Keeping it Kölsch: The Food & Drink of Cologne

1 October 2019

Keeping it kolsch waiter

You know what we’re like at James Clay & Sons – if there’s a European city (or any city for that matter) with a serious beer culture, we’ve either already been there or we’re going there, getting the t-shirt, and sampling all the good stuff.

And so it is with Cologne, a German city that we reckon is a little underrated - especially if you love your beer. Cologne has its own: a light, drinkable brew known as Kölsch and served in small narrow glasses known as Stangen.

It would be fair to say that Kölsch is an inherent part of Cologne life and culture, but interestingly, Kolsch is deep beer heritage rather than deep beer history. Because it’s not actually that old...

Developments in refrigeration technology paved the way for the top-fermented beer, resulting in the filtered brew for which Cologne is now renowned the world over. In 1985 the production process was set down in the “Kölsch Convention” that was signed by 24 breweries. And then in 1997 the beer was given the EU certification of “protected geographical status”, meaning it can only be brewed within about 30 miles of Cologne.

But facts aside – the people of Cologne swear by it. It’s available freshly tapped in brewhouses and pubs or bought in bottles from kiosks and enjoyed en route or in the city’s public parks and squares. You’ll find a Kölsch truck at every public event, from Carnival and the Christmas markets to Cologne Pride and street festivals.

In its current form, the typically narrow, cylindrical Kölsch glass was most likely introduced after the First World War. Cologne locals claim that its design was based on the “form follows function” principle — after all, a freshly tapped draught Kölsch needs to be knocked back quickly before it goes flat. Arguably the smallest beer glass in the world is the Stösschen, which holds just 0.1 litres.

Now, you might think that sounds a bit pointless – but you’d be wrong. It fulfils an important social role as it is only used in certain situations. Like when the Köbes, as the brewery waiters are known, wants to raise a quick toast with his guests, or if they want one last beer for the road while settling their tab at the bar.

Cologne has a high density of breweries and pubs and — with very few exceptions — all of the city’s neighbourhoods have maintained their own unique character and still have their own brewery or at least one Kölsch pub. And while the big brewery pubs near the train station (such as the spacious Gaffel am Dom) and in the Old Town (Früh, Sion, Peters and Mühlen, to name just a few) impress with sheer size alone, the smaller ones that are found in the neighbourhoods outside of the city centre are places where the locals get together to chew the fat and reinforce their sense of identity.

One of these is Lommerzheim (Siegesstr. 18) over the river in Deutz, where you can eat gigantic chops while sitting on beer crates and telephone books (which is exactly as great as it sounds). A bone from one of these chops is even on display in the Cologne City Museum. Or not far from Barbarossaplatz is Haus Töller (Weyerstrasse 96) with its historical ceiling and Gerhard Fischenich (Weyerstrasse 71), its sister pub over the road, which has just four dishes to choose from. There aren’t many tourists who will wander off the beaten track to find this place. At Päffgen (Friesenstrasse 64-66), in the heart of the nightlife action around Friesenplatz, the popular house beer is also served to customers at the entrance. The blue-clad Köbes tallies up the number of glasses you have drank in pencil on the wall tiles, which he wipes off with his fingers once you have settled up.

Which brings us neatly to the Köbes himself, someone who you should always be wary around. After all, he is more than a waiter, he is the uncrowned king of the Brauhaus! The Köbes is allowed to reprimand guests and is even known to bicker with them or just be plain rude. But, as the locals will tell you, it’s all just part of a game. These brewery waiters are usually men — the name is said to be derived from the name Jakobus (St. James), who pre-modern brewery apprentices would pilgrimage to on the Camino de Santiago trail to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally he wears a bright blue cardigan and a leather wallet around his waist and carries a Kranz (or circular tray) of Kölsch in his hand. But the gruff tone of these brewery waiters is a ritual that follows hard and fast rules and isn’t for the faint-hearted! They will simply carry on bringing you a new Kölsch until you place a beermat on top of your empty (or almost empty) glass to signalise that you’ve had enough. And guests who have had the audacity to order non-alcoholic beverages may even hear cheeky, but also amusing retorts such as the following: “Water? Would you like a bar of soap with that?” or “So that’s one poison — and beer for the rest of you?” It’s part of a folklore that both waiters and guests like to have fun with.

But if you spot a Köbes carrying plates of food, make sure you step out of his way as the portions are big, the plates heavy and the distances they have to cover are quite far in most brewhouses. Typical dishes include the mouth-wateringly good Hämchen, the Cologne variation of the time-honoured knuckle of pork served with sauerkraut and mashed potato. Or Himmel un Ääd, a tasty local dish consisting of mashed potato, braised onions and apple sauce with the local black pudding known as Flönz. If you just fancy a little snack with your beer, opt for the Mettbrötchen (raw pork mince) topped with raw onion, a Frikadelle (pan-fried meat patty) or what has to be the biggest misunderstanding among tourists to the city — a Halver Hahn, which literally means half a chicken. But don’t be deceived: it’s actually a bread roll called a Röggelchen (which isn’t actually a rye bread roll, but a dark baked wheat roll — yes, it’s complicated!), a thick slice of Dutch cheese and a generous portion of mustard (which usually comes from rival city Düsseldorf of all places!).

That all sounds extremely traditional, rustic and perhaps even a little behind the times. But Cologne just wouldn’t be Cologne if it didn’t reinvent and keep surprising itself every now and again. Just take Johann Schäfer (Elsassstrasse 6), a newly opened brewhouse in the premises of a former haulage firm in the south of the city. The restaurant has already set itself apart from its more traditional competitors. And not only because they serve a self-brewed Pils (lager), but because they have chosen to go new ways with their recipes, ingredients and portion sizes. Here it’s not so much about huge chunks of meat and mountains of side dishes; the focus is more on the “sharing is caring” ethos of conscious, communal eating. The restaurant serves up beef from the nearby Eifel region and pork from the Heinsberg district. Even if you’re vegetarian, you can still savour the local flavours: we recommend the braised cauliflower in a dark bread and raisin sauce. And the success of their idea is proving the owners right — so be sure to book early.

So, all things considered, Cologne’s brewhouse pub culture is thriving. And if we hadn’t already made clear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.