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.


Photographing Beer – tutorial

I’ve often won­dered how they got those very attrac­tive pic­tures of the beers in Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers book, and I’ve also been increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed at how bad my own pho­tos are. They tend to look like this:


So I spent a few hours trawl­ing the web for tuto­ri­als on how to pho­to­graph food – this was a great one – and then tried to use some of the same tech­niques to pho­to­graph a nice pint of beer using my very basic dig­i­tal cam­era. Here’s the result:


I’ll tell you how I did it after the jump, if you’re inter­est­ed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Pho­tograph­ing Beer – tuto­r­i­al”

The July Session – Atmosphere

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis month’s Ses­sion top­ic has been set by Hop Talk, and is all about atmos­phere. We have been chal­lenged to talk about:

…the Atmos­phere in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most impor­tant­ly:


We thought that we’d focus on the why – what is it that make for a good atmos­phere?

  1. The time, the place. Obvi­ous real­ly, but we’ve had some great times in ter­ri­ble pubs just because there’s some­thing mag­i­cal about the cir­cum­stances. For exam­ple, when you’ve stepped in out of a sud­den show­er, or from the freez­ing cold; or when you’ve tak­en a week-day off work, and you should be sit­ting at your desk, but instead you’re in the booz­er, with two elder­ly alco­holics, a dog and a cou­ple of blue­bot­tles for com­pa­ny. Almost any pub feels good on Christ­mas Eve, or if your coun­try has won in a big sport­ing event.
  2. The com­pa­ny. Who you’re with is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant con­trib­u­tor to atmos­phere – the worst pub in the world can have a great atmos­phere if you’re with good friends. Remem­ber, the point of the pub is to socialise! And it’s nice, too, if the oth­er peo­ple in the pub are of dif­fer­ent ages, class­es, races and so on. A pub full of peo­ple in suits can be mis­er­able. A pub full of foot­ball fans can be mis­er­able. A pub full of stu­dents can be mis­er­able. But mix them all up, and sud­den­ly no-one feels on guard or out of place.
  3. Pubs you’ve hiked to on hol­i­day. Any pub you’ve walked a long way to get to, per­haps along a coastal path, in the rain, will have a great atmos­phere. A pint you’ve earned tastes twice as good. A pint of bog-stan­dard Flow­ers at the Anchor Inn, Bur­ton Brad­stock tast­ed like nec­tar after four hours walk­ing from Abbots­bury and, again, it’s great to know that you’re there when you should be at work.
  4. Decor. Small rooms, sub­dued light­ing, rich dark colours. Pubs like that don’t always have good atmos­phere, but they’re more like­ly to than ones with large, white, echo­ing rooms with bright lights. The leg­endary and bril­liant Pem­bury Tav­ern in Hack­ney has only one flaw, per­haps best summed up in a graf­fi­to from the gents toi­lets: “This place is like an Angli­can church”. (We should add that the atmos­phere there gets bet­ter every time we go, and that for some peo­ple, it’s one of the main attrac­tions.) Good pubs are designed so you can hear what your friends are say­ing but no-one else can. They’re inti­mate, cosy and com­fort­able, like a home from home. They shouldn’t feel too “cor­po­rate”, as Fullers pubs have start­ed to do.
  5. Friend­ly bar staff. It’s not always the case, but gen­er­al­ly a pub with a land­lord as opposed to a “man­age­ment team” will be friend­lier. Noth­ing crush­es the atmos­phere quick­er than dead-eyed, tired, grumpy staff wear­ing iden­ti­cal polo shirts glar­ing at you over the pumps. It’s not usu­al­ly their fault – they’re under­paid and treat­ed like drones. But it’s great when bar staff engage you in con­ver­sa­tion, know about the beers and say good­bye when you leave.
  6. The lock-in. A unique­ly British tra­di­tion, the sig­nif­i­cance of which has declined with the change to licens­ing laws. Until recent­ly, pub land­lords had to call “last orders” at 11:00 and kick you out by 11:20. The “lock-in” was where the pub land­lord spon­ta­neous­ly decid­ed that he liked the crowd he had in, so decid­ed to flout the law, shut all the doors, draw the cur­tains, and stay open lat­er. Guar­an­teed good night out. I’d name a cou­ple of pubs famous for nev­er shut­ting, but I wouldn’t want to get them in trou­ble. Often local Irish booz­ers (not big Irish chains). Nowa­days, it’s sup­posed to be eas­i­er for land­lords to get late licences, and we haven’t been in a lock-in since.
  7. Noise or music. It doesn’t have to be music, but some kind of back­ground noise is usu­al­ly a good thing. Beer snobs seem to have some prob­lem with music in pubs, which I don’t real­ly under­stand. It’s prefer­able to com­plete silence or – worse – an echo. A good juke­box can’t be beat. And the best ever: sit­ting in a beer gar­den in Munich lis­ten­ing to the hub­bub of con­ver­sa­tion, and a dis­tant oom­pah band.
  8. Busy but not claus­tro­pho­bic. A pub should be busy enough that it has some life in it, but not so busy you can’t get a seat after, say, 2o min­utes. Claus­tro­pho­bic pubs – any­where in cen­tral Lon­don between 5–8 on a Fri­day, for exam­ple – are a night­mare.
  9. Beer gar­dens and town squares in the sun. This is a cheat, real­ly, because the atmos­phere is that of the town or city you’re vis­it­ing. Sun­light, shade, bus­tle and beer are a great com­bi­na­tion. Watch­ing the world go by under a para­sol.. just per­fect.

