Thursday, 30 May 2013

How bitter was early Kölsch?

Someone asked me the other day if Kölsch had become less bitter over the years. My guess was that it had, but that's all it was, a guess. At the weekend, purely by chance, I stumbled on some evidence to back up my guess.

It comes from a very odd source: a report of a trip of British brewers to the Brewers' Exhibition in Berlin in 1908. It seems that on their way back, the party called in Cologne and visited a couple of breweries. The date is very important as it's about the time Kölsch first appreared.

This definitely sounds like a description of a Kölsch Brauhaus:

"On our arrival at Cologne, the friends who met us there informed us that they could not offer us the inspection of large breweries such as we should have soon in Berlin and other parts, but they had many small breweries, and, if of interest, they would arrange for us to look over any of them.

We were taken to a small brewery, known as the Obergahriges Restaurant Brewery, which had been working about two years, and whose beers at the moment were exceedingly popular in the town. It was a large restaurant brewing its own beer; behind the restaurant was a model brewing plant, with everything nicely arranged, covering a space of 100 feet square; the whole plant had been erected at a cost of £2000.

The beer was produced on the top-fermenting system: it was fermented for four days, then run into the lagers and stored for eight weeks, afterwards chilled and filtered, and served up in the usual way. Its gravity was 17 lb., and we again noticed the pronounced hop flavour which finds such ready appreciation with Germans. The whole of the brewery production was sold in the restaurant (at the time of our visit, about 12.30 in the day, we found 200 customers there), and, as far as I could ascertain, their trade was not less than 100 English barrels per week, to us a large and remarkable trade for one restaurant. We were told, much to our surprise, that the majority of the restaurants brewed their own beer."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 14, Issue 1, January-February 1908, pages 50-51.
 Top-fermented, then lagered cold. That's spot on for Kölsch. 17 lbs per barrel is 1047º - which also sounds right for Kölsch. 100 barrels a week is around 50,000 5,000 barrels a year. A pretty impressive amount for a single pub. "Served up in the usual way" implies some sort of pressure dispense rather than directly from the barrel by gravity. Odd, as every Brauhaus I know in modern Cologne serves from the barrel.

Note how the restaurant had only been open two years. Bang on when Kölsch was born. Just a shame he didn't tell us its real name. Obergahriges Restaurant Brewery is clearly just a description of what the place was, not its actual name.

Thankfully, there's a description of how the beer tasted: "pronounced hop flavour". Sounds to me that Kölsch was definitely bitterer back then.

Strange that the author should be so surprised at restaurants brewing their own beer when there were still thousands of British pubs that brewed. In 1912 there were 2,663 publican brewers*.

The other brewery sounds particularly odd:

"We also visited a still smaller brewery, connected with a small restaurant resembling the home brewery attached to the licensed house, frequently found in this country. The proprietor informed us that he was only able to brew during the winter months, but he brewed sufficient then to carry him through the summer. In his case he brewed with bottom-yeast, and he was able to carry through his fermentation successfully at about 50° F. When the beer had gone through its course of fermentation, it was filled into lagers of 12 to 15 English barrel capacity, and removed to the town cellars, where large quantities of beer were stored for small brewers, and the casks were taken out one at a time as required.

It will be noticed that the small brewer was maturing his lager at cellar temperature, viz., 52° (a high temperature in comparison with the large breweries), and I was astonished to find he was able to do without an expensive ice plant, and still produce a beer which I considered equal to any lager I had tasted; it had the pronounced hop flavour, and was very pleasant and refreshing, although perhaps a little too bitter. His trade, he informed me, was from 10 to 15 barrels per week. This was also the only case where I found the boiling of wort done by fire in place of steam."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 14, Issue 1, January-February 1908, page 51.
I'm very surprised that a small pub brewery was using bottom-fermenting yeast. Especially with the relatively high fermentation temperature of 50º F.  And didn't Cologne have a Reinheitsgebot that forbad bottom fermentation?

I'd never heard of beer being stored in town cellars in Cologne. I wonder when that died out?

If a British brewer complained about a beer being too bitter, it must have been damned bitter. All British beers were hopped like crazy before WW I. I would claim this as more proof of Kölsch once being bitterer, except this obviously wasn't a Kölsch, being bottom-fermented. What would you call this beer? A Lager?

* 1928 Brewers' Almanack, page 118.


Gary Gillman said...

Sounds almost like a steam beer approach without the long conditioning in cellar. (Steam relied on krausen and filtering).


Gary Gillman said...

Before I am corrected, I should say filtering is not the right word. Steam beer was cleansed in effect (historically) in shallow fermenters called clarifiers. I was referring mainly to the similar fermentation range, e.g. Steam Beer from what I've read starts at about 54F which sound not dissimilar to the second German beer mentioned.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, do you mean the beer fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at a high temperature? If that's the one you mean, I can see you point.

Bryan the BeerViking said...

It's a similar rationale to the one for steam beer as well - trying to make untergaerig yeast work without chillers. And it was getting a pretty long cellar conditioning - maybe six months if it was winter brewed for summer.

I don't think 50F is especially high, Anchor keeps its steam room at 16C (61F) and one of the brewers local to me in Germany said their fermenters can get up to 15-16C in times of warm weather.

Anonymous said...

100 barrels a week would be closer to 5000 barrels a year, not 50,000...

Ron Pattinson said...


thanks for correcting my faulty maths.

Anonymous said...

possibly interesting for you. Bogk beier(a german who is just trying to revive the Berliner Weisse in Berlin) shared an unpublished book by A. Dörfel, who was technical director at Groterjan-Brauerei from 1920-1957.
Book is from 1947.

Ron Pattinson said...


I was pointed in the direction of that a few weeks ago. My next column in BeerAdvocate Magazine is based on it. The book is full of fscinating stuff and a great source.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, yes I did, thanks.


Shawn said...

My read from the comments on the beer being "too bitter" was that he was comparing it to other German lagers of the time. So, perhaps he wasn't saying too bitter in such a broad context, but simply too bitter for the style?

Gary Gillman said...

This article from the IOB's Journal sheds light on German lager pitching temperatures in 1907, and I believe helps explain why some lager brewers were fermenting at higher temperatures than earlier in the period in question.

See pg. 712 et seq in particular. The author, Westergaard, explains that originally, lager fermentation was usually started under 40F (thus presumably finishing a few degrees higher). The way he speaks of a ferment being "carried through", I think it is evident that the second beer you mentioned, Ron, hit a target tun temperature of 50 F, so it probably started at around 44-45F. This would still be some 7 or 8 degrees higher than was usual earlier albeit not quite steam beer territory.

Westergaard's explanation of why this was becoming a trend was that with better cleanliness and microbrial control, you didn't need to ferment so cold. Chilling cost money, even raising the temperature a degree or two was material to the brewer, he says. So likely the brewer felt he could safely start fermentation a half dozen or more degrees higher than was earlier advised and save money.

The unusually high hop rate noted by the English visitors, albeit Westergaard does not speak to hop rates, probably explains the strategy of the Cologne bottom-fermenting brewer: add extra hops just to be sure.

Westergaard suggests a secondary reason for lager fermenting temperatures going up. Secondary (wild) yeasts could not be eliminated at very cold temperatures and their action might be exacerbated thereby. So inch up on the pitch temperature and reduce the risk of their activity.


Craig said...

I'd love to see how that first beer, with the "pronounced hop flavor"—at 1047º—compared with Amsdell's 1901 Polar at 1054º with 1.15lbs of hops/U.S. bbl.