In Germany, it is common for a region or city to specialize in a specific type of beer, whose craft and precise flavors have been mastered over generations of brewers. Whether it is Altbier in Düsseldorf or Hefeweizen in Bavaria, local people are proud of their local beer.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Cologne.
Since moving to Cologne (Köln in German), my husband and I have become very familiar with the local beer — Kölsch. In and around the Cologne, Kölsch is ubiquitous. Locals will drink almost no other kinds of beer, so if you are visiting Cologne, trying some Kölsch is a must-do activity! I’m not much of a beer drinker, but my husband has really taken a liking to Kölsch, so he helped me craft this comprehensive guide to Cologne’s Kölsch brauhaus culture.
What You'll Find in this Article
Everything You Need to Know About Kölsch Beer In Cologne
What is Kölsch exactly?
Kölsch is the beer in Cologne. Walk into any bar or brauhaus in the city and order a beer. You will be getting a Kölsch. Depending on the type of bar you may be able to find different styles of beer besides Kölsch, but they will almost certainly be from a bottle and not on tap. Kölsch is a clear, light, and crisp lager that is warm fermented with top-fermenting yeast, then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. It is a quintessential beer-beer.
Kölners are extra proud of Kölsch because it is the only beer in Germany to have a special protected geographical status, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy or Champagne in France. In order to be properly called a Kölsch, German regulations stipulate that the brewery must be within 30 miles of the city and must brew the beer according to the Kölsch Konvention put forth by the members of the Köln Brewery Association. Like many other beers in Germany, Kölsch must also be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, or German purity law.
Culture of Kölsch in Cologne
Kölsch is not only a beer in Cologne. It also refers to the entire local culture, including the dialect, the humor and people. There is a saying in Cologne that says “Kölsch is the only culture that you can drink.” As such, there are a lot of traditions and rituals involved in drinking Kölsch and visiting a Kölsch brewery (brauhaus in German). If you are planning to visit one of the Kölsch beer halls, there are a few things you need to know ahead of time.
Service at a Kölsch Brauhaus
Service in a traditional brauhaus tends to be a standoffish, especially to those not accustomed to it. By American standards, the service can be straight-up rude. Don’t let it bother you though. This is quite normal in Germany and it just part of the experience. There is a specific word for Kölsch servers — Köbes — and they take their job quite seriously. They are very professional, but they are also responsible for lots of tables. Their visits to the table are usually quite short, and most won’t hang around to chat with you. They come for just enough time to swap out the empty glasses and mark down the new tally on your coast (more on that below!).
Kölsch beer is always served in small .2L glasses called a Stange. Due to the smaller serving size, the idea is that the beer will remain cold by the time you’re ready for the next one. Kölsch is served at a slightly colder than normal temperature. The glasses are made of thinner glass. Because of the thin tapered top of the glass, it is customary to cheers these beers from the bottom of the glass not the top.
Refills will come as soon as you are nearing the bottom of your glass. The Köbes will come by and replace your empty glass with a full one automatically. They won”t wait for you to order another. To keep track of how many Kölsch you’ve consumed, the Köbes will make a small tick mark or tally mark on your coaster. This process will repeat itself until you indicate you don’t want anymore Kölsch by placing the coaster on top of your empty glass.
Constantly swapping out the small empty glasses for full ones can be a lot of work, especially when the brauhaus gets crowded. The Köbes have developed an efficient little system however; they carry around specially designed trays for the glasses called a Kranz. You can see one in the lefthand picture below. The Kranz usually has slots that hold the Stange and prevent them from tipping or falling over. With this handy tool, the Köbes are able to walk around the brauhaus, swapping empties for full ones and marking coasters as they go. It’s a fun display to watch as you sip on your Kölsch.
Macro Kölsch Breweries in Cologne
Definitely one of the most popular breweries, Früh is a great well-rounded Kölsch beer. If you were only going to visit one brauhaus in Cologne, this would be a good choice. The Kölsh at Früh is slightly more malty and has a little more hop flavor going on than other Kölsh varieties which lends to its easy drinkability. The main Früh brauhaus by the Dom is a classic place, sprawling across different buildings and floors with winding hallways and mismatched rooms. Früh is almost always filled with Kölsch drinkers, tourists and locals alike. The food at Früh is pretty good, serving up iconic German and Cologne cuisine.
Reissdorf is another Kölsch brewery that is probably the most well known outside of Cologne. It also happens to Sam’s favorite of the macro breweries. The Kölsch has a slightly maltier and heavier taste with a great hoppy finish. The malts have a little more toasted flavor, lending to a beer with a bit more body and a broader malt flavor. Reissdorf, along with the other macro brands, is easily found throughout town, both in bars and stores. Unlike Gaffel and Früh however, Reissdorf does not have a dedicated brauhaus in the Cologne’s Old Town so you’ll need to pop into a bar to sample it.
Gaffel Kölsch is a very clean and crisp beer, more lager-like than other breweries. The beer drinks lightly due to its nice hoppiness, along with a slightly musty yeast note on the finish. The brauhaus, located right by the main Cologne train station is definitely worth checking out. Unlike Früh, Gaffel’s brauhaus is one main (and huge) open room with a more modern feel to it. The food at Gaffel’s brauhaus is the best of all the Kölsch bars on this list, so it is a perfect place to go before catching a train at the main train station.
Micro Kölsch Breweries in Cologne
Located on the northeast corner of Heumarkt, Brauerei Pfaffen’s bright orange exterior is unmissable. This family owned brewery has been around since the 1970s, serving up countless stanges of crisp, clean Kölsch. I find the service at Pfaffen is friendly, especially compared to the macro Kölsch breweries mentioned above. There is a patio in the front facing the Heumarkt square, but there is also a more secluded patio in the back which overlooks the small but cute Ostermannplatz.
Peter’s Brauhaus is a great little brewery right in the Old Town. This is my favorite Kölsch brauhaus. It is a quintessential German place frequented by locals and tourists alike. The Kölsch is smooth and crisp and always fresh from the tap. It is more challenging to find Peter’s in a store or outside the brauhaus, so this is a great place to bring people visiting from out of town because it is quite unique to Cologne’s old town area.
Brewed at the Brauerei zur Malzmühle just outside of the old town near Heumarkt, this small brewery has a cult-like following. Some people will only drink Mühlen! While still a Kölsch, the beer has a richer, hoppier flavor and a great malt backbone. A little harder to find around town, but definitely well worth a stop when you do. Their iconic windmill logo is easy to recognize.
Looking for something besides Kölsch?
Because Kölsch is so ubiquitous in Cologne, it can be challenging to find other types of beer in the city. There aren’t many taprooms that offer other types of beer. If you still want a visit a local brewery but don’t want Kölsch, check out Johann Schäfer. This micro brewery in Cologne’s Südstadt neighborhood offers an alternative selection of beer, including a house brewed Pils and Hell, alongside a selection of Kölsch.
If you’re a craft beer lover like my husband, there are two bars in Cologne worth a stop — Craftbeer Corner and Delirium Cafe. Both are located near Heumarkt in the Altstadt or Old City. These bars have a great selection of imported beer, craft beer, and unique brews that you won’t find in the after Cologne bar.