Friday 16 May 2008

Is Kölsch an Ale?

I try to stay out of arguments with certain American homebrewers. The ones who lurk on beer forums. That's where you find all the self-appointed experts. People who've read a few homebrewing texts and think they know everything. I'm not calling every homebrewer a smug idiot. The majority aren't, I'm sure. Just the Homebrew Twats*.

So I really should know better than to get involved in a discussion about whether Kölsch is an Ale with these people. They've read that top-fermented = Ale. Try telling them any different and see what shit you get thrown back at you.

As I've said before, lots of things annoy me. Calling German top-fermented beers "Ales" is one. Why does it irritate me so much? It's an example of nailing Anglo-American terminology onto a foreign beer culture. Like reducing Czech beer styles to Bohemian Pilsner. It's lazy, sloppy and rather condescending.

German top-fermented beers have their own, very long history. One that is pretty well totally independent of British top-fermenting beers. By calling them "Ales" a false connection is made. It's not only inaccurate, but highly misleading.

Naively, I tried explaining that Kölsch is an Obergäriges Lagerbier. Top-fermenting Lagerbier in English. What an idiot I am. Evidently that demonstrates just how little I've read about brewing and my total lack of practical experience. Silly me. All those German brewing manuals must have just been a dream.

I do my best to respect different beer cultures and not to impose my own systems of classification and terminology on them. Lagerbier has a couple of meanings in German. Just how much the Homebrew Twats know about German beer is evident by the fact that they are clearly unaware of one of them. Here they are:

  1. - beer which has undergone lagering, i.e. a long period of cold storage where the temperature is gradually reduced to around 0º C.
  2. - a bottom-fermenting beer of around 12º Plato
Kölsch obviously falls into the first category. The primary fermentation is with a top-fermenting yeast, but it's then lagered at low temperature, pretty much exactly like bottom-fermenting beer should be. (I say should be, because much "lager" is just rolled through the lagering cellar nowadays.)

There's a reason why they produced top-fermenting Lagerbier in Cologne: their Reinheitsgebot. No, it's not the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot. Cologne had a quite different law. There it was forbidden to brew bottom-fermenting beer. If you wanted to produce a Lagerbier - which as the 19th century progressed more and more breweries wanted to - then you had to top-ferment it. But, if you'll excuse my French, that doesn't make your beer a f*cking Ale.

If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that, in addition to Obergäriges Lagerbier and Untergäriges Lagerbier, I've mentioned a third type. You don't remember? It was in one of my many translations of "Die Herstellung Obergähriger Biere". Where it describes the practice of, during years when there was little natural ice, mixing top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting beer. Of course the Homebrew Twats will never had heard of it. For a couple of reasons. They've read no German texts nor anything earlier than Charlie Papazian.

Let's see how Dr. Franz Schönfeld categorised top-fermenting beers in his definitive "Die Herstellung Obergähriger Biere":

German beer:

I Lagerbier ähnliches Bitterbier
II Grätzer Bier
III Süßbier - Einfachbier
IV Berliner Weißbier

English Beer:

A. Stout
B Ale

It seems pretty clear that the German types are not classified as Ales. Who am I to argue with Dr. Franz Schönfeld?

I try to use the word "Ale" carefully. Basically for those beers that are called Ales by natives of the country in which they originated. British, American, Irish and Belgian top-fermenting beers. That seems reasonable enough to me.

Now if I were to be a real pedant, I'd start getting funny about calling Porter, Stout and even Pale Ale "Ales". They're Beers, not Ales. But I've given up on that one. I'd spend the whole of my life arguing about it. And I have better things to do.

That's why I shouldn't have got involved in arguing the toss about Kölsch with Homebrew Twats. It's a waste of my time. They know all the answers. No amount references, history or logic will convince them otherwise.

