How To Brew Kolsch: Smooth, Crisp, Refreshing Homebrew

Homebrewing lagers can be time intensive and costly. Kolsch, that clean, snappy, German ale, is a great alternative to brew a thirst quenching and crisp, easy drinking beer.

Kolsch is a great style to homebrew because it’s fermented at ale temperatures. This clean and crisp style can be brewed to be as refreshing as a lager in a fraction of the time. Using high quality Pilsner malt, Noble hops, and Kolsch yeast, a crowd pleasing light beer is achievable for any level of homebrewer. With a bit of attention to detail, homebrewed Kolsch can be as good as a fresh stange in a Cologne bar!

What is a Kolsch?

Clean and crisp are usually terms reserved for lagers. But Kolsch, that deliciously delicate German ale, can have a refreshing drinkability that rivals the world’s best Pilsners.

How To Brew Kolsch

Pale to golden yellow, crystal clear, and highly carbonated, Kolsch is a traditional beer from Cologne, Germany. At around 5% ABV, with moderate bitterness and a crackery malt backbone, Kolsch is extremely thirst quenching. Being top-fermented, with specially selected ale yeast, this style has light, fruity esters that round out and soften the beer.

Kolsch is made with only the finest quality ingredients. Light pilsner malt forms the majority of the base grain, with small amounts of either Vienna, Munich, or Wheat malt added for a bit of color and body. Delicate use of the freshest German Noble hops provide a herbal, floral spiciness, which are never overpowering. Balanced bitterness keeps it easy to drink, while complimenting the fruity yeast-derived esters.

What makes a good Kolsch?

Kolsch is one of beer’s most subtle styles. Unassuming and often underappreciated, Kolsch blurs the line between crisp lager and fruity Blonde ale. Some versions of Kolsch are, in fact, more lager-like. Others can be fruitier, with a slightly more ester-heavy fermentation profile.

Color-wise, a great Kolsch should be brilliantly clear and pale to golden yellow. Darker beer is a sign of oxidation, excessive boil caramelization, or poor grain bill choice. Crisp, crackery malt flavors should come primarily from Pilsner malt, which gives a bright, inviting color.

Bitterness should be subdued and hop flavor and aroma are also minimal. Overly hoppy examples are usually less refreshing and can muddle the beer’s delicate nature.

Light fruity esters come from the use of specific top-fermenting German ale yeast. With a fermentation temperature of about 60°F, ester production is minimized. A longer-than-normal primary ale fermentation allows for a clean and crisp profile, and dry finish. After primary, extended cold conditioning – or lagering – is usually done to smooth out the beer and further increase the crispness.

Overall, a great Kolsch should have a fine balance between sweet malts, hoppy bitterness, and a dry, refreshing finish. Spritzy carbonation should give the crystal clear body a beautiful cascade of bubbles, and produce a fine, dense foam. Refreshing, thirst quenching, and crisp, Kolsch is a delicately fruity ale that is loved by lager-heads and ale drinkers alike.

How To Brew Kolsch

Brewing Kolsch is very straightforward compared to some styles like IPA or sour beer. Usually a simple grain bill of Pilsner malt, with a small complement of speciality malt, is all that’s needed. On top of that, you need a handful of good quality hops in one or two additions and a pitch of healthy yeast.

With such a subtle, delicate style, the use of high quality ingredients is a must. Plus, exceptional attention to detail when brewing is essential for a successful Kolsch.

Kolsch Ingredients

Grist

Pilsner malt should be used as the base malt for Kolsch, ideally a very light German Pilsner, like Weyermann Pilsner Malt. The light, bready, and crisp malt backbone gives Kolsch its refreshing and highly drinkable character.

Kolsch is a very pale, golden beer with a color ranging from 3 to 5 SRM. Vienna or Light Munich malt is sometimes used, up to 5% of the grain bill, to provide a bit more malt complexity and color. Wheat can be used to help with mouthfeel and head retention, also kept under 5% of the total grain bill. Purists will scoff at the addition of Wheat malt – as it’s not traditional in Kolsch – but the added security for the extra body is worth bending the rules.

