This summer, opt for an elegant, eminently chuggable German ale that drinks like a lager.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
When the mercury climbs toward triple digits and clothes start dropping like it’s a Penthouse shoot, it’s time to reassess the suds you’re sipping. For decades, summertime in America has meant a call to arms—and hands—for icy canned beers, such as Bud Light and Coors Light. I love a frosty Silver Bullet tall boy as much as the next parched man sweating at the beach, but when it comes to that elusive balance of flavor and refreshment, I opt for one of Germany’s lesser-known beer styles: Kölsch.
Don’t be frightened by the umlaut. Kölsch is as accessible as it is trickily spelled. This light, elegant beer, hailing from Cologne, Germany, is a study in equilibrium, restraint, and meticulous craftsmanship. By and large, crisp lagers, whose bottom-fermenting yeasts prefer cooler temperatures, dominate Germany. (They also take longer to ferment, hence the term lager; lagern means “to rest” in German.) Rarer are ales, whose top-fermenting yeasts favor warmer temperatures, creating fruity flavors (a cloudy hefeweizen is an ale). Consider Kölsch the best of both worlds, like having a three-way with your mistress and your wife.
To develop Kölsch’s gentle, lightly fruity profile, the subtly bittered beer is fermented at toastier temperatures. Afterward, a stint of chilly lagering smooths out the sweet malts and adds a snappy character that’s suited for summertime drinking. The pretty, pale result is traditionally served in a narrow, cylindrical glass called a stange. (When drinking Kölsch at a bar in Cologne, brusque waiters called Köbes, who wear blue shirts and long aprons, deliver Kölsch on circular trays. They’ll keep bringing it till you slide a coaster over your glass.)
In the rush to create burly imperial stouts aged in bourbon barrels, and dizzying double IPAs made with bales of bitter hops, the subtle pleasures of Kölsch are often overlooked by brewers. But since this easy-sipping style is so summer-friendly, it’s increasingly become a favorite of those searching for an offbeat, hot weather offering. “I didn’t want to do a typical golden ale or a corn ale,” says Josh Brewer, the appropriately named brewmaster at Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, North Carolina. He created Endless River, a Kölsch that is crisp, refreshing, and highlighted by a gentle grassy bitterness. “I wanted something with a little more flavor.”
You should, too. Check out a few of our favorite cooler-worthy brews and buy a sixpack or two. We foresee a Kölsch crush in your future.