Three of my colleagues have recently been studying for the Beer Academy Beer Sommelier accreditation and we decided to visit Cologne so that they could learn something about a beer culture which is quite different to our own in Britain.
Cologne is one of my favourite beer cities, so it was my pleasure to act as tour guide for four days. Cologne is an easy place to get to, with affordable flights from Stansted – flight time is approximately 50 minutes, and the airport is only 15 minutes from the city centre by regular commuter trains. Accomodation is also easy to find, with numerous 3 star hotels – very clean and tidy, this being Germany – clustered all around the Altstadt area.
Cologne was an important Roman city when Berlin and Munich were still villages, and it retains a very strong sense of its own identity. This manifests itself, for example, in the strong local dialect and in its distinctive beer culture, which is quite different from that of Bavaria. The large beerhalls of Cologne resemble those of Munich in terms of scale, but there the similarity ends. No litre steins are to be found in Cologne – beer is served in tall, slim tumblers which hold only 0.2 litres, called Stange . Although the glasses are small, an empty one is replaced immediately, until you signal that you wish to pay by placing your beermat on top of the empty glass. The waiter will then tot up the marks on the beermat, one for each glass of beer that he has served you, and charge you accordingly.
Cologne waiters are called Kobes , a corruption of the name Jakob, wear distinctive blue cardigans and aprons, and are famous for their wisecracking humour. The beer of Cologne is called Koelsch (meaning “from Cologne”), as is the local dialect, leading to the standard Kobes’ joke that Koelsch is the only language that you can drink. Koelsch is a hybrid beer, being warm fermented like an ale, but cold matured like a lager. It is straw coloured, with a fluffy white head, drinkable and balanced and, by German standards, quite lightly carbonated. Some say that if you don’t like Koelsch, you don’t like beer. In the main beerhalls, Koelsch is the only beer available and some still brew their own beer – at Maltzmuehle and Pfaeffgen this is still done on the premises, and you can see the venerable copper vessels as you drink. In the main beerhalls, Koelsch is often tapped direct from oak casks, although it is not cask-conditioned like English ale.
The people of Cologne are famous for their appetite for life, and for beer and food in particular. Cologne has several signature dishes, many of which have idiosyncratic names. “Half a Hen” is a good-sized chunk of Dutch-style cheese with a rye bread roll, whilst “Heaven and Earth” is black pudding with apple and potato mash. Portions are lavish, and beerhall prices reasonable, so there is no reason to ever be hungry in Cologne, although, admittedly, vegetarians may find life somewhat difficult.
Cologne is lively all the year round, especially during Carnival, when the whole city becomes a surreal vision, with even tram drivers wearing fancy dress. In summer, all the pubs in the Altstadt area are packed every evening, with crowds spilling out into the narrow lanes and old market squares, so that the whole district becomes one big party. Munich, with its Oktoberfest, may be Germany’s most famous beer destination, but Cologne, in its distinctive way, is equally well worth visiting.