Hops

Kolsch is not a hop-forward style or bitter beer. Delicate hop balance is required to make sure the beer doesn’t slip too far in one direction. Too bitter, it can seem like a bitter German Pilsner. Too sweet, and a Kolsch will lose its refreshing crisp drinkability and quintessential dry finish.

Aim for 20 to 30 IBU using German Noble hops like Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, or Hersbrucker. A small aroma addition at 15 minutes can give a complimentary grassy, floral touch. This is not necessary however, as many traditional Kolsch beers only add one hop addition at the start of the boil.

Yeast

Kolsch yeast is top-fermenting but at slightly cooler temperatures than most typical ale strains. At around 60°F, most fruity esters typically associated with ales are suppressed.

The unique fermentation profile of Kolsch can only be attained by using the right German ale yeast. Specifically selected Kolsch strains are capable of fully attenuating at these cooler temperatures. This leaves the very dry finish required for the style.

Kolsch has a clean profile, with subtle, wine-like esters. Our favorite yeasts to achieve this unique balance are:

  • Wyeast 2565 Kölsch
  • White Labs WLP029 German Ale/Kölsch
  • Safale K-97
  • LalBrew Köln

Always pitch the right around of yeast using a healthy starter. Pitching rates for Kolsch should be about halfway between a typical ale yeast and a lager yeast.

Water

In line with Kolsch’s subtility, water should be very neutral, with minimal concentrations of any particular ion. Sulfates (SO4) can be slightly elevated to help accentuate hop bitterness and crispness.

A water profile similar to that of the city of Cologne is as follows:

Ca Mg Na Cl SO4 HCO3
37 ppm 10 ppm 25 ppm 35 ppm 70 ppm 80 ppm

If your water is high in minerals, consider starting from Reverse Osmosis (RO) or distilled water. For help with water adjustment, see our easy water chemistry guide.

Mash pH should be adjusted to 5.2 using lactic acid or acidulated malt.

Brewing Process

Kolsch is a straightforward style to brew. Attention to detail is paramount to success for this very delicate beer. Any mistake and off-flavor will be amplified and obvious.

Mash

Traditional Kolsch is brewed using a decoction mash or, at least, a two-stage step mash. For homebrewers using well-modified malts, a single infusion rest will produce ideal results. We’re looking for a very fermentable wort, with crisp malt character but without cloying sweetness. Mashing for 60 minutes at 146-149°F will give the beer a nice, dry finish.

Steps to ensure clarity, like performing a worlauf, are helpful to maximize your chances for a crystal clear finished beer.

Fining and Lagering

Commercial German Kolsch is mostly filtered. For homebrewers, this step is not required to get crystal clear beer. The use of kettle finings, like Whirlfloc or Irish moss will help precipitate haze forming materials in the boil. The cold break should be left in the boil kettle as much as possible.

Post-fermentation finings like gelatine or Biofine can also help ensure brilliant clarity.

Lagering Kolsch, either in the fermenter, keg, or bottle, will promote clear beer. It may take 2 to 4 weeks of cold conditioning – but this extra time spent conditioning will also smooth out the flavor. Lager Kolsch as cold as possible, ideally 32°F.

Carbonating

As is tradition in Germany, most beers are carbonated by krausening. Brewers blend actively fermenting beer to finished beer. The remaining fermentables are consumed by the active yeast, producing natural carbonation.

Though traditional, krausening isn’t practical for most homebrewers. Force carbonation is the quickest and easiest way to carbonate Kolsch, and produces consistent results.

Bottle conditioning is also possible. Prime beer and allow bottles to carbonate at around 65-68°F for 2 to 3 weeks. Chill bottles to 32-40°F and allow them to cold-condition for another 2 to 4 weeks. Make sure to pour bottle conditioned Kolsch very carefully, keeping all yeast sediment out of the glass.

Whether you’re krausening, kegging, or bottle priming, Kolsch should be assertively carbonated to 2.5 – 2.7 volumes of CO2.