How do I know this? I've argued with some of them before. Porter and Stout is a good example. I supplied 150 years worth of evidence showing no difference between the malts used in Porter and Stout for any given brewery. Did that convince them? Don't be stupid. Their homebrewing books said something different. They didn't have a scrap of evidence to support their point of view, but that didn't matter. They had something far more important: belief.

Why does this stuff upset me? Because the Homebrew Twats aren't just keeping this misinformation to themselves, they're actively propagating it. Building a giant edifice of beer "knowledge" without the slightest factual foundation.

OK. Rant over. Normal programming will now resume.

And before you ask, yes; Altbier is an Obergäriges Lagerbier, too.

*Homebrew Twat - a homebrewer who writes with self-proclaimed authority on a beer forum, whose opinions cannot be swayed by anything as boring as facts and whose faith in American homebrewing texts is absolute.


Anonymous said...

I had the same convo today with this Andy character from Bier-Mania. You can't make a link without some kind of imposition of one style on another. Square pegs being bashed into round holes, to me. Nicely written, Ronaldo...

-- Boggenstein

Mark Andersen said...

Another interesting and entertaining post.

You're not shovelling shit against the tide either. This American homebrewer and beer lover is listening.

You're posts on your recent trip to Czech Republic and Germany we're also great by the way.


Kristen England said...

Amen brother. Another thing to note is the circular references of nearly all the 'current' home brew literature. Nearly every author cites each others work. Most of it is drivel the rest is just wrong. There are one or two books that are quite good other than that, meh. My favorite in particular is George Fix's work. Dude wrote two books and backs up data in one book by citing the other. Round and round.

Ron, you think the porter/stout argument is bad, try having a the decoction argument. Im pro-decoct and say it makes all the difference, they say 'the malts are so good its a waste of time, not to mention, German brewers did it b/c they had to...' Gimme a 'T', T. Gimme a 'W', W...and so on.

Ron Pattinson said...

I'm glad that it's not just me.

Kristen, the circular arguments drive me crazy. Has anyone ever actually looked at any primary source material? Yet the certainty of the believers is scary. Rather like religious lunatics.

I think I'll skip on the decoction argument. Porter/Stout has caused me enough annoyance.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Really great post. I'm an American homebrewer but I hope I don't fall into the Tw@t category. One of the things I love about this site is that you do a lot of historical research and try to back up your assertions. Most American homebrewers just want to make and drink good beer, but there are blowhards in every crowd. Kristen is right, there's very little info marketed to homebrewers that is really accurate and most of us don't know where to find the type of info that you present. This is all compounded by the people who are hung up on "style" and bash anything that doesn't fit their conceptions. Fred Eckhardt put it best : "You don't need a book on styles, just go brew something that tastes good."

I will confess I always have heard of Koelsch as an ale in US circles and was told it was classified that way because the yeast is technically an ale yeast and not a lager yeast, but real Koelsch (of which I've had painfully little) has hallmark lager flavor characteristics to me.

Question: Are most Koelsch produers using a S. cerevisiae or S. uvarum yeast? Does it matter since the beer is lagered? (I have no idea. I'm asking becaue I want to know, not because I think I know). It's interesting that the Germans classify it by production method and not by yeast, but they should know since it's their beer. Strangely the closest thing to real Koelsch I've tasted from an American homebrewer was a beer made using lager yeast.....

Love this site. Thaks for sharing all this info. I for one am glad you're sick and obsessive.


Ron Pattinson said...

Bill, Kölsch has to be top-fermented according to the Kölsch Convention. The lagering process seems to remiove pretty well ant trace of top fermentation.

I wouldn't call Kôlsch an Ale, because the term isn't appropriate for German-style top-fermenting beers. The Germans, quite rightly, do not consider that their beers belong to the Ale family.

As I see it, Ale is a particular subset of top-fermenting beers which have their origins in Britain. To use the word as a general term for all top-fermenting beers is historically inaccurate and misleading.

Mr. Colby said...

