Cologne, Germany - Imagine hopping on the Amtrak to Philadelphia. And while in Phily, what if you could only drink one style of beer? A beer that's been brewed within the city limits for centuries and is unique from anything else in the world. Now board the return train to New York and do it over again. Another singular beer belonging to a proud neighboring city. That's the beer culture of Germany, and it's unlike anywhere in the world.
In Cologne (Köln in German), kölsch is pretty much the only thing on tap, and every bar, restaurant and brauhaus is likely to have only one. Kölsch is a super-light, crisp beer that combines the best aspects of ales and lagers. Aged like a lager (cold and long), it's brewed with ale yeast, which can give it some fruity notes that you don't normally find in a German lager. It's refreshing, low-in-alcohol and exclusive to Cologne. Want altbier? Head 45 minutes north to Düsseldorf. You won't find it in here.
We heard time and time again of rude waiters during our stay in Cologne. Go on Yelp. You'll see tons of 1 star reviews given by drinkers dumbfounded by the city's whirling, kranz-carrying waitstaff. (A kranz is the traditional wreath-like tray for carrying stanges--the slender official glass of kölsch.) The waiters aren't rude. With a little advance knowledge, you can be prosting like a pro.
Entering a brauhaus can be overwhelming. Most don't have a standard bar where you can order. Instead you'll see a tapped barrel (or keg) pouring kölsch. Find a surface of any kind and be patient. Once spotted, 0.2 liters of beer (6.7 oz) will find you, and it won't stop coming. No need to ask. When your beer empties, you'll get more until you eventually lay your coaster over to mouth of your stange. With every glass served, you'll get a new tally mark on your coaster (they love coasters). Below is list of some of our favorite spots:
Located next to the Dom cathedral, the entrance puts you in the middle of a throng of servers and flowing barrel. Take a seat (inside or out) or cozy up to a ledge and enjoy a few glasses of their super light, fruity kölsch.
Gaffel is our go-to imported kölsch (and always on tap at Greenpoint's Brouwerij Lane) It's the hoppiest of the kölsch you'll drink in Köln with a pleasant bitterness. Be sure to go to the location next to the Dom cathedral as the Alter Markt Gaffel-Haus location is no longer open.
Located about a 10 minute walk from the central Altstadt this tavern is full of people eating. Their kölsch is a bit more estery than the others around town.
Our favorite. Poured from traditional wooden barrels Paffgen tastes different every time you drink it (which was true at the two locations we tried) At the Innenstadt location if the barrel is kicked you get to see it lifted via crane.
The prettiest of the Brauhauses we stopped in - Peter's has lovely stained glass and hop chandeliers to accompany their light and easy-drinking kölsch.
Located in a quieter residential neighborhood the Reissdorf Brauhaus has more of a pub feel with a proper bar and soccer matches on the TV. Their kölsch is super crisp and easy to find in the US.
The first craft brewpub in Cologne, Braustelle does serve their version of an unfiltered kölsch along with a rotating list of beers that included pale ales, sours and a smoked stout when we were there. It's totally worth the trip out to the Ehrenfeld neighborhood which was filled with hip restaurants and bars.