Cologne is western Germany’s biggest city, cultural hub, and – for beer lovers – a must-visit destination for their famous beer: Kolsch.
The best Kolsch beers are expertly brewed, delicate, refreshing, and subtle. It’s a traditional German pale beer famous for its lager-like characteristics, but unlike lager, Kolsch is top-fermented. These sparkling ales exhibit subtle, fruity yeast-derived esters. To complement this delicate fruitiness, Noble hops are used to provide a pleasant floral and herbal touch. The bone dry finish and clean malt backbone make this beer one of the most refreshing styles.
Here’s our list of the very best Kolsch beers from Germany and abroad.
Kolsch is a pale colored, light bodied ale from Cologne, Germany. At around 5% ABV, Kolsch is top-fermented but exhibits clean, crisp lager-like qualities.
Kolsch is a style that has been brewed in Cologne for over 100 years. A source of pride for locals, Kolsch is enjoyed in the many pubs of the city by the stange – tall, thin 200ml (6.75 oz) glasses. Throughout a tumultuous 20th century, the style has, against all odds, survived the test of time. It not only made it through the World Wars, but also against the rising popularity of bottom-fermented lager. Today, Kolsch is more popular than ever in Germany and around the world.
Drinking Kolsch in Cologne is a cultural experience. In fact, the name Kölsch is protected under the Kolsch Konvention. Within the European Union, only Cologne breweries may use the name Kolsch to market their beer.
Many breweries brew Kolsch-style beers because they can turn around a clean, lager-like beer in a much shorter time. Often, craft breweries don’t have the equipment to properly lager and ferment at cold temperatures. Kolsch, being a warm fermented ale, gives them the opportunity to offer a clean, crisp beer, no matter their brewery’s equipment.
If you’re a lager lover, you will certainly enjoy a crisp, cold Kolsch. For family or friends who tend to drink mass-produced commercial lagers, convince them to try a German or craft brewed Kolsch. The light body, balanced bitterness, and crisp drinkability will surely win them over.
Brewing a great Kolsch is a sign of a great brewer. The style is austere and restrained. Given that, Kolsch can come across boring, especially when badly executed. It takes a fine balance and keen eye for detail to make a remarkable Kolsch.
Refreshing, lager-like attributes are paramount in a great Kolsch. Usually, after fermentation is over, breweries will cold condition their Kolsch to smooth out the flavors. Although not necessary, cold conditioning helps refine this delicate beer, making it extra-crisp.
Kolsch’s balance between malt sweetness and hop bitterness is one of the hardest to achieve in any beer style. There is no singular dominant trait in Kolsch: it’s truly a style that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. A smooth mouthfeel is backed by crisp bready malts, but present hop bitterness makes the style very drinkable. Hop flavor is usually subdued, adding a light floral contrast to the fresh grain and crackery backdrop.
Unlike lager, Kolsch is not devoid of fruity yeast esters. A very light fruitiness – think pear or grape – is desirable in Kolsch. The warmer fermentation temperature produces these delicious esters. Subtle fruitiness makes Kolsch smoother and rounder, softening the bite from the high levels of carbonation.
Kolsch is a style deeply rooted in tradition. The best examples, from the city of Cologne itself, differ only subtly among them. Brewers outside of Cologne seek to mimic the artfully brewed traditional product.
On top of the traditional, in a flooded beer market, craft brewers riff on the classic with their own personal touches. Whether that’s accentuated hop profiles or experimenting with yeast, modern Kolsch-style beers have a range of flavors.
As the style’s gold standard, Reissdorf is the largest Kolsch brewery and most famous globally. Reissdorf is a proud export of the city and fantastic representation of the Kolsch style.
Clean malt and bright hoppiness make Reissdorf one of the most flavorful traditional Kolsches. A golden yellow, highly carbonated body, floats a fluffy egg-white head. Aromatic Noble hops mesh elegantly with a light fruity yeast character. Reissdorf is the textbook Kolsch and finds the perfect match between drinkability and flavor. It’s ultra crisp with a perfect harmony of maltiness, hops, and subtly fruity yeast.
Drinking the best, freshest Kolsch requires a trip to Cologne. The Päffgen Brewhouse should be your first stop. Lively and usually jam-packed, this expansive and historic beer hall is teeming with German beer culture.
Päffgen Kölsch is soft, delicate, and endlessly drinkable. It’s ethereal. It might help that it’s a keg-only beer and you need to get it directly from the source. But there’s no denying, Päffgen is an incredible beer. Herbal Noble hops dance on the light, malty body and a creamy and dense head lasts ‘til the final sip. Full bodied yet still dry and crisp, Päffgen is a Cologne treasure.
Suarez is becoming the go-to for traditional German styles brewed in the U.S., or anywhere, really. Their lagers are second to none, and their Kolsch – called Fine Line – is one of America’s best.
