Before small American craft brewers began making lagers by the barrel, they embraced the kölsch. Fermented with ale yeast and cold lager temperatures, this hybrid is both fruity and crisp, and well-made examples are prized for their subtlety.
The style has its origins in Cologne, Germany, where it is brewed to precise specifications and falls under the Reinheitsgebot, or brewing purity law. It is a beer meant for gathering and comradery and in the city of its creation there are rituals involved with its consumption. Pubs and breweries that will serve round after round to patrons, making a tick mark on a coaster to indicate the number of glasses served. When the drinker has finally had enough, the check marks are tallied and a bill issued. That is not as commonplace in the U.S. nor is the proper glass: a Stange, a tall narrow glass.
For small breweries that opened in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, kölsch was an ale that could be served to traditional lager drinkers. Yet the style remains popular today both in Germany and the U.S., where brewers largely stick with tradition rather than seeking to add bells and whistles to their recipes. The style provides a soft malt character, a low hop profile and a playground for yeasty flavors to run rampant, although some brewers occasionally seek to push the envelope both in alcohol and hoppy characteristics.
Some breweries choose to call their kölsch a golden ale or even a summer ale, and while that is a bit of marketing, it still makes sense. The style is perfect for the summer months or anytime cool refreshment is called for. With mid to low alcohol and an unadorned nature, it is a great beer for the beach or a reward after some yardwork.
Look for a kölsch that is pale yellow in color, with a crystal-clear pour and a modest head. It’s one of the best options for stocking a cooler in the hot months of the year. A Stange is not necessary but encouraged.
Exhibit A Goody Two Shoes Kölsch Style Ale; $11/16oz 4 pack, 96 points. This is the beer, pint after pint, that delivers on the proper balance of the four main ingredients without weighing down the palate. Slightly fruity, with a floral hop character and a touch of minerality, it’s a beer for all occasions. It facilitates a good time and puts a jump in your step.
Westbound & Down/Bierstadt Lager Chicago Peaks Kölsch; $12/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. Crisp and slightly fruity, with a sweet finish, this collaboration pours a pale golden yellow. Refreshing and thirst quenching, it is a particular delight on hot, humid days when only something light will do the trick. It is a well-appointed ale that does a lot with simple ingredients.
Springdale Kölsch Money; $16/16oz 4 pack, 94 points. Golden yellow in color, with citrus accents, this is a beer you can drink all day, any day. An orange peel note emerges as the glass empties, along with a honey-like malt flavor.
Blackberry Farm Goat Hill Golden Ale; $12/12oz 6 pack, 93 points. This beer would be a welcome reward after a long day of activity. Not just for refreshment, but it challenges the taste buds with perfumy, floral hops that lead into a sweet and slightly fruity palate. It’s a rounded, full flavored pour.
Three Weavers Seafarer Kölsch-style Ale; $12/12oz 6 pack, 92 points. This beer is clean and refreshing, with a touch of sweetness on the finish. It has a little hop bitterness that appears on the midpalate and builds toward the finish in pleasing earthy and citrus-laden accents.
Dovetail Kölsch; $12/16oz 4 pack, 91 points. This is a crisp and slightly fruity Kölsch that delivers on refreshment sip after sip. Some will call this a lawnmower beer, but it is better suited for patio conversations, in a proper glass, with no immediate plans on the schedule.
Rosenstadt Kölsch; $12/12oz 6 pack, 91 points. This pours a dark yellow gold with a robust head. Whiffs of mineral water and bready malt arrive first, followed by earthy, slightly spicy hops. This glass would quickly empty over long afternoon conversation with friends.
Four Peaks Tribute Sunbru Kölsch-style Ale; $10/12o 6 pack, 90 points. This offers jaunty combination of ale sweetness and lager crispness, with a fruity thread bringing it all together. It is refreshing as all get out, is made for hot days.
Odell Kindling Golden Ale; $10/12oz 6 pack, 90 points. This kölsch is on the sweeter side, with a noticeable caramel malt note and a sweet flan finish. The hops play in the background alongside a slight citrus note. It’s full bodied and fun to drink.
Prost Kölsch; $10/12oz 6 pack, 90 points. This ale offers forward aromas of minerals and hops, with a clean malt profile and slightly fruity finish. It’s a proper day drinking beer at the ballpark or at home listening to the broadcast from the first pitch to the last out.