The city of Köln in western Germany was founded by the Romans more than 2.000 years ago. Today, it is amongst other things famous for Carnival parades, Cologne Cathedral, the river Rhine and Eau de Cologne.
But there is another liquid that Köln is known for, and that’s their local beer Kölsch.
You may spend your day sightseeing and visiting the cathedral (Kölner Dom), the Roman-Germanic Museum, chocolate museum or shopping along Schildergasse, but a visit to Cologne is not complete without a stop in one of the many local breweries.
Kölsch is top-fermented, clear beer with prominent hoppiness. More than a dozen local breweries produce their own versions of Kölsch, which are all similar in fermentation, but slightly different in taste. Only Kölsch-style beer brewed within Cologne can be called Kölsch as it’s a protected name.
It is traditionally served in 0.2ml tall and narrow glasses, which are called Stange. The small size of the glass makes it a popular thirst quencher.
While there are traditional breweries right in the city centre, most do not produce on site anymore to make way for more seating and a more pub-like flair. A waiter called Köbes will put a glass of Kölsch in front of you as soon as you sit down in a Brauhaus. You’ll be able to easily spot a Köbes, as they wear blue uniforms and carry a Kranz (wreath) of up to 18 Kölschstangen, though they don’t consider themselves waiters. They are brewery assistants, which is something to remember should you happen upon one whose customer service is not up to what you’d expect from a waiter.
It’s tradition in Cologne that Köbesse exchange empty glasses with full ones unprompted. They will mark the amount you’ve had on a tally on your coaster and will only stop replenishing your drink when you put the coaster on your glass or signal them that you want to pay. All Kölsch in traditional breweries is on tap.
Many of the better-known Kölsch breweries, like Früh, Gaffel, Reissdorf and Sion are located between Cologne Cathedral and Deutzer Brücke, along the Heumarkt, Alter Markt and Rheingarten. Some of the smaller breweries can be found in narrow alleys, like Sünner am Walfisch or Brauerei Pfäffgen. And while I do not condone or recommend binge drinking, a pub crawl for some local samples (two glasses is still less than one pint) could round off your visit to Köln.
The people of Cologne love their pubs and their beer, and I always find that you meet the real Köln inside those breweries. Where they still speak their dialect, order local dishes like Flönz (a kind of black pudding), halve Hahn (even though it translates as “half a chicken” this is actually a bread roll, gouda cheese and mustard) and Himmel un Ääd (literally “heaven and earth” meaning apple puree and potatoes), and like to be quite jovial.
I recommend leaving the beer tasting for last, after you have exhausted all that Cologne has to offer. Believe me, the single, steep, narrow spiral staircase of the cathedral tower is hard enough to navigate sober.