Well, I think both sides here kinda come off as jerks. Words mean different things in different contexts. In discussing traditional German classification schemes, Kolsch is a lagerbier, and not an ale. In the context of homebrewing, it makes sense to think of Kolsch as an ale, and not a lager. Both sides screaming "You b*stards over there better stop using that term wrong!" are both rather missing the point of language.

Stephen Lacey said...

First up, Ron, your work is proving to be a brilliant counterpoint to the predominant orthodoxy promulgated by the American homebrewocracy. How often I have a read of something you've written and "ping" off goes another little epiphany. This time my realization that, yes, I too had come to equate top fermenting yeast to ale, bottom to lager. And thus the beer world neatly splits off into two hemispheres prior to any other cutting and dicing. But now I realize that it is a question of semantics. And the semantic point is what are or should be the meaning of the words "ale" and "lager", and what are the appropriate ways of applying them? So maybe it is time we took a step back and questioned whether it really is appropriate for home brewers to have essentially ditched the words top fermenting and bottom fermenting for the crime of being redundant. If we go back to what Ron is saying, these words are not redundant at all, since not everything that we currently regard as ale (e.g. stouts, porters, maybe some of the Belgians, Weizen, etc) should be so regarded.
Having said all that, the words top fermenting and bottom fermenting also seem somewhat imprecise, since the difference in fermentation behaviour isn't really that stark. But I guess they are the historically most appropriate words until we come up with something completely new yet more accurate; cool fermenting and warm fermenting anyone?

Tandleman said...

I like your style Ron. I think though historical accuracy versus handy convenience is always going to be a difficult one. I have found this MOST useful though.

Andy Holmes said...

Ron - Please continue to argue in favour of the truth. I've recently started reading some books on British and German brewing history, very enlightening. Both the books I've read refer to historical references and, therefore, show that the authors have properly researched their material.

I'm in danger of losing track of all the stuff in my head, which seems to keep increasing on a daily basis.

Anyway here goes. There are a number of steps involved in the production of beer, you know the ones:


Most beers are produced this way and at each stage there are options. So why get hung up on dividing beer according to two options in one of the processes (fermentation)?

Why not bottled and draught? (Joke)

The whole thing is complex and you can't fit it neatly into a "small" number of arbitrary categories.

Anonymous said...

Grodziskie Bier Festival :

Jury - old worker from brewery.

Hombrewr said...

Great Post - it's alwys great to learn more about the product I love to Homebrew ( that's right I'm a home brewer) but I don't know everything:-) However one question - mixing a bottom fermenting with a top fermenting yeast aler beer? :-P

brewpubbeer said...

It really comes down to your definition of the words Ale and Lager. Further, do you choose to follow your own definition or the current generally accepted definition? If you choose to accept "Ale" as defined in the 15th Century then Kölsch would not be an ale. However, if you go back far enough in history, you can support many things that are just not relevant today. I prefer to choose the current generally accepted definitions as they are used in the twenty first century. Therefore, based on the yeast used for fermentation and how the terms Ale and Lager are used in the 21st Century, it would not be inappropriate to refer to Kölsch as an "Ale". Otherwise, somebody is going to tell me that "Steam Beer" is not a Lager.

There are so many misconception about beer and if we don't start being consistent among ourselves, it will remain a muddled mass. The general population believes that lagers are light and spritzy and that ales are dark and heavy. If we, ones who should know better, don't take the opportunity to correct this misconception who will?

Ale is a beer fermented with ale yeast and Lager is a beer fermented with lager yeast. From this beginning point, we can enlighten folks on the many diverse beer styles fermented with each yeast. Large American brewers have spent 50 years convincing the public that "Beer" is a lightly flavored lager with very little taste. It is way past time that we become vigilant about correcting this misconception.

One thing that I agree with in the rant "Is Kölsch an Ale?" and that is that we should be careful about the use of the word "Ale". It should be only be used for a beer that is fermented with ale yeast!

