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Kölsch: Cologne, Germany's Easy-Drinking and Versatile Beer Style

Explore Kölsch, a unique German beer from Cologne that blends ale and lager qualities for a crisp, subtle, and refreshing taste. Perfect for all drinkers.

German-Style Kölsch Defined

The beer style known as Kölsch emerged in Cologne, Germany during the late 1800s, which combated the spate of bottom-fermented lagers that were prominent in the region. These clean, crisp and delicate beers are renowned for their subtlety. Despite technically being lagers, Kölsch beers are rather unusual among the lager family for being top-fermented rather than bottom-fermented. Top fermentation is usually reserved for ales, but this spritzy and delightful style bucks that trend in a major way.

German brewers have been top-fermenting beers since the Middle Ages. This brewing method occurs at a very high temperature, and the yeast drifts to the top of the fermentation tank during this process. In contrast, bottom fermentation uses far lower temperatures and the yeast remains at the bottom of the tank during brewing.

Kölsch Beer Characteristics

Pouring a crystal clear white or pale gold with a fleeting, delicate white head, these beers glitter beautifully in their glasses. Subtlety is the name of the game in this style, as its aroma can feature ultra-light malt notes, gentle whispers of fruit (apple, cherry or pear) and low levels of spicy hops.

In flavor, Kölsch beers are exemplars of balance. Soft, grainy-sweet malt leads the way followed by an often imperceptible sweetness and ending with a gently drying subtle crispness that leads connoisseurs to want to imbibe more and more of this style.

Kölsch or Köelsch Nomenclature: What's In A Name?

Technically, the name "Kölsch" only refers to beers produced in Cologne, Germany, but many other breweries in the U.S. and worldwide have embraced this intriguing style, which is known for its quenching qualities and tremendous quaffability. The Americanized spelling of "Koelsch" phonetically spells out the umlaut "o" in the original German.

Bridging the gap between ales and lagers means there's a lot for discerning drinkers to enjoy. However, this beer's similar body and flavor profile to far more commonplace styles such as Pilsners and Cream Ales means that even beer neophytes can enjoy this delightful style.

Defining Kölsch Beer: German Kölsch Style Attributes

German Kölsch Style Attributes

SRM (?) : 3 – 5
IBUs (?): 8 – 15
ABV (?): 4.4% – 5.2%

Color: Pale gold to light gold
Clarity: Crystal clear
Carbonation: Delicate white head that may dissipate quickly

Alcohol: Mild
Hops: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, Hersbrucker
Malts: Pilsner, Pale

How to Serve Kölsch Beer

Proper Glass (?): Stange, Kölsch Kranz (Tray)
Serving Temperature: 40-45 °F

Gaffel Kolsch Kranz serving Kolsch

This style of beer is best when poured into stange glasses, which are small, straight-sided glasses with heavy bottoms. These glasses are usually meant to be shared among a large bottle in kranz (trays featuring multiple stange glasses), meaning that multiple large bombers of this beer are meant to imbibed among friends and fellow beer fans.

However, stange glasses can be hard to track down, so a tall pilsner glass also works well for those that lack those. This balanced and subtle style tastes best after being slow-poured into its container. Be sure to rinse the glass and wipe clean before pouring. Follow these tips for a perfect pour of Kölsch:

  1. A slow pour begins by vigorously pouring the beer into its glass, with the aim of creating as much foam as possible all the way to the top of the glass.
  2. After the head subsides slightly (roughly 3 fingers below the top), vigorously top off the beer, creating plenty of head atop it.
  3. Approximately 5-7 minutes later, top off the pour (more gently) for the final time.
  4. Sit back and enjoy!

man holding glass of kolsch next to a delicious food spread

Kölsch Food Pairings

Kölsch is an extremely delicate, subtle and balanced beer style. As such, it goes wonderfully with a wide array of different dishes, but these few examples truly make the style "pop."

