Kölsch for beginners: a tour of Cologne beer

Cologne beer carrying trays
These days, Köbesses have useful tools for serving beer

Below the Cologne Cathedral, dozens of traditional breweries uphold a tradition of tiny 0.2 litre glasses for the traditional Cologne beer, and brusque waiters. We took a tour to get a better understanding of the “Kölsch” Cologne beer tradition

Cologne Dom

A prospective bride in green and yellow frills, a printed t-shirt and ill-fitting Mickey Mouse ears stares gloomily at her beer, while her friends chatter away. Then she gets up once more, trying to sell useless small items to passers-by. Although it is a cool and grey Saturday, the beer hall on Cologne’s Alter Markt is crowded. Even the tables on the pavement outside are all occupied. No space for our small guided “Kölsch Knowledge” tour. We remain standing while considering another brand of hop-intensive top-fermented filtered alcoholic beverage.

The Cologne beer tradition

Carnevalists in Cologne masked as Cologne beer glasses

It is only since 1986 that beers bearing the label “Kölsch” are required to have been brewed within the city limits of Cologne. Today you have to be at least 16 years old to buy beer. Of course, even small children learn that too much of the yellow barley drink is bad for your health. But a century ago beer was considered a healthy beverage, that is: a relatively germ-free liquid very suitable for everyday cooking and even for children?

“When I was a child, I often had lunch at a friend’s house. His parents ran a pub and they would always give us beer with the meal”

J. recounts the early postwar period. “But I wouldn’t tell my parents. I don’t think it was considered proper then.”

The beer may have been lighter then than it is today, but it certainly had a similar taste. When the Cologne brewers started producing the stuff in the Middle Ages, however, making beer was still a matter of luck. Fermentation occurred spontaneously due to yeast spores in the air (mysteriously, it worked better near bakeries), and dirty water could hamper the whole process. Taste, apparently, also depended on fate or good luck more than on skills. The better-off pub visitors would bring not only their own fancy glasses – normal folk only got a ceramic beer mug – but also a piece of nutmeg and a grater to add some spice.

The Köbes: a tradition of serving beer

We have long moved to another beer hall, and the Köbes appears to gruffily exchange half-empty glasses for full ones. All the waiters in the Kölsch beer halls are called Köbes, meaning Jacob. The name is a remnant of the time when they were pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela stranded in Cologne. Serving beer was a means of earning some money for the next stretch of the journey. Today’s Köbesses stick to their “tradition” which dictates that the Köbes rather than the customer is king.

If you don’t want another glass of beer, you have to put the coaster on top of your glass. The typical Köbes won’t ask for preferences and certainly doesn’t like to serve anything but the standard Kölsch in its thin 0.2 litre glass.

View of Cologne

NB: Our trip to Cologne and the Cologne beer tasting was not sponsored in any way. We paid all the expenses ourselves.

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