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Style Section: Kolsch

There’s a lot of beer out there, and you can try most of it if you just pull up a barstool here at Brasserie V. This ongoing series should help you get better acquainted.

Summer is officially here, and we’re doing our best to acknowledge it on our tap lines. Sometimes we fail miserably—hello, four imperial stouts!—but, for the most part, we pride ourselves on exhibiting an awareness of the seasons at the same time we’re blowing your minds with whatever blubbering insanity Mikkeller just came out with.

So for this inaugural edition of “Style Section,” we’ll be featuring a beer currently enjoying an extended summer tenure on our tap list. A torch-bearer of the old school, its continued success in a crowded, innovative market speaks volumes about its quality and staying power.

Reissdorf Kolsch
Cologne, Germany
4.8% ABV

See? This one.

See? This one.

Kolsch is one of the few styles of beer to enjoy something of an appellation controllee, essentially a series of geographical and/or chemical requirements for a style to be designated as such. This is why, for example, an American wild ale that is at least 30% wheat and spontaneously fermented is referred to as a “lambic-style ale” rather than an authentic lambic: it does not fulfill the geographical requirement of the style. Of course, for the sake of full disclosure, rating aggregate sites such as Rate Beer make no distinction, which is why the #1 kolsch in the world is currently Bluejacket Forbidden Planet, a dry-hopped variety from Washington, D.C.

So what constitutes a true kolsch? The stylistic guidelines are pretty broad, though geographical constraints narrow the field considerably; serving styles also vary, with gravity-poured casks being particularly popular in some of the Cologne cafes. That said, here’s what to look for:

1. A light malt base. Technically, any pale malts will do—homebrewers, take note—although a mostly-to-entirely pilsner malt base is ideal. It helps the beer attain its trademark crisp texture and cracker-like malt profile.
2. All-German, or at least German-originated, hops. Saaz, Spettnang, or Tettanger hops—all indigenous to Germany, the Czech Republic, or surrounding regions—lend the beer its mild, floral hop bouquet.
3. Ale yeast, lager conditioning. The kolsch could be technically designated a sub-style of the altbier, a German beer that is fermented with ale yeasts at traditionally warmer (59-75 degrees Fahrenheit), then conditioned at colder temperatures like a lager. The extended conditioning allows for a reduced yeast flavor, and subsequently places the malt and hops front and center.
4. It must be brewed in Cologne, Germany.

That last one is a kicker, but many purists believe that you must travel to Cologne and drink kolsch in one of the cafes that serve it, usually as their sole beer. Kegs may be utilized, though oftentimes a gravity cask—a wooden barrel containing live, still-fermenting beer—is tapped for ultimate freshness. The serving style in these cafes is also unique: waiters make their way around the hall or garden with three-tier trays containing many of the traditional 7-oz cylindrical kolsch glasses, filled with beer. When they serve you a kolsch, they make a tally mark on your coaster. When you’re finished, you simply set the coaster on top of your glass, and the waiter compiles your bill from the number of marks. We occasionally employ similar kolsch service at Brasserie V on special occasions, so watch out for any announcements!

This is a single serving.

This is a single serving.

That’s all well and good, but we don’t live in Germany. No matter—we’ve got access to many standard-bearers of the style, and Reissdorf is one of the finest. At less than 5% abv, you can enjoy more than one—as you’re meant to—while still taking pleasure from its subtle complexities: perfumey, dandelion-like hops, as well as a hint of mint and white wine. On tap for a few more weeks yet, it’s sure to quench your thirst. High-quality American examples include Ballast Point Pale Ale—try to forgive the misleading name—and Metropolitan Krankshaft Kolsch.