When we wrote that, a lot of people replied: “But you didn’t go to Lommi!”
And we said, relax, this won’t be our last visit to a city with which we’re increasingly enamoured.
Lommi, or Gaststätte Lommerzheim, is an unlikely Cologne landmark. It’s on the wrong side of the river, in Deutz, a few streets back from any main road, surrounded by apartment blocks.
The building is out of step with its neighbours, being older, darker and more decayed. Forbidding signs warn of a broken step and issue instructions about queueing. Signs advertise Dortmunder Aktien Bier (DAB) – which, of course, the pub does not sell.
We’re going to call it a ‘pub’ because that’s what it feels like. We entered nervously, expecting to be directed by a waiter, or barked at, but instead found ourselves in an alleyway full of smokers who wouldn’t look out of place in Bridgwater or Bolton.
Eventually, we drifted towards the bar where nobody stopped us taking stools overlooking the service operation. And it’s what we’d call a machine.
Being a small place, with a small staff, it has to operate efficiently. So, glass washing is a big deal.
Our seats were in the splash zone for a big double sink with constantly trickling warm water (left) and cold water (right).
Dirty 200ml glasses would pile up on one side and every now and then a waiter with a spare moment would start washing them by:
Grabbing two by their bases.
Slamming them into the warm, soapy water.
Working them up and down on two round wire brushes fixed in place.
Dunking them in cold water.
Stacking them to dry.
By our reckoning, they were able to wash 50 or so glasses in about a minute and a half. The secret being, perhaps, the knowledge that these apparently dainty, thin-walled glasses can take rougher handling than one might think.
The filling of the clean glasses was also highly efficient: they’re thrown or dropped into a Kranz (a circular tray with holes to hold glasses) which is then held under the tap of the wooden barrel and spun as golden Kölsch gushes in.
They kept bringing us beer and we kept watching the floor show as the pencil marks multiplied on our beer mat bill.
One waiter never smiled. The other never stopped laughing. After a while, we began to wonder if this was a coping mechanism, because he laughed hardest when the customers were being most obstructive and obtuse.
An older man with the air of a cowboy (perhaps a long-distance truck driver) alternated glasses of Kölsch and cigarettes in the courtyard.
Two burly lads ordered a Halve Hahn (cheese and a bread roll) and methodically dissected it so they’d both have a small cheese sandwich.
As the crowd thinned and the conversation became louder, and more sloppy, the laughing waiter passed through the bar with a plate of snacks. “Frikadelchen?” he shouted, waving their aroma over each table with a sheet of A4 paper.
The furniture and bar fittings feel simultaneously junk-shop hipster and somewhat Ostalgic – two aesthetics that fit together well. The bar counter, in particular, looks as it was pulled from a working men’s club c.1973.
It seemed odd to come to the German capital to drink Czech beer but then Czechia is closer to Berlin than Bavaria is. And for 40 years, politically speaking, even more so.
It tasted as it always does: bitter, rich, and weedy. And its shade of gold really is golden, or perhaps even coppery.
It’s normal in Berlin to drink a bottle of beer as you wander between pubs… or wander anywhere, for that matter.
We hadn’t been in the city long before we noticed just how many off-licences there are.
Or, rather, convenience stores that just happen to be piled high with crates of beer.
In Berlin, they’re usually labelled as ‘Spätis’, from Spätverkaufsstellen, meaning ‘late shopping outlet’. It’s a culture that originated in the former Communist East.
Our favourite, glimpsed from a tram, had stolen Spotify’s branding and was called, of course, Spätify.
Alongside dirt cheap mass-produced or local beers there are also exotic imports from Bavaria. Tegernsee Helles from Bavaria, for example, at €2 a pop.
But there’s nothing remotely pretentious about these shops. They also sell Monster energy drinks, chocolate bars, ice cream, vapes, and bog roll.
That the beers are being sold to drink on the go is underlined by the presence on the counter of a bottle opener.
Hand over your cash, knock off the cap, and you’re away.
And that’s exactly what people do. Visiting some Kneipen with Berlin-based friends we lost sight of one on the subway. He reappeared 30 seconds later with an open bottle of Sternburg Export which, he told us, cost €1.
“Back home, people look askance if you‘’’re carrying an open bottle of beer in the street,” he said. “In Berlin, on Saturday night, they look askance if you’re not.”
“Someone said that the police stopped a person to check his papers on the Oranienburger Strasse… It turns out he was a Canadian tourist. And the police stopped him because he was the only one who didn’t have a Wegbier, so he looked suspicious.”
Nor did it take us long to start noticing empty bottles on pavements, and the men who make a living collecting them for the deposit.
Even in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate they dodge between American tourists filling tattered carrier bags, clink, clank.
When our pub-crawling companion – otherwise a very tidy, law-abiding sort – finished his Wegbier, he placed the bottle carefully on the ground near a bin.
Why make the professional scavengers dig around in the filth?
And it’s not as if it will be there long.
It’s a very efficient system, exploitative as it might be.
Wegbier isn’t the preserve of rebels and youngsters, either.
One weekday afternoon we watched a smartly-dressed thirty-something couple escorting their small children along the street.
Both parents were carrying open bottles of lager as casually as someone in Britain might carry a to-go cappuccino.
What if you can simply decide not to be drunk?