21st Century definitions: (see back-up below)

Beer - see Webster below; this includes but not limited to the styles - Stout, Porter, Pilsner, Kölsch, Alt, Pale Ale, Schartzbier, etc.

Ale yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiae - The yeast tends to flocculate at the top while enough remains in suspension to ferment the beer. Fermented at warmer temperatures - 65-70°F. Can produce subtle fruity overtones.

Lager yeast - Saccharomyces pastorianus - Also know as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis - Saccharomyces uvarum is similar - The yeast tends to flocculate at the bottom while enough remains in suspension to ferment the beer. Fermented at colder temperatures - 48-55°F . Can produce subtle sulfur overtones.

Ale - A beer fermented with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Ale yeast).

Lager - A beer fermented with Saccharomyces pastorianus or Saccharomyces uvarum (Lager yeast).

Definitions from the self appointed experts Merriam-Webster. Please understand that definitions change over time and the dictionary companies update the definitions over time as they change.

Beer - "an alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain (as barley), flavored with hops, and brewed by slow fermentation"

Fermentation - "a chemical change with effervescence b: an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid); broadly : an enzymatically controlled transformation of an organic compound"

Yeast - "a yellowish surface froth or sediment that occurs especially in saccharine liquids (as fruit juices) in which it promotes alcoholic fermentation, consists largely of cells of a fungus (as the saccharomyces, Saccharomyces cerevisiae), and is used especially in the making of alcoholic liquors and as a leaven in baking"

Saccharomyces - "any of a genus (Saccharomyces of the family Saccharomycetaceae) of usually unicellular yeasts (as a brewer's yeast) that are distinguished by their sparse or absent mycelium and by their facility in reproducing asexually by budding"

Ale - " an alcoholic beverage brewed especially by rapid fermentation from an infusion of malt with the addition of hops"

Lager - " a beer brewed by slow fermentation and matured under refrigeration"

Although not as authoritative as Webster's, Wikipedia is a great resource.

"Lager is distinguished from ale by its yeast. Lager yeast ferments at colder temperatures and flocculates on the bottom of the fermenting vessel, while ale yeast ferments at warmer temperatures and settles on the tops of fermentation tanks. "

Other resources:

brewpubbeer said...

Homebrewr - If you mix ale and lager yeast and control your fermentation temperature at lager temps (below 55F) you will not get any characteristics from the ale yeast because it will shut down at temps below 60F. If you ferment higher 65F-75F the lager yeast will through off all kinds of stuff that you don't want.

brewpubbeer said...

Some Guy Named Bill - Kölsch yeast is Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) and yes it does matter since the beer is "lagered". Depending on the specific strain, ale yeast shuts down at about 60F so there would be not contribution to flavor from the yeast during the "lagering". This does not mean that there are not other beneficial chemical changes that take place at the low temperatures of lagering. These changes are just not from the yeast.

This brings up another point. What is the meaning of "lager".

Webster - the Etymology is - German Lagerbier beer made for storage, from Lager storehouse + Bier beer

Wikipedia - The word "lager" comes from German and means "storage".

Prior to refrigeration, German beer was only brewed in the winter time and was lager (stored) in caves with ice so that it could be consumed during the summer. Oktoberfest was used to get rid of all of the old beer in preparation of the new brewing season. As you probably know, most beers are best when served fresh. For most beers, once fermentation is complete, it is a race against time. With the advent of refrigeration no respectable modern brewer would advocate "lagering" beer using the etymology meaning of the word. The modern use of the term "lagering" refers to the lengthened period of fermentation when lager yeast is used. Some lager yeast can continue to ferment well into the low 40F's. However, at low temperatures, yeast ferments very slowly. Lager yeast will ferment very quickly at higher temperatures but the off-flavors produced by most lager yeast at these temperatures is undesirable in beer.

Ron Pattinson said...

Bewpubbeer, "Further, do you choose to follow your own definition or the current generally accepted definition?" My own. The "generally accepted" one is crap.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it so that the original German definitions are based on process and not yeast strains because they didn't really understand the science of yeast very well at the time?