  • Salads: Off the bat, for the health-conscious beer connoisseurs among us, this style goes well with most salads. Its crisp, neutral flavor profile serves as a wonderful complement to many different types of greens.
  • White Cheddar Cheese: Another wonderful combination with Kölsch is a mature white cheddar cheese. The myriad flavors found with a well-made and well-aged cheddar erupt onto the palate when placed alongside the gentle mouthfeel and delicate fruity flavors of this style.
  • Seafood: Kölsch's light and refreshing character pairs excellently with seafood dishes, especially those with delicate flavors like grilled fish, shrimp, salmon, calamari or sushi. The beer's subtle malt sweetness and clean finish enhance the natural flavors of the seafood without overpowering them.
  • German Sausages: For a classic pairing, enjoy a Kölsch with traditional German sausages such as bratwurst or weißwurst. The beer's crisp carbonation and slight bitterness cut through the richness of the sausages, while its malt profile provides a complementary sweetness that balances the savory flavors.
  • Spicy Asian Cuisine: Kölsch's clean and refreshing qualities make it a fantastic match for spicy Asian dishes like Thai curries, vegetables or Vietnamese pho. Its light body and subtle malt sweetness help to cool the palate between bites, while its gentle hop character provides a refreshing contrast to the heat of the spices.

Kölsch Best Brands

These well-known and widely available brands are the highest-rated Kölsch beers that have been evaluated in The Beer Connoisseur's Official Review.

We recommend seeking out these exemplars of the style.

Sünner Kolsch by Sünner Brauerei

Sünner Kolsch
Sünner Brauerei
Rated 96 (World Class)

Full Circle New Holland Brewing Co.

Full Circle
New Holland Brewing Co.
Rated 95 (Exceptional)

Sion Kölsch by Radeberger

Sion Kölsch
Rated 95 (Exceptional)

Reissdorf Kölsch by Privatbrauerei Heinrich Reissdorf

Reissdorf Kölsch
Privatbrauerei Heinrich Reissdorf
Rated 94 (Exceptional)

Judging Criteria for Kölsch

The Beer Connoisseur’s Official Review is conducted in a single-blind format that adheres to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).

The BJCP criteria for reviewing Kölsch is as follows.

Style Family - Pale Bitter European Beer, Category 5

  • Category 5A. German Leichtbier
  • Category 5B. Kölsch
  • Category 5C. German Helles Exportbier
  • Category 5D. German Pils

Download the BJCP 2021 Style Guidelines (PDF version) for a full description of this style.

Popular Kölsch Brands

There are numerous brewers across the globe that produce this style, therefore it should not be difficult to find this beer style at your local retail store or on tap at your favorite brewery.

Here are a few examples of popular Kölsch brands:

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Kölsch an ale or lager? 

Kölsch is an ale. Originating from Cologne, Germany, it's fermented warm with ale yeast but then conditioned cold and bottom-fermented, imparting a crispness akin to lagers using a brewing method usually reserved for lagers.

What does a Kölsch taste like? 

Kölsch offers a balanced flavor profile with subtle fruitiness and a touch of malt sweetness. Additionally, it comes with a clean and crisp finish, which makes it a refreshing choice.

Where is Kölsch beer from?

Kölsch beer originates from Cologne, Germany, where it's been brewed for centuries.

Who invented Kölsch?

Kölsch as a beer style evolved over centuries in Cologne, Germany, with its precise inventor unknown. However, it gained recognition as a distinct beer style in the early 20th century. 

What is the difference between a pilsner and a Kölsch? 

While both are pale beers, Kölsch typically has a fruitier and slightly sweeter taste compared to the crisper, more hop-forward profile of a pilsner. Kölsch also tends to have less pronounced bitterness.

What beer is closest to a Kölsch? 

Blonde ales or light lagers like Helles are often considered similar to Kölsch due to their balanced flavors and light, refreshing character.

Is Kölsch beer sweet?

Kölsch exhibits a subtle malt sweetness, but it's not overly sweet. You will feel a hint of sweetness alongside a mild bitterness and crispness.

What makes a beer a Kölsch?

A true Kölsch is brewed within Cologne, Germany, adhering to Germany's Reinheitsgebot purity law. This is a type of ale that is brewed with top-fermenting yeast and conditioned like a lager.

Is Kölsch beer bitter? 

Kölsch typically boasts a balanced bitterness. It should never be overly bitter.

Is Kölsch a lager or pilsner? 