What if you can drink constantly, without a Teku glass in sight, and retain total responsible respectability?
Though it didn’t come naturally to us, we decided to try to fit in. We popped into a Späti for a between-pub pick-me-up and, overwhelmed by choice, also went for Sternburg Export.
It’s not the most exciting beer in the world but it doesn’t need to be when you’re swigging straight from the bottle on a busy street in one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Under the glow of traffic lights and kebab shop neon it felt positively glamorous, or delightfully seedy. It adds a swagger to your step.
Looking down into the gutter, we laughed. The road surface was studded, of course, with hundreds of rustling bottle caps pressed into the tar. And a layer of fresh bottle caps had already begun to form, like a tide line.
“We should do this more often,” we said.
Then, on our last morning in Berlin, we saw another bottle of Sternburg swinging past in the street.
Glancing up at its owner we saw a face that looked as if it had been hit by a brewery dray. Yellow eyes, bloody nose, bruises, and a look of forlorn befuddlement.
Perhaps, after all, it is good to pause.
Maybe we can just enjoy some fresh air on the walk between pubs.
And keep Wegbier as a treat when we’re in Germany, doing as the Germans do.
We’ve generally found German-style Festbier (festival beer) alluring in theory and disappointing in reality.
Its appeal is twofold: first, it’s a seasonal rarity; and, secondly, it’s a traditional part of German beer culture.
The disappointment is that its base characteristics are not things we look for in lager, being:
The words we most often jot down when we’re drinking it are those classic cliches ‘cloying’ and ‘sticky’.
Simon Clarke has a more positive spin on the same flavours, though: “That sweet malty breadiness makes it totally ‘steinable’…”
As Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing put it in a post on BlueSky:
“I love the sense of occasion and tradition of finding and drinking them more than the actual beers, which are all very well made of course…”
But it’s generally hard for a British drinker to really get to know Festbier, unless they spend a lot of time in Germany, at the right time of year.
Andreas Krennmair, author of Bavarian Brewing in the 19th Century, and Louise Krennmair live in Berlin and are Festbier fans. As Louise says:
“It probably helps if you live in Germany or are drinking it in Germany as you get the atmosphere, and fresher beer. My favourite is probably Schönramer Festbier which comes out at the start of December and we drink it at a bar in Berlin on New Year’s Eve at Frühschoppen.”
“What makes it enjoyable for me is the fact that I can have that beer only once a year for a few weeks, so it’s always a surprise what a particular beer is going to be. If you remember what it was the previous year, differences, even if they’re subtle in the grand scheme, are noticeable. Is it more or less bitter? What about the hop aroma? This is sweeter than last year, where does that boozy taste come from, etc.. In terms of Bavarian beer (excluding Franconia), I think it is the epitome of what a good pale lager can be – if it’s brewed well, of course. And, most importantly, what makes it stand out for me from other seasonal beers or brewed for festivities: it is still very sessionable, a bit dangerous with ~6%,so you always have to pace yourself…”
Testing our prejudices in 2023
Festbier seems to be more available in the UK now than it has been in the past, which gave us a chance to drink a few different examples and test our prejudices.
Lost & Grounded brewed a Festbier for the Oktoberfest event at its taproom earlier in September. It had the benefit of tasting extremely fresh which added a layer of interest and complexity. Though in many ways a textbook example – dark golden, 5.6% ABV – it was also distinctly bitter, and therefore better balanced, at least to our taste.
As ever, though, we started to find it a little heavy even by the end of the first round, and had to take a break with their flagship Keller Pils. By contrast, Keller Pils tasted even more delightful: light, spritzy, flowery…
When we went back to the Festbier for another go, it still impressed us, but we noticed a certain boiled sweet sugariness that confirmed our previous views of the style. It’s authentic, and correct, but almost reads to us as an off-flavour.
Moor Brewing’s take on Festbier, at 5.8%, seemed less successful. To the standard sweet heat it added a layer of haze and chewiness. There was some spiky apple there, too. Perhaps this is what you’d find if you drank Festbier in some Franconian village? We’re glad to have tried it but it feels like an odd outlier.
On the one hand, this really highlighted the importance of freshness as a characteristic of the best German beers. Several tasted papery and ancient, battered about by the chain of logistics that got them from brewhouses in Bavaria to a retail park in Brislington.
On the other hand, it also underlined a point made by Louise Krennmair: “There is more to Festbier than Oktoberfest.”
Wildbräu Kirtabier was dark, orangey and syrupy, almost like Spingo Special.
Teisnacher 1543 was well balanced with just a dab of welcome rustic character.
Irlbacher Gäubodenvolksfestbier read to us as something like a strong pilsner: pale, powerfully bitter, and our favourite of the bunch.
More interesting than enjoyable
The fundamental problem is this: much as we enjoyed exploring and pondering on Festbier, nothing we drank pleased as much as Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, or Augustiner Helles.
What is the problem Festbier is designed to solve?
A need for something special to mark an occasion. The desire to loosen up. And perhaps to add interest in a beer culture that prizes consistency and tradition over novelty.
And what problems do we, Jess and Ray, have? We’re uptight lightweights enraptured by the consistency and tradition of German beer culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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…
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?
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.
This piece took a couple of days to put together and was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Peter Sidwell and Doreen Barber. Do consider signing up.