Tuesday 14 March 2017

Truman's gets all Kölschy

Tank lager for all to see
The invitation to the launch by Truman’s Brewery of a new ‘tank lager’ didn’t really grab my attention at first. After all, I’m not entirely persuaded that these tank beers are a Good Thing. Brewers claim it keeps the beer fresher, among other things, but there’s a bit of me that sees it as just a dressed-up version of the practice much-derided in the 1960s and 70s where keg beer was tankered to the pub, pumped in via a hose, and served from a large tank in the cellar – although in the modern versions the tank is made a feature of the bar, rather than being hidden away.

What piqued my curiosity was noticing that Truman’s RAW Lager was described as Kölsch-style, meaning it is top or warm-fermented like an ale, before being cold-matured as a Lagerbier*. (It was also described as unfiltered, meaning it’s not a Kölsch but a Wiess/Wieß, an even rarer style that’s made a minor comeback during the current German craft beer revolution – but that’s another story!)

The Kölsch aspect rang bells because it’s far from the only example I’ve come across lately. At the extremes, last year I met some new Irish craft brewers who had a Kölsch-style as the lager-equivalent in their range, usually alongside an Irish Red, a pale ale and the inevitable stout. I even heard of some North American beer-geek bars having four or five different Kölsches on tap at the same time.

Just a few years ago, Kölsch was one of those legendary things: not only was it a lagered ale but it was a Beer from the Old Days (in theory, at least**) that you could pretty much only get in its birthplace of Cologne – bar a few one-offs. I recall the now-defunct West London brewery Grand Union doing one in 2004, for example.

So how come Kölsch-style beers – done properly, I hope! – now seem to be pretty much everywhere? Part of it, especially inside Germany, is the realisation that while the name is protected – it's one of the few that has Europe-wide legal protection, not just protection within Germany like Berliner Weisse – the style is not. Indeed, the real historical Kölsch (as opposed to the modern version) would probably have had close cousins across a wide region. So now for example you can drink Bönnsch from nearby Bonn, a bit further south there's Trilsch from Trier, and most recently Bölsch from a jokey Berlin brewpub.

But it's also the realisation that for an ale brewer, it's a much easier step than going all the way to bottom-fermented lagers. It's also significantly cheaper, as Howling Hops head brewer Tim O’Rourke explained a few months ago while I tasted his cask-conditioned Kölsch-style beer, in both natural and smoked-tea variants. He’s done proper Pilsners too, but they tied up chilled tanks for many weeks while the beer fermented out and then matured. Kölsch could be done in half the time, which is superb when you’re short on space and you need lager to sell, not expensive ingredients locked up in storage for weeks on end.

The big brewers have known this for rather longer. Indeed, there’s been hard-to-confirm tales for many years that some of the major UK lager brands are top-fermented before lagering. One of the few to confirm this is Fuller’s brewing director John Keeling, whose Frontier lager is a top-fermented beer.

Enough about the wider world of Kölsch though: what of Truman’s RAW Lager? Firstly, no, I don’t know why it’s RAW in capitals. But there it was, I’d guess 500 litres of it, in a gleaming copper cylinder hanging above the bar of The Eagle, a newly-reopened (and Truman’s-affiliated) gastropub in Ladbroke Grove, which I hope to write more about later.

This glass is too big for authentic Kölsch!
Truman’s head of marketing Jasper Hossack confirmed the time element: “Our previous lager brews only went to a few selected customers – mostly old Truman's pubs, as it happens, We had to keep a small footprint with them because while ale takes a week [to ferment], lager takes up to a month.” He noted that the brewery is also installing three new 120-barrel fermenting vessels – their brewkit is 40-barrels so they’ll have to brew three times to fill each one, but with the longer overall process for RAW that’s not a problem.

He added that while a brewer can work around faults in an ale, “With lager there’s nothing to hide behind. You have to be so on-it, make sure it’s conditioned properly and so on. The tanker also takes a step out of the process as there’s no filling kegs.”

The first sips of RAW are tasty, refreshing and authentic: lightly hoppy, with dry-grassy and peppery noble hop notes over slightly sweet golden malt. Order a pint though, and further down the glass it changes. It becomes sweeter and yes, there’s a hint of a generic Brit-brewed Eurolager.

I guess this is why in Cologne’s pubs, Kölsch is only ever served in 20cl ‘Stange’ glasses – it needs to be drunk fresh, so as you finish one Stange the waiter quickly replaces it. Maybe Truman’s should consider investing in some branded Stanges lined for third-pint measures – that’s 19cl, so close enough, and it’d make a neat talking point!

*One of the problems with beer terminology is that ale and lager are not opposites – the terms refer to different parts of the brewing process. So you can lager a top-fermented ale, as the Kölsch and Alt brewers do, and I guess you could equally well sell a bottom-fermented beer without lagering it (does anyone ever do this? I’ve a suspicion it’s what at least some of the reinvented Zwickls and Kellerbiers amount to). 

**Modern Kölsch is largely a 20th century creation, developed to compete with Pilsner, Helles and Export lagers – remember here that the Bavarian Einheitsgebot [Law of Sameness] wasn't imposed on Northern Germany until the very early 1900s. Indeed, in the years of devastation following WW2 the Cologne brewers were rebuilding themselves as Pils brewers, before the founders of the Kölsch-Konvention persuaded them of the value of tradition.


  1. Replies
    1. Good question! I think it's the cold-conditioning, and the more I think about it, the more I suspect that, actually, the newer examples still aren't "proper". The real thing is lagered for at least a month, maybe two, some writers suggest around 5C is cold enough but what I heard in Cologne suggested they go a bit colder than that.

      What's your definition?