Cologne and Kölsch: An Intertwined History – Part 1

By Carl P. Rose
M.A. American History

Carl Rose is a Colorado native who took his passion for his home state, brewing and history and rolled it into one. His graduate research covered the pre-Prohibiton history of America’s Brewing Industry with particular focus on Colorado. He has also been a professional brewer in the Colorado craft beer scene for almost a decade. 

Cologne and Kölsch, what a combination! No, I don’t mean you should add a shot of your Drakkar Noir to your favorite Kölsch and definitely don’t mist your glass with Axe before pouring in your beer. I mean Cologne (Köln in German, which I will use here on out) the 2000-year-old city on the Rhine River in western Germany. Köln has a deep brewing history and is the birthplace and home of the original Kölsch, which inspired Left Hand Brewing’s Travelin Light Kölsch-style brew.

Kölsch is the result of over a millennium of brewing practice and experimentation that took place in Köln. The word Kölsch is not just a beer style but also describes the German dialect spoken in the Köln region and is the root for the adjective used to describe anything to do with Köln. Kölsch is to Köln as American is to America. And Kölsch is not just a beer of Köln, it is THE beer of Köln.

In 1986, over 20 breweries in and around Köln signed the Kölsch Konvention,
a pact recognized by the German government that lays out the parameters of Kölsch beer.
It gives the Köln brewers the exclusive right to call their beer Kölsch
and bound them all to produce only that style of beer.

That stipulation in itself is pretty amazing if you think about it. The brewers of an entire city signed up to brew only one style of beer. Imagine all the brewers of Fort Collins or Seattle agreeing to brew only one style of beer.

In 1997, Kölsch became a beer with the internationally recognized protected geographical indication (PGI), similar to Champagne. Only Kölsch produced by the signatories of the Kölsch Konvention can legally call their beer Kölsch. That is why here at Left Hand our Travelin’ Light is labeled a Kölsch-style beer, in homage to our Köln brewer brethren and the style they developed.

The history of the highly hopped, sparkly, clean top-fermented beer style and those who brew it dates back to the ninth century C.E., while the term Kölsch has only been used since after World War I. The history of Köln’s brewers is tied inextricably to the history of the city itself. Founded right around the beginning of the first century, Köln’s location on the Rhine River has made it a hub of trade and commerce for the entirety of its existence. The first brewers of Köln, like the first brewers all over Europe, were producing a variation of mead. It was not until the early Middle Ages (500 C.E.-1500 C.E.) that gruit, an older beer style flavored with various herbs and spices took hold in Köln. It was Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.), or his much superior nomenclature, Karl the Great, that really got brewing going in Köln. When he came to power during the latter half of the eighth century, he stipulated that all his feudal estates must have breweries. Charlemagne introduced accounting practices throughout his empire that started to shift brewing from strictly a subsistence practice to a more commercialized, money making one. He also recognized the need for sanitary practices, decreeing that “the administrators have to make sure that workers who use their hands in preparation of beer, keep themselves especially clean.” He was way ahead of the times!

Besides feudal lords and estate brewers, monasteries began to get serious about brewing beginning in the 800s. At first, monastic brewers only brewed for themselves, but soon realized they could make a profit by selling their surplus beer to local town folk. At its peak in the Middle Ages, there were over 500 monastic breweries spread throughout Europe,with six being in Köln. Monastic brewers would soon encounter competition from the developing secular, commercial brewers and the guilds they formed.

So next time you raise a glass of bubbly, crisp, clean Kölsch-style Travelin’ Light,
pause and remember Charlemagne. One of the first supporters of the idea
that a clean brewery, is a good brewery!

Next month I’ll introduce you to Köln guilds and the introduction of the wonderful hop. Cheers!

Next Time: Part 2 – Köln guilds and the introduction of the wonderful hop.