Kölsch is neither a lager nor a pilsner. It's an ale brewed in Cologne, Germany.

What is Kölsch and how does it relate to Cologne? 

Kölsch is more than just a beer style; it's a cultural emblem of Cologne, Germany. Brewed exclusively within the city's limits, it holds Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, embodying Cologne's brewing heritage and identity.

What category is a Kölsch beer? 

Kölsch falls under the category of pale, top-fermented ales. However, its unique brewing process and association with Cologne distinguish it as a regional specialty with its own distinct category.

How much is a Kölsch in Cologne? 

The price of a Kölsch in Cologne can vary depending on the establishment, ranging from around €1.50 to €3.00 per 0.2-liter glass served in traditional "Stange" glasses.

Are Kölsch beers sour? 

Kölsch beers are typically not sour. They're known for their balanced flavor profile and mild malt sweetness.

How to brew a Kölsch? 

Kölsch brewing process involves using top-fermenting ale yeast but fermenting at cooler temperatures and conditioning cold like a lager.

How many Kölsch breweries are there? 

Cologne is home to numerous breweries that produce this type of beer including both traditional and modern companies. While exact numbers may vary, there are roughly 20 to 30 breweries in the city crafting this iconic beer style.

How to drink Kölsch beer?

Traditionally, Kölsch is served in small, cylindrical glasses called "stange." Drinkers enjoy it fresh and cold, savoring its crispness and subtle flavors. Waiters continually replace empty glasses unless you signal to stop.

How to pronounce Kölsch in German?

In German, Kölsch is pronounced as "kœlʃ," with the "œ" sound similar to the "eu" in "neuter."

What does Kölsch mean in German?

In German, "Kölsch" refers to something from or related to Cologne, Germany. It's also the name of the local dialect spoken in the region.

How strong is Kölsch beer?

Kölsch typically has an alcohol by volume (ABV) ranging from 4.5% to 5.5%. As such, this beer style is typically quite sessionable and smooth.

How to store Kölsch?

To preserve its freshness, store Kölsch in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. If bottled, keep it upright to minimize oxidation. Serve chilled for the best drinking experience.

What is Fruh Kölsch?

Früh Kölsch is a brewery situated in Cologne, Germany. It has been very popular for producing Kölsch beer with a refreshing character.

When is Kölsch season?

Kölsch is a preferable beer style for the summer days or warmer months. However, it's available in bars and breweries in Cologne throughout the year.

Why is Kölsch served in small glasses? 

Kölsch is traditionally served in small, cylindrical glasses called "stange" to maintain its freshness and carbonation.

What does "Wääst" mean in Kölsch German? 

"Wääst" in Kölsch German translates to "you know" or "do you know." It's a colloquial term commonly used in conversation.

What is the best-tasting Kölsch beer? 

As per The Beer Connoisseur Official Review, the best-tasting Kölsch beer is Sünner Kölsch by Sünner Brauerei. But you won't have your own opinion until you try a few, so get out there and start sampling the style!

Easy to Drink, Versatile and Iconic: Our Take on Kölsch

In the grand tapestry of beer, Kölsch stands as a unique and delightful thread, weaving together the best of ales and lagers into a refreshing masterpiece. While technically a lager, Kölsch rebels against convention with its top-fermented nature, offering a crispness that's as surprising as it is satisfying.

Originating in Cologne, Germany, during the late 1800s, Kölsch emerged as a beacon of balance and subtlety among a sea of bottom-fermented lagers. Its crystal-clear pour, delicate malt sweetness, and gentle hints of fruit and hops make it a true standout in the world of beer.

But Kölsch isn't just a drink; it's a cultural emblem of Cologne, embodying centuries of brewing heritage and tradition. While traditionally served in small Stange glasses, this versatile brew pairs effortlessly with a variety of dishes, from salads to seafood to spicy Asian cuisine.

When it comes to choosing the perfect Kölsch, there's no shortage of exceptional options from authentic German breweries. But beyond the brands and accolades lies the true essence of Kölsch: it's a beer for everyone, whether you're a seasoned beer aficionado or a newcomer to the world of brewing. So raise a glass to Kölsch, and savor the pure pleasure of German beer enjoyment. Prost!

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