This is but a brief overview of the unique beer of Cologne or Köln as it is known it its native tongue. It is easier to use the German spelling so I will for the rest of this document. I have always found that Köln is a quite different city to others in the country. I presume this is rooted in history with a considerable French influence being exerted over the centuries. The difference extends to the indigenous beer, Kölsch, which is unique to the city. Kölsch is top-fermented, not unlike the ales of Britain. However after a short period of maturation it is then cold fermented in a closed system, as is lager.
This hybrid is a very light beer, straw coloured, and some of the breweries use an amount of wheat malt in the brewing process, but this is not exclusive. It is light, refreshing beer. However nearly all are around 4.8% abv so the 0.2 litre glasses they are served in are a godsend as they save the beer from going flat. With there being so many places to visit, a small beer enables the drinker to achieve more.
The beer is ubiquitous in the city. Köln is said to have 10,000 bars and restaurants, apparently a world record when considered per head of population. There are several beer halls in the city, some large and some small and some are owned by the breweries themselves. Please see photographs of some of these. They are very traditional and a little information won't go amiss. The waiters in the blue uniforms and aprons are known as "Köbes", a corruption of Jakob. They are the most important people in the room, as they are the only conduit between the barrel of Kölsch and your mouth, so don't upset them!
In a beer hall the Kölsch will be served directly from a large wooden cask into the glass. The tap of the barrel is left on almost continuously by the "Zappes" (the tapper) as the glasses are filled extremely quickly, a fascinating operation to observe.
They are then collected by the Köbes who places them into his "Kranz" (wreath), a tray with holes for about fifteen "Stangen" (rods, after the shape of these glasses) to take then to the thirsty customers in their area of service. At busy times he will carry more glasses balanced on top of the others.
Another thing to note in a beer hall; there is often a little office, the Theke, where certain administrative functions, mostly financial, are carried out. It is colloquially known as the "Beichtstuhl" (confession box because of its similarity).
All the beer halls serve food yet like the above there are many local idiosyncrasies and dialectic nuances. Firstly the menu, normally the "Spiesekart" is here a "Foderkaat". Most dishes are as elsewhere, but there are a few specialities of the Rhineland that are not all they seem to be.
In this category you will find "Halver Hahn", not a half of cooked chicken but a rye bread roll and a slice of smelly and runny Dutch cheese! "Himmel un Äd" in the local dialect translates as Heaven and Earth and it is mashed potatoes and apple topped with blood sausage and onions.
Often when onions are a side dish they're described as "mit musik", meaning of course "with music", I can't think what that means! "Kölscher Kaviar" certainly does not come from a fish but is fried blood sausage that has disintegrated, served with rings of a large onion. Sauerbraten is found throughout Germany and is extremely tasty beef that has been marinated in red wine vinegar. However the Rhenish Sauerbraten found in this area comes from the horse. So, don't be afraid, just be careful!
As previously mentioned beer in the beer halls is normally served direct from wooden casks, each one seems to be of a different capacity. A metal plate affixed gives the maximum contents in litres. At quieter times small barrels are used. Sometimes this method of dispense is found in the better bars. It is quite unusual to see a wooden barrel in these circumstances, often it is a dark plastic cask in a barrel shape, yet with no added gas. Though, more often than not, the beer is served through a normal font from a keg.
Like almost everywhere else Köln has seen many changes over the years and its brewing history goes back almost a 1000 years. In those days all beer was top-fermented and in the early days hops were not used. As mentioned before Köln remained loyal to top-fermentation whereas nearly all of the rest of Germany and most of Europe turned to bottom fermentation and cold conditioning.
A look at the number of breweries in the city over the years shows considerable consistency until the 20th century.
In 1471 there were 60. This had increased to 89 by 1500, but had dropped to less than 70 in 1555. This was because a brewing monopoly had been imposed and it was not possible to brew without a licence. The next 300 years show a steady increase: 1607 between 80 and 90, in 1793 there were 84. By 1822 this was 91, rising to 111 in 1849. The high point was in 1861 when there were 119. As a result of consolidation it was down to 71 by 1912. Following the First World War and the depression, it had slumped to 41 by 1933.
On the eve of the outbreak of the second war world in 1938 it was 38. As a result of carpet bombing most of the city was destroyed and the 1945 total was zero! Those breweries that survived had no access to raw materials.
Recovery was slow but steady, in 1947 there were 13. There must have been another high point in the 1950s, and in 1987 there were still 28 but the decline since then has been dramatic. In another article I list these 28 and trace the fate of the actual brewery buildings and their beers between.
The 2007 total was down to 16. That includes 4 that have opened since 1987 so the total of existing breweries was actually down to 12 although almost most of the old brand names survive. This piece was written in 2008 although I believe there has not been great change since then. In another article entitled "Kölsch: 1987 to 2007. Two decades of change" I individually analyse those 28 extant in 1987 and trace the fate of the actual breweries and their beers between then and 2007.