Note that good beer does not appear in this list. When we start­ed to think about this post, we not­ed that almost all pubs where we’d had a tru­ly amaz­ing time had indif­fer­ent beer, at the very best. And we often choose to go to pubs with mediocre beer but great atmos­phere when­ev­er we’re meet­ing “nor­mal friends” (ie those that aren’t beer obses­sives). If it’s just the two of us, that’s dif­fer­ent, but most peo­ple are not will­ing to trek to a “weird” pub because they have an inter­est­ing beer or two.

We won­dered whether, in fact, “good beer” and “good atmos­phere” were neg­a­tive­ly cor­re­lat­ed. How many times have you gone into a new pub with a “good beer” rep­u­ta­tion, tried all the beers you’ve nev­er had in as short a space of time as pos­si­ble so you can move on and try some­where else. We cer­tain­ly have on day trips to,e.g., Oxford. Does this help cre­ate an atmos­phere?

How­ev­er, with a bit more con­sid­er­a­tion, we thought of a few places that do man­age to pull off both great atmos­phere and great beer:

  • The Rake, near Lon­don Bridge. A tip from Stonch, which we can’t drag our­selves away from now we’ve found it. Great range of beer, very friend­ly, enthu­si­as­tic, knowl­edge­able staff. Very busy, but we’ve got a seat with­in 20 min­utes every time we’ve been. It’s tiny, which is, in fact, prob­a­bly what gives it a “buzz”, even when there are only 10 peo­ple in it.
  • The Fitzroy Tav­ern, near Oxford Street. A night­mare in the evenings, but on a Sun­day after­noon, a love­ly place for a pint. Vic­to­ri­an style booths break up what is actu­al­ly a big space, and make it feel more inti­mate. Some­times there’s music, some­times not, but there’s always the sound of the street out­side. And we love sev­er­al of Sam Smith’s beers “real” or not.
  • Quinn’s, Cam­den. It’s a nor­mal pub – one that looks too scary to go into at first glance – with a mixed and friend­ly clien­tele, but which also has fridges full of great Ger­man and Bel­gian beer. Sit­ting drink­ing Schlenker­la Rauch­bier in a nor­mal pub is how it should be.

This was a great top­ic!

Of trends in British bottled beer; Hook Norton AD 303

From a recent unex­pect­ed trea­sure trove (an off-licence in Stoke New­ing­ton) – Hook Nor­ton AD 303, a bot­tled beer which exem­pli­fies sev­er­al trends to be seen in British bot­tled beer.

1. The “patri­ot­ic” thing. The large inde­pen­dents just can’t get enough of St George, bull­dogs etc. (see Young’s St George’s Ale, Charles Wells’ John Bull.) Seems to be a lack of imag­i­na­tion amongs the mar­ket­ing guys.

