!” Quiet Americans with neat hair muttering heck and gosh and leaving most of their dinner on the plate. Something something Bible school. When they ask the waiters “What light beers do you have?” the waiters are ready, and bring glasses of Helles, along with menus in English. These feel like the very final traces of a very long war.

The brown and rustic interior of Hutt'n

We’d spotted Wirtshaus Hutt’n from the Altstadthof across the road and decided to visit even before Twitter started telling us to go. It’s one of those German catering machines – a beer hall with multiple rooms decorated to resemble an Alpine lodge. We were intercepted at the door and not-so-gently steered into the international dining section, away from the locals in their boozer. It looked like fun in there. Hutt’n’s own Rotbier was good: sweeter and less herbal than Altstadthof’s. The Helles was rustic, characterful, and other synonyms for rough. The real draw here, though, is a list of Franconian beers on draught. Brauerei Neder’s Schwarze Anna was a highlight of the trip: rustic, characterful, and other synonyms for mysteriously brilliant. Franconian best mild. Altes Peculier.

A mural on the side of a school featuring a mug of beer.

German cities have two lives. There’s the Old Town, its limits preserved in stone, where the coach parties and refrigeration conference delegates mingle under ancient (rebuilt) church spires. And there’s the world outside the walls, beyond the ring road, where the illusion ends. Tram tracks. Apartment blocks half a mile long. Pushchairs, cargo bikes, walking frames and removals vans. There are more pizza takeaways than pubs. The churches are just as big but are built in concrete, red brick and clean glass, with Aldi on one side and a Getränkemarkt on the other. There, in the car park, disloyal locals load their cars with crates of foreign beer from alien nations such as Saxony and the Rhineland – after a bit of strange.

The beer garden at Landbierparadies with a block of flats behind.

We struggled to understand Landbierparadies when we visited a branch more than a decade ago. What is Landbier? Back then, we wondered if it had a status a little like ‘real ale’ in the UK. Some way out of town, among the flats and playgrounds of Leipziger Straße, we found a beer hall that felt more like a working men’s club, or a rural community centre. Plain dark wood. Plain tables. No music. One beer on draught. “Zwei Landbier,” we said. “Zwei Landbier,” replied the barman-waiter-manager. As we drank Hetzelsdorfer Vollbier (clean, crisp, metallic, grassy, grainy) the tables around us filled up with older men. Some shuffled cards and started playing with surprising aggression. Others debated, teased each other and laughed. Almost everyone drank the draught beer, one mug after another – keep ‘em coming, son.

A pork knuckle with crackling and dumpling.

Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, three in a bed. Buttered pretzels. Pink cuboids of liver sausage in elliptical bread rolls. Pork knuckle, Schnitzel, meat and two dumplings, help yourself to Senf, don’t spill your gravy. Lads in lederhosen trampling Sauerkraut on the carnival cart. Noch zwei! That’s one way. And there are falafels and kebabs, of course, in brightly lit restaurants where men who don’t drink gather to binge on sandwiches instead. “Is it good?” Shrug. “Döner ist Döner ist Döner.” Hunch and bite, chips into dips, shreds of cabbage falling like autumn leaves. One sandwich down… noch zwei!

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Prioritising what to drink in Bamberg in 2022

How do you decide which pubs and breweries to visit when you’ve only got so much time to play with?

A couple of weeks ago we asked a question on Twitter:

This wasn’t an idle query.

In a few weeks, COVID and other circumstances permitting, we’ll be back in Germany for the first time in four years – and we’ve got a daytrip to Bamberg in the schedule.

These days, given our ever-diminishing drinking capacity, we reckon we can realistically only visit a maximum of three drinking establishments.

(Building in a little room for manoeuvre in case we really need a second pint of anything particularly good, or there are any lethally strong seasonal specials on.)

We have been to Bamberg before but, to our astonishment, apparently not for about 14 years. Our tastes have changed, and Bamberg might well have changed, so we needed some up-to-date advice.

Here’s a log of the responses:

Mahr’s Bräu8

There were also three votes against – two for Schlenkerla, one for Mahr’s. But that doesn’t change the ranking.

We’re quite pleased with that list, based on our own past experience.

We can’t not visit Schlenkerla, given our memories of previous visits, and how much we enjoy the beer from bottles.

We also fondly remember how relatively hoppy Keesmann Herren Lager seemed. Apparently, its still good.

Then again… that trip out to Greifenklau was pretty special last time.

And can we really turn down the chance to drink a Mahr’s Ungespundet, even though people say that particular brewery is off the boil at the moment?

Just to further complicate things, there are also a handful of new breweries that we’ve never been to. Should we maybe prioritise trying something new over attempting to relive past pleasures?

Maybe the only logical conclusion to this tyranny of choice is to not go at all.

Beer history Germany

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, beer geek and pub crawler

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the fathers of English romanticism, had opinions on beer and pubs, it turns out.