And so, if that changes, shouldn't the definitions as well?

It is indeed more than anything else a semantic argument; so long as I know what I have to do to brew one, or what to expect when I order one, I'm all set.

Kristen England said...

I think you are getting it backwards. I did a lot of my PhD work on yeast so genetically speaking, they are different.

Saccharomyces Cerevisiae - they call it an 'ale' yeast b/c its used to make ales mostly

S. Pastorianus - Same as above but switch for 'lager'

S. Bayanus - Champagne yeast that is thought to be the genetic background for the S. Pastorianus b/c of genetic linkage. Its thought thats where the cold hardyness comes from.

There are by far not the only yeast strains. The problem with naming them 'ale' and 'lager' is that we are naming them for what they MOSTLY do. Thats not to say one doesn't work at the others temp, b/c they do.

Getting even more involved other yeasts like the brettanomyces/dekkera strains are also a massive component in ales and some lagers. However we don't refer to them as such. Mid-late 1800's, Emil Clausen worked out that it was brett (B. Clausenii aka B. Anomalous) was responsible for making the 'aged' flavor in UK beers. He actually isolated it in a cask of stout. To this day a lot of traditional UK brewers still call it the Stout brettanomyces. We know now that different brett strains are found in different regions and in various styles of beer.

Ron Pattinson said...

Ethan, they knew the difference between top- and bottom-fermenting strains at least a couple of hundred years ago.

I have a book written by a Bamberg brewer in 1819, where he talks about the practice of using top-fermenting yeast at the very start and end of the brewing season then switching to bottom-fermenting as soon as it gets cold enough. That suggests they understood a little about yeast.

Anonymous said...

Quoth Ron: "...[T]hey knew the difference between top- and bottom-fermenting strains at least a couple of hundred years ago."

Oh, well yes, they certainly knew they worked better, differently, at different temps; I just meant they didn't realize they were dealing with living organisms, which mutated, have genetic relations, all that stuff-

the stuff, I suppose, which led us subsequently to think of beers are being either lagers/ales based on yeast, as opposed to other, previously made distinctions.

Anyhoo, I do think it's a valuable discussion, because it illustrates that definitions are slippery things- in beer, in politics, wherever. I'm still going to think of Kolsh as an "Ale," but I'm definitely better prepared to qualify that statement with the info you are presenting. It doesn't change my definition, but it does expand, or better contextualize it.

Michael said...

This article comes down to defining the words "ale and lager" and Ron blundering around with the "authority" of old historical texts to clearly delineate a gray area between the two words. Most people that utilize the two words today think of lagers as bottom fermenting beers that also go through a process of lagering. They think of ales as top fermenting beers that are typically not going to be lagered (or simply as top fermented beers). A kolsch is a top fermented beer that goes through lagering and therefore it would be most appropriate to refer to it as an ale with qualities of a lager or simply as a kolsch since that word has meaning. It does NOT NEED to fit into the boolean. Using historical texts to find some german word that focuses on the lagering process back then doesnt make it fit into the lager side of the boolean and doing that is just getting caught up in the ego side of trying to win that argument that its "not an ale" since its not "just an ale". In summary, call it a lagered ale, call it a kolsch, call it whatever old unknown german word you want, but dont get caught up in defining ale to clearly exclude it (which the definition doesnt) and dont get caught up in convincing us that it is a clear cut lager. Just accept the complexity. (A terrible comparison that comes to mind is a MtF transgender person: just as many people are uncomfortable calling them just a "girl", the "ale to lager" converted kolsch need not be called a lager or ale just what it is)

Ron Pattinson said...


try reading the article. I'm not arguing Koelsch is a Lager. I' m arguing that, just like most other German top-fermnting beers, it isn't a fucking Ale. It comes from a totally differrent tradition that has no connection whatsoever with Ales.