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 koelsch. 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.