I ought to have known this. Growing up in Somerset, where Coleridge lived for a few important years of his life, you get a decent dose of him, not least because every other building has a plaque saying he stayed or preached there.

Then I ended up studying him formally from the ages of 16 to 21, and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on… Er, actually, I can’t quite remember. I know I had to slog through the Biographia Literaria and every scrap of poetry, even the unfinished bits, to make what I’m sure was a very compelling argument about something or other.

The problem is, I was very much done with bloody Coleridge after all that and my interest in him and his work didn’t overlap with my fascination with beer.

That is until a couple of weeks ago when my little brother very kindly sent me a book in the post – a copy of Coleridge Among the Lakes & Mountains, a selection of the poet’s letters and journal entries, published in 1991.

As often seems to happen these days, I opened it at random and at once saw a reference to beer:

Saturday, May 11th, 10 o’clock, we left Göttingen, seven in party… We ascended a hill N.E. of Göttingen, and passed through areas surrounded by woods, the areas now closing in upon us, now opening and retiring from us, until we came to Hessen Dreisch… They were brewing at the inn – I enquired and found that they put three bushels of malt and five large handfuls of hops to the hogshead. The beer as you may suppose, but indifferent stuff.

My immediate thought was, wait, was Coleridge some sort of proto beer geek? Am I going to find beer on every other page of this book?

Well, we’ll get to that, but, first, let’s unpick the quotation above and see if we can find the place he drank at.

Coleridge wasn’t, it turns out, very good at German place names. There is nowhere called ‘Dreisch’ north east of Göttingen, although there is a Dreiech near Frankfurt. In the same entry, he mentions ‘Rudolphshausen’ and ‘Womar’s Hausen’, neither of which seem to exist either, even on older maps.

Kathleen Coburn identifies the latter as Wollbrandshausen, though, which does make sense, especially when you plot a route from Göttingen to Wollbrandshausen on Google Maps and it happens to take you through Radolfshausen.

Tracking back through the route Coleridge describes, through ‘coombes very much like those about Stowey and Holford… [with] great rocky fragments which jut out from the hills’ via ‘a lofty fir grove’, we reckon Röringen might be the place where Coleridge stopped for his mediocre lunchtime pint. But that’s a bit of a guess. And there’s no obvious old inn there.

So, further suggestions are welcome, especially from Göttingen locals, German speakers who might be able to make sense of Coleridge’s mangling of the local place names, or experts in German history.

While Coleridge was exploring, his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth were hanging out in Goslar, which they hated. Coleridge passed through and wasn’t impressed either and, though this book doesn’t include his thoughts on Gose, it turns out he did translate a bit of German doggerel on the subject:

This Goslar Ale is stout and staunch;
But sure ‘tis brewed by Witches!
Scarce do you feel it warm in paunch,
‘Odsblood, ‘tis in your Breeches!

Just in case you’re not a trained literary analyst like wot I am, it’s suggesting that Gose makes you shit yourself.

As for the recipe, I’ve got no idea why Coleridge thinks it ought to be obvious that beer would be ‘indifferent’. Bushels of malt, handfuls of hops – is he saying it’s not hoppy enough? Too sweet?

Coleridge on British beer and pubs

The next big question: does Coleridge have lots to say about beer elsewhere? Well, no, not really. He was much more into laudanum and laughing gas, which he got from his mate Humphrey Davy.

But there are some nuggets.

In Llangynog, Wales, in July 1794, he had lunch at the village inn, enjoying ‘hashed mutton, cucumber, bread and cheese and beer, and had two pots of ale – the sum total of the expense being sixteen pence for both of us!’ Note the distinction between beer and ale, there.

In 1801, he briefly became obsessed with the idea of making productive use of acorns:

I am convinced that this is practicable simply by malting them… last week as I was turning up some ground in my garden, I found a few acorns just beginning to sprout – and I ate them. They were, as I had anticipated, perfectly sweet and fine-flavoured… I have no doubt that they would make both bread and beer, of an excellent and nutritious quality.

In the same year, he went walking around Sca Fell in Cumbria, and on 4 August stopped at a lonely alehouse at ‘Bonewood’ (Boonwood) above Gosforth where he ‘drank a pint of beer’. And that’s it – that’s the review. You might expect better tasting notes from a poet, mightn’t you? I wonder if the pub was what is now The Red Admiral.

In August 1802, he stopped at The Blacksmith’s Arms, Broughton Mills, where he ‘Dined on oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries’, which sounds pretty good.

Finally, in August 1803, he went to Gretna Green:

A public house with a gaudy daub of Hope. ‘To crown returning Hope’ – no beer! – What then? Whisky, gin and rum – cries a pale squalid girl at the door, a true offspring of whisky-gin-and-rum drinking parents.

It’s been nice to get reacquainted with Coleridge and to be reminded of the pleasure of dipping into a randomly chosen book with beer in mind.