Yee Haw Kölsch!
How beer from Cologne became a global success story
Though their names include the word “kölsch”, referring to a pale ale brewed in and around Cologne, talk to anyone from Cologne about Eisenbahn Kölsch or 4 Pines Kölsch and you’re likely to get a puzzled look. Not to mention “Old King Kölsch”, which sounds more like a very merry Christmas carol! But they are all real beers, produced abroad, where kölsch-type ales have seen a rapid boost in popularity over the last decade. Back in Germany, on the other hand, kölsch accounts for less than 3% of the overall market and is more of a niche product.
This trend has come about due to a variety of factors. In fact, in Cologne itself, there are quite a lot of kölsch brands. The city’s brewery association has nine producers in its membership, supplying vast quantities of 16 well-known brands. There are also a number of microbreweries with a smaller output, such as Ehrenfelder Braustelle with its Helios beer.
A protected beverage, just like champagne
The thing all these beers have in common is that they are brewed in or around Cologne, as guaranteed by the Kölsch-Konvention. The convention was adopted by local brewers in 1986 as a way of linking the typical character of their products to a narrowly defined geographic region. In 1997, the convention’s scope was expanded to take in the entire European Union. Kölsch thus now enjoys similar protection to champagne or products specific to other wine-growing regions.
The success of the craft beer movement has not caused much change in the German beer landscape either, unlike in other countries. In the US, for example, the beer market was almost completely controlled by a handful of big players right up to the 00s. But then things started to move quickly and now regional brewery culture has made a comeback in almost every town on the map. Initially, brewers flooded the market with high-hop-profile India pale ale (IPA) and coffee-toned porter. The beers were strong in taste and often had a high alcohol content of 6 to 8.5%.
Once beer fans had had their fill of these products, many of them started looking for more accessible beers. On their quest to meet this demand, brewers came across kölsch – widely considered an extremely light beer due to its moderately bitter tones and alcohol content of no more than 5%. And that’s why, from Los Angeles to New York and Seattle to Miami, lots of places now serve kölsch copies – though they are often incorrectly spelled “Kolsch” or “Koelsch”.
Since the protected geographical indication does not apply across the pond, visitors to the Bricktown Brewery in Oklahoma City can savour that Old King Kölsch we mentioned earlier. And patrons at the Eisenbahn-Brauerei in the South Brazilian city of Blumenau get to enjoy a kölsch as well as the pilsner und rauchbier the brewery sells. There’s also the 4 Pines Brewery, located in a suburb of Sydney, with an impressive, golden kölsch that has an alcohol content of 4.6% – just as it should be. But perhaps the weirdest of the lot is an ale brewed in Pigeon Forge in the state of Tennessee. It comes in a bright yellow can, goes by the name of “Yee Haw Kölsch” and tastes pretty much like the real thing.
Cease and desist letter for “India pale kölsch”
Cologne’s brewery association sees these beers as shameless fakes but feels it wouldn’t make economic sense to take legal action against them. The same does not apply, however, for similar attempts in the EU. For instance, a Dutch brewer recently tried to launch an “India pale kölsch” and promptly received a cease and desist letter from the association. In accordance with the Kölsch-Konvention, such offences can result in a fine of up to 125,000 euros.
Incidentally, some overseas brewers endeavour to show their respect for kölsch’s protected status by calling their products “kölsch-style beer”. Many of them also adhere to the German Reinheitsgebot (“purity law”) as well as using hops and malt from Germany. But, what with the water not being from Cologne and the typical, thin kölsch glasses never having really taken off in the New World, it looks like the true kölsch experience is set to remain limited to the drink’s original home.
„Drink like a German“
The only place that doesn’t have this problem is the remote US state of Idaho. Located in its capital, Boise, the “Prost” bar (whose slogan is “Drink like a German”) holds a “Kölsch-Fest” every July – with products imported directly from the Rhineland’s largest city. Big-name brands such as Reissdorf, Gaffel, Früh and Sünner flow from the tap straight into brewery-issued kölsch glasses. The only thing you won’t find back in Germany is the price: $12.50 per litre.
1 North Oklahoma Avenue, Oklahoma City, USA,
274 North 8th Street, Boise, Idaho, USA
Web: www.prostboise.com | www.facebook.com/events/prost-boise/kölschfest-2019/336076627344831
Kölner Brauerei-Verband (Cologne Brewery Association)