Soft and smooth, extensive cold conditioning helps round out Fine Line to lager-like crispness. But unlike most of Suarez’s lagers, their Kolsch has very subdued hoppiness and a unique bready sweetness. Thirst-quenching, complex, and delicious, Fine Line is a perfect homage to German brewing precision.
pFriem Family Brewers make an impressive Kolsch. This is unsurprising for a brewery with such deep respect for German brewing. Simply called Kölsch, pFriem Family aspire for traditional accuracy with their rendition.
Sweet malts balance light Noble hops to create a very intricate Kolsch, with a touch of floral spice. Bright yellow and finely carbonated, pFriem’s Kolsch stands out in their range of traditional German and Czech ales and lagers.
Gaffel Becker & Co. have been supplying Cologne’s faithful beer drinkers with crisp, top-fermented beer since 1908. One of Cologne’s most beloved brands, Gaffel Kölsch is quite unique among its peers.
Clear pale golden yellow, Gaffel Kölsch has a distinct lager-like character, with a touch of sulfur. Moderate bitterness, clean malt profile, and subdued yeast esters create a very smooth, crisp beer.
Trillium brewing a Kolsch? This hop-centric New England brewery is renowned for juicy, saturated New World hop flavor. No surprise, their take on a Kolsch is heavily inspired by their affection for hops.
Sprang is definitely a Kolsch at heart, fermented with a traditional Kolsch yeast. It’s held at cooler temperatures than their regular ales for a subdued ester profile, making for a crisp and clean beer. To this modest base, the very finest Nelson Sauvin – a hop known for its wine-like juiciness – is added during the boil and dry hop. What we get is a clean, India Pale Lager-esue crushable beer with an explosion of aroma and flavor from the pungent New Zealand hops.
Steps away from Cologne’s famous Cathedral – the Dom – Brauhaus Früh am Dom serves Kolsch to hordes of locals and tourists alike. For the best place to taste Früh Kölsch and experience authentic German pub food, this traditional brauhaus is a must-visit.
Cölner Hofbräu Früh, founded in 1904, makes this delicious beer: the Früh Kölsch. As the second largest Kolsch brewery, their version of the city’s famous beer is pure and delicious. Clean and very pale, Früh is the most refreshing and crisp Kolsch in Cologne. A great tasting and easy to drink beer, and perfect compliment to some indulgent German food.
Specialists of subtlety, Fox Farm is the perfect craft brewery to try their hand at Kolsch. The result? A delicate, balanced, lightly fruity, and sessionable crusher called Bower.
5.3% ABV, slightly opaque yellow body, and fine carbonation, this unfiltered Kolsch-style ale is a simple beauty. Crisp and clean, a slight yeast fruitiness leans into a present hop bitterness. Delicate notes of melon, hay, and light bread make this beer a great interpretation of the style from one of America’s finest craft breweries.
Asheville, North Carolina has a slew of top-notch breweries. Quickly rising to the top of that list, is Burial Beer Company. Known for hazy IPAs and pastry stouts, Burial also brews up some fantastic and delicate beer styles, like Pilsner, Saison, and Kolsch.
Along with Trillium’s Sprang, Billows is an example of an American, dry hopped Kolsch-style beer done right. Relying on the unique, clean fermentation profile from the Kolsch yeast, Billows is super refreshing. First you get an orangey and piney Mandarina Bavaria and Centennial dry hop aroma. Then, clean fruit-forward esters balance a crisp and malty finish.
Under the Southern California sun, a crisp, refreshing beer is sometimes all you need to cool down. L.A.’s Three Weavers brew their Kolsch-inspired Seafarer precisely for this purpose. In contrast to their excellent lineup of American ales, Seafarer is a delicate interpretation of the German classic.
Seafarer keeps it West Coast with a spirited bitterness that should please American IPA fans. Despite this slightly higher IBU, the beer remains to-style, refreshing, and easily drinkable. Bright and crisp, floral hops balance a faint malt sweetness, keeping this Kolsch light and thirst quenching.
To drink true Kolsch, you need to travel to Cologne, Germany. For beer lovers, it’s a required pilgrimage. The lively, historic city has a vibrant beer culture, packed with Kolsch-centric bars and a unique drinking experience.
For the best stange in all of Cologne, don’t miss these bars and restaurants:
- Brauhaus Päffgen
- Max Stark
- Brauhaus Früh am Dom
- Brauerei zur Malzmühle
Kolsch is considered a hybrid style. Fermented cooler – like a lager – but with a top-fermenting ale yeast, Kolsch is a very clean, lager-like ale. Many brewers choose to cold condition – or lager – their Kolsch beers to round out the flavor and enhance clarity. But even if a Kolsch is lagered, it is still considered an ale due to its top fermentation.