When transferring Kolsch for packaging, pay extra attention to oxygen exposure. If possible, employ a closed-transfer from the fermenter to the keg to eliminate the risk of oxidation on this delicate beer.

A Classic Kolsch Sample Recipe

This is a classic, timeless Kolsch-style ale. A grist of manly Pilsner malt gives a crisp body, and a touch of wheat helps with mouthfeel and head retention. Hallertau and Spalt hops provide balanced bitterness from the 60 minute addition. A small 15 minute addition brings a delicate and subtle floral note.

Allow this beer to lager, either in the fermenter or keg, at 32°F for at least 2 weeks. This extra conditioning time will smooth out the beer and make it brilliantly clear.

Final Volume Original Gravity Final Gravity ABV IBU SRM
5 Gallons 1.049 1.010 5.2% 23 2.5

Fermentables

Amount   PPG °L
9.5 lb Pilsner Malt 35 1.0
0.5 lb Wheat Malt 37 2.0
10 lb Total   

For extract brewers, use 6 pounds of Pilsner dry malt extract (DME) and steep half a pound of CaraPils for some extra body.

Hops

Amount Variety AA Use Time IBU
½ oz Hallertau 5% Boil 60 min 9
½ oz Spalt 4% Boil 60 min 7
½ oz Hallertau 5% Boil 15 min 4
½ oz Spalt 4% Boil 15 min 3

Yeast

Healthy starter of Wyeast 2565 Kölsch

Process

  1. Mash with a single infusion rest at 149°F for 60 minutes. Sparge the full volume into the kettle.
  2. Bring the wort to a boil.
  3. Add 60 minute hop addition.
  4. Add 15 minute hop addition and kettle finings (Whirlfloc or Irish moss).
  5. Turn off heat.
  6. Quickly chill wort to 60°F.
  7. Transfer cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, leaving behind trub and hop matter.
  8. Oxygenate wort and pitch the yeast.
  9. Ferment at 60°F for 2 weeks.
  10. Lower fermentation temperature to 32°F to cold crash and begin the lagering stage.
  11. Allow beer to lager for at least 1 week.
  12. Package beer and carbonate to 2.5 volumes of CO2
  13. If kegging, allow beer to condition for 1 to 2 weeks in the keg.
  14. If bottling, after 2 weeks of bottle refermentation. Condition carbonated bottles at 32-40°F for 2 to 3 weeks.

Final Thoughts

Kolsch is a delicious and refreshing style that is adored by craft beer lovers, but also appreciated by commercial lager drinkers. Subtle malt backbone, delicate hop complexity, and a soft and balanced finish make Kolsch a great beer to always have on tap at home.

The straightforward brew day and minimal ingredient list is a welcome change to some of brewing’s more complex recipes. Although simplistic in design, Kolsch brewing does require serious attention to detail. Using the highest quality ingredients will also ensure your Kolsch is as close to the Cologne originals as possible.

We hope you enjoy your fresh, crisp, and delicious homebrewed Kolsch. Prost!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you call it Kolsch outside of Cologne?

In the European Union, the term “Kölsch” is a protected name. Only beers brewed within 30 kilometers of Cologne, made within the guidelines of the Kolsch style, can officially be marketed as Kolsch (or Kölsch).

Outside of the EU, though it’s not technically illegal, many breweries choose to call their beers Kolsch-style. This is mainly out of respect for German brewing tradition.

What’s the difference between Kolsch, Blonde Ale, and Cream Ale?

Pale colored, about the same alcohol percentage, and malty, Kolsch, Blonde Ale, and Cream Ale can be difficult to distinguish.

Kolsch is the cleanest of the three, with subdued yeast-derived esters and a very clean finish. Blonde Ales, on the other hand, can have stronger fruity esters, often supplemented by fruity and citrusy American hops.

Cream Ales are usually made with corn or rice, giving a smoother and lighter body. The crisp, bready Pilsner malt character is not as present in Cream Ale like in Kolsch.

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