It was the trip to visit friends who live just outside Cologne that gave me the idea. The mothers and children were off to an indoor play-centre on Saturday afternoon, so I decided to take the train into the city and see what I could find...
RateBeer gave me the start: there were several listed and mapped, none of them especially near the Hauptbahnhof, but hey, it was a nice day for a walk. My first target was Päffgen which was a lovely old place but a bit confusing. The entrance corridor is also the busy service area supplying the waiters from the kitchen, so for a moment you wonder if you've accidentally gone in the wrong door.
I'd read that you may need to share a table, but when I tried to do just that in the salon, the waiter told me all the tables there were booked (for a group, I think he said). Fortunately the glassed-over yard at the back had plenty of room, and it didn't take too long to get the waiter's attention and order - what else? There isn't anything! - a Päffgen Kölsch.
Kölsch is a top-fermented (obergärig in German) and warm-fermented (15-20C, versus 5-9C for bottom-fermenting) style, like British ales - though with its own ingredient list, of course. The other difference is that, after fermentation, Kölsch is lagered, ie. matured in tanks in a cold cellar before casking.
And despite my cold, it was gorgeous - gold with a white head, a light aroma of hops and cereal, fruity and
crisp, with peachy malt notes and a well balanced hoppy bitterness. So I wasn't too upset when I discovered another local custom, which is that the waiters tour around with a special tray called a Kranz, this has holes to hold the 20cl cylindrical Stange glasses that the beer's traditionally served in. The Kranz is loaded up with full glasses, and when they see an empty glass they simply replace it with a full one and add a pencil mark to your beermat...
Next on my route was Hellers but to my considerable surprise it was closed! I later discovered it doesn't open until 5pm, which might make a certain sense on weekdays, but not on a Saturday, surely?
So with dusk falling and my legs getting just a tad tired, it was back towards the station and my third target, Malzmühle (Malt-mill), the home of Mühlen Kölsch. By now it was nearly 4pm on a Saturday in December, with the Christmas market in full swing not far away, so it was already very busy - and still getting busier...
Again, it didn't take too long to catch a waiter's attention, and the next time a Kranz passed by it delivered me a Stange. This too was good - a nice balance of hops and malt, with a dry and hoppy finish. Not quite as good as the Pfaffen perhaps, but certainly good enough to stay for a second!
Waiting for my lift when I got off the train, I had an idea: there was a supermarket over the road, and given its location near Cologne it was bound to stock Kölsch. (The German beer market is rather local - a shop near Cologne might have five or six Kölsches, whereas one outside that area might have none or maybe Früh, which seems to be the most widely distributed.) Sure enough, it had a couple I'd not seen before - and then when my wonderful wife turned up with the car, she'd been shopping too and found me four more I'd not tried before!
So I was able to spend the following week or so tasting different Kölsch beers - and it was an interesting experience. Kölsch has a certain legendary status among beer-buffs as one of the few remaining old German ale styles - those beers that survived the 19th century onslaught of bottom-fermented lager and then the 19th-20th century massacre perpetrated by Pilsner.
Yes, many Germans don't seem to realise it, but German Pilsner is barely a century old. Ancient brewing tradition? Yeah, right - pull the other one...
Anyway, some of these were rather nice - the Peters especially, plus the Gaffel and the Richmodis (not surprisingly, as it's also a Gaffel brand - brewery closures and consolidations happened here too). But while the other three were OK, I might as well have been drinking Pils - I found little that was distinctively Kölsch about them.
It's almost as if the breweries had said, "Well, we've got this traditional name that everyone's very proud of, but Pils is the big seller. Why don't we knock all the flavour out and Pilsify it, then the Pils drinkers might buy it." So sad, it really is - and how lucky I was to start this particular set with one of the best!
PS. Via a helpful comment (below) I subsequently learnt that Kölsch brewing had pretty much died out by WW2, and was only revived by a concerted effort in the 1950s. Most, if not all, of the local breweries had gone over to the likes of Pils and Weizen by that time, which would explain the character of modern Kölsch.
Certainly, medieval Kölsch would have been significantly different from the modern version - it would not have been crystal-clear and golden, for a start. There's a load of Kölsch history on the Kölner Brauerei Verband website (all in German, mind you!), I've had a dig through but I can't yet find any descriptions of medieval Kölsch bar a reference to "good brown beer" or somesuch.