St George enjoying a pint 2. Have a sig­nif­i­cant year, the old­er the bet­ter. Fuller’s 1845 may have start­ed the trend; not to be out­done, Shep­herd Neame went for 1698. AD 303 is sure­ly just tak­ing the p*ss though.

3. Sea­son­al beers. This I’m a great fan of in the­o­ry, although by the time you pick it up in an off-licence you may have gone round the whole cal­en­dar at least once. (We also picked up their Hay­mak­er in the same trip – accord­ing to their web­site, avail­able July-August, so pre­sum­ably last year’s batch). James Clarke, MD of Hook Nor­ton has since informed us that they bot­tle the sea­son­al beers all year round.  See Com­ments.

The oth­er trou­ble with “sea­son­al” beers in the UK is for some rea­son they all seem to trans­late into very bit­ter pale beers, what­ev­er the sea­son (OK, I’m being unfair. In the win­ter you might get a “win­ter ale” which may even be more than nor­mal bit­ter with extra caramel).

AD 303 is not buck­ing any trends here. It’s (sur­prise sur­prise) pale and very bit­ter. Pleas­ant enough, but not up to HN’s usu­al out­stand­ing qual­i­ty.



  1. Hook Nor­ton is a 150-year old “fam­i­ly run” brew­ery in the Cotswolds (a pic­turesque part of Eng­land near Oxford) . There’s an arti­cle about them by Roger Protz here (although I think it’s quite old). I’ve only had the plea­sure of try­ing Old Hooky, Dou­ble Stout and Hooky Bit­ter, and I’ve gen­er­al­ly been impressed so far. I look for­ward to try­ing Hooky Dark, which sounds entic­ing and orig­i­nal.
  2. Ad 303 is appar­ent­ly when St George was mar­tyred in Pales­tine. Born in Turkey, he is also the patron saint of Aragón, Cana­da, Cat­alo­nia, Ethiopia, Geor­gia, Greece, Mon­tene­gro, Por­tu­gal, Ser­bia, Rus­sia, and Pales­tine, as well as the cities of Beirut, Istan­bul, Ljubl­jana, Freiburg and Moscow, as well as a wide range of pro­fes­sions, organ­i­sa­tions and dis­ease suf­fer­ers. There is no evi­dence he ever set foot in Eng­land, let alone delight­ed in our brew­ing tra­di­tions.

History of Burton-upon-Trent


The offi­cial his­to­ry of the coun­ty of Stafford[shire], avail­able through the excel­lent British His­to­ry Online, has lots of fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion on Bur­ton-upon-Trent and the his­to­ry of brew­ing. For exam­ple, this evoca­tive pas­sage on the birth of India Pale Ale:

Although the Baltic mar­ket was not com­plete­ly destroyed by the Napoleon­ic block­ade, it came to an end in the mid 1820s as the Baltic coun­tries acquired their own brew­eries and imposed high tar­iffs on Eng­lish imports. Bur­ton brew­ers, there­fore, had to devel­op oth­er mar­kets, espe­cial­ly in Lon­don and South Lan­cashire, and fur­ther afield in North Amer­i­ca and Aus­tralia: in 1822 the Wil­son-All­sopp brew­ery adver­tised for sale a quan­ti­ty of ‘rich pale and fine-flavoured Ale, of uncom­mon strength’ which it was unable to export to Rus­sia. Also in 1822 Samuel Allsopp’s head brew­er suc­ceed­ed in repro­duc­ing a bit­ter, sparkling ale which Lon­don brew­ers had been for some time export­ing to India. The qual­i­ties of the local water made the pale ale brewed in Bur­ton espe­cial­ly suit­ed to longdis­tance trans­port, and oth­er local brew­ers fol­lowed suit, with the result that by 1832 the All­sopp and Bass brew­eries dom­i­nat­ed the exports to India. Bur­ton pale ale also became pop­u­lar in the home mar­ket.

Rich, pale and fine-flavoured, of uncom­mon strength… so, a kind of Eng­lish answer to a mai­bock?