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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On Kolsch

It has been a couple years since I passed through Cologne--and probably that long since I blogged about the city's signature style. Yesterday, I encountered something that made me think it was time to revisit these light, crisp pale quintessentially summery beers. As easy as they seem to understand, it turns out there's still confusion about kolsches:

Did you spot the problem?  Germany and Bavaria are not synonymous (this confuses the history of Bavaria's ancient Reinheitsgetbot, too); Cologne is nowhere near Bavaria. 

But there is another issue, more subtle, more confusing. Is it an ale or lager? When I tweeted out that menu picture last night, a number of people said it was not just a mistake to call kolsches Bavarian, but to describe them as ales, too. They're sort of right--but that doesn't make them lagers, either. As with so many things German, the categories have been sliced more precisely:  

This middle-space, Obergäriges Lagerbier, indicates a top-fermented beer that has been lagered--a lagered ale. This distinction is useful to the extent that it illustrates the dual nature of the word "lager," which designates not only a yeast type (a noun), but also the practice of cold conditioning beer (a verb).  It harkens back to the era when yeasts were only dimly understood, but practices very well known. 

But as much as I respect Ron Pattinson and his knowledge about German beer, this is a needlessly pedantic distinction--and one I had a hard time finding Germans observe. When I was in Cologne, I asked about Obergäriges Lagerbier, and got curious looks for my trouble.  When I was touring the Kolsch brewery Reissdorf, I had an exchange with a brewer where I tried making Ron's point--and it was his point; I'd boned up on his vast treasury of blogging before my trip--but the brewer dismissed the distinction. "No," he told me, "it's an ale."  I think the world has shrunk enough now that the notion of ale as Americans understand it is typical, even in Germany. 

So you may call a Kolsch an ale without worry, or if you want to impress your friends, you can call it Obergäriges Lagerbier.  You might even argue that since it's a lagered ale, the word lager can be used in describing kolsches (though not by itself). 

 Just don't call it a Bavarian ale. 


  1. Shall I convolute the discussion further by mentioning 19th century American-made schenckbier and Bavarian ales?

  2. Your right, it's not a Bavarian style--but neither is it a kolsch. The word is "Kölsch." If you don't know how to make an umlaut, or are just to lazy to do so, you can spell it "Koelsch."
    Also, it's a singulare tantum: the plural form is "Kölsch" rather than "Kölsches" (to say nothing of "kolsches" which isn't even a word). Physician heal thyself.

  3. And Charlie for the pedant of the day award! I'm on a cell phone, so you get no umlauts. Additionally, since I write in English, I am not obliged to follow German grammar. But extra points for demanding it.

  4. Craig, absolutely. We're in the land of pedantry and convolution. Everyone else has had their eyes glaze over while we debate minute things.

  5. So what spelling errors do you excuse when you're using a pencil?
    Sorry, just being a jackass. All I really wanted to do was use the "physician heal thyself" bit. But in all seriousnesd, 1) this is a blog--by definition the land of quibbling, and 2) don't use foreign words if you don't want to use them correctly.

  6. Yes, God invented blogs for quibbling. Carry on.

  7. Jeff, turning an umlaut into a ligature of letter + e is not a German rule, it's an English one. It has been the commonly accepted way to translate umlauts into English since at least the 19th century, when ae, oe, etc were common ligature blocks in typefaces. See also the english names Koenig, Goebbels, Boehner. So yes, "koelsch" is the correct way to spell it in English.

  8. Also, Pattinson is wrong on this one. The oldest sources describe the beer of Cologne as "top fermenting," but this was when the Rhineland was basically a collection of city-states. Remember that the RHGB established the law in all of the newly-formed German nation as a bargaining chip for the powerful Bavarian elite, many of whom had a financial interest in brewery. A German-wide RHGB was more about industry protection and economic brutality than it was "purity."

    I suspect "top-fermenting lagerbeer" was legalistic hand-wringing, invented to circumvent the law. Kind of like turbid mashing, in a way. I have no proof of that, just a suspicion, but its use is definitely on the way out.

    If for no other reason that we know a lot more about the biology of yeast now. As far as I know, there are both top and bottom fermenting ale yeasts, but there are no top fermenting lager yeasts. Making "Obergäriges Lagerbier" a literal contradiction. That doesn't stop things like "dunkles weissbier," but the difference here is that "dunkles weissbier" is meaningful in a descriptive sense to Germans, whereas "Obergäriges Lagerbier" is not.

    There's evidence of its use in packaging, labelling, etc. in the 19th century through today, but that does not mean there is any evidence that there is a meaningful, descriptive value to it among German speakers. Which would be the litmus test for lexicography (which is more or less what you are doing: beer lexicography)

  9. Cologne had its own Reinheitsgebot which forbade the brewing of bottom-fermenting beer.

  10. Dare I join the pedantry? Of course. I'm on board with Obergaeriges Lagerbier because it implies an important part of the production of the beers: lagering. Why do most US "Koelsches" taste like blonde ales and not like German Koelsch? Because they're made like traditional ales and not as Obergariges Lagerbiers. So while some may not like the "top fermented lager" label, the term actually implies a production method which is absent in most US made versions.

    The problem with US-centric taxonomy of world beer styles is that many foreign beers don't fit the classification we've forced on them. Rather than acknowledge that, many of us would rather keep forcing the round peg into the square hole.

  11. Cologne had prohibitions against bottom fermenting yeast since at least the 15th century, though, centuries before the RHGB was made law of the land throughout Germany. They weren't called "lagerbier" then.

    As for "lager" meaning "this beer is stored cold during production," I'm not sure that holds in modern, traditionalist breweries in Bavaria. There are still "lagers" that are served young.

    I think the use that's increasingly prevalent amongst German brewers is that "lager" means the yeast species. But that's a technical term, I don't think that's filtered down to your average German beer drinker.

    "Ale" isn't a meaningful term to German drinkers I don't think, but at the same time I'm not sure "top fermenting" is either. The only way to know would be to go out and poll usage, but based on purely anecdotal evidence, "Koelsch" is simply the beer made and served in Cologne.

    But you are also not likely to go into a bar and see 20 different beers with descriptions written underneath them, either. American craft beer is a jargon-filled, dilettante experience in a way that German breweries are not.

  12. My view is that as Americans, we can use our own language as we wish. Everyone does this. We call the country "Germany," for example, without causing widespread confusion or offense. Beyond that, words have at best provisional meanings, and trying to figure out what people called ales in Cologne in te 16th century (when they were making different beers) has very little relevance to what we should call kolsches--ahem, koelsch--in the United States in the 21st century. Moreover, it is pedantry in the extreme.

    Kolsch is an ale. Americans often render it Kolsch. There's no mistake here.

  13. They didn't call them ales, no. Despite evidence of the word in anglo-saxon, "ealu" seems to have dropped out of old high German, for whatever reason. Today, it has a very technical sense in America, not so much in the UK, but it's *that* sense that has ended up back in German.

    Language changes, and you're essentially making a dictionary of beer, one that has to balance synchronic (one period of time) and diachronic (a large span of time) usages. Such things inevitably require compromise.

    Synchronic, diachronic, prescriptive, descriptive: no matter what, though, "Kolsch" is misspelled. You can only follow modern usage so far, or every internet misspelling is fair game. There are accepted renderings of foreign words into English: Cologne is one. ö either keeps its umlaut or it turns into oe. Them's just the facts.

  14. Synchronic, diachronic, prescriptive, descriptive: no matter what, though, "Kolsch" is misspelled. You can only follow modern usage so far, or every internet misspelling is fair game.

    So says the prescriptivist. :-)