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.
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.
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Anyway, we made it right on our most recent trip, and were glad we did. For one thing, the beer is superb — honeyed and spicy — very much like an English ale, but also distinctly not. We’ve had it before and liked it but, here, it was stunning.
We loved observing the way the place is run, too. All the Kobes (waiters) compete for the same barrel, half-filling glasses in a kranz, then letting it sit in a funny kind of urinal until they’re ready to go, when they top them off. The supervisor barks at them from his perch as they pass, making them stop so he can count the number of glasses they’re taking, presumably as some kind of fraud control, but alsoperhaps so they know when the barrel needs changing. And when that happens, with lots of chains and an electric winch, it’s quite a thing to behold.
Interestingly, this was one of the few times we’ve been in a Cologne beer hall at a quiet time and it seems to mean you wait a lot longer for your beers — if there isn’t an absolute kranzload of punters, you have to wait until there is.
We end up in Cologne so often these days on our way in and out of Germany that it’s a struggle to find new pubs or beers to try. This time, however, we spotted an advert for Freischem’s Brauhaus on a free city map and trekked out of the immediate city centre in the rain to give it a go.
It was huge and mostly empty — because it was 4.30 on a wet Sunday afternoon or because it only opened a month or two ago? The beer list immediately had us a little excited. It included a Koelsch, of course, but also something called Trub, a weizen, a Christmas beer and a stout.
The Koelsch was of the slightly darker, honey-tasting variety (see also Paeffgen) and very pleasant. Trub was, unsurprisingly, a cloudy light beer — their answer to the bland brauhaus zwickl and perfectly drinkable, if unexciting. The weizen ticked all the usual boxes.
Weihnachtsbier was a nice red colour with a good spicy aroma. We were split on this one, though. Boak thought it was dull, verging on unpleasant, with an off yeast flavour and not much more. Bailey could taste roasted malt and liked the bitterness.
The stout was the stand-out beer, though. We really weren’t expecting much — a boring schwarzbier, perhaps? — but it had a good thick body, a creamy chocolate flavour and a great roasted bitter aftertaste. We’d have enjoyed this anywhere but, by German brewpub standards, it was a knockout.
Given that it wasn’t far away, we also staged a return visit to Hellers, where there were a couple of new beers for us to try as well as some old favourites. Winterbock was an amateur take on Aventinus, with all the right clove and fruit flavours but with absolutely no condition. Pity, as this would be stunning otherwise. The new bottled Pils was very good — bitter, but not especially hoppy, and so malty it tasted like mashing grain.