German-style kölsch is an ideal summer beer

CLEAR QUALITY: Golden-hued with aromatic hints of fruit, kölsch beers have a clean taste that won’t overpower.
CLEAR QUALITY: Golden-hued with aromatic hints of fruit, kölsch beers have a clean taste that won’t overpower.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

THE GENERAL public may scarcely have heard of it yet, but kölsch, one of the great summer beers, is definitely a coming style. American craft brewers are getting into it -- at least 30 of them already brew a kölsch, though not all call it by that name. But if it weren’t for our craft breweries, we’d have very little chance indeed to taste this style of beer, because German examples are rarely exported.

It’s the home-town beer style of the ancient German city of Köln (otherwise known as Cologne), which has more breweries than any other city in the world. Köln is very proud of kölsch, which it claims has been made there since 1300, and strictly protects the name. Only breweries in the city’s immediate vicinity are legally entitled to call their product kölsch.

At least in Germany. American brewers have not felt obliged to avoid using the name.

Subtle notes

WHAT IS this rare beer like? It’s generally the brassy gold of a highly polished tuba, a little lighter in color than a Pilsener, but it’s classed as an ale, rather than a lager, because it’s fermented at a warm temperature, giving it some of the fruity-floral aromas we associate with ale. So it’s a delicate, in-between style, clean-tasting like a lager but a little more aromatic, often with a fresh note of brew house yeastiness.

“It’s fermented like an ale at around 70 degrees, then it’s cold conditioned and becomes almost lager-like, so it’s really more a true hybrid,” explains Yuseff Cherney, head brewer at Ballast Point Brewing in San Diego. “It’s what makes it such a drinkable beer that still has good flavor.”

It’s rather low in malt, so its head of foam tends to dissipate rapidly, and it’s also less bitter than most lagers. The combination of clean flavor, sweet nose and gentle palate makes kölsch an easy-to-drink “session” beer. More to the point at this season of the year, it’s a fine thirst-quencher.

“It almost has a wine quality, with subtle layers of flavor,” explains Christina Perozzi, a Los Angeles-area restaurant beer consultant who recently added kölsch to the summer beer menu at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. “But because it’s a lighter style, you get that flavor without the heaviness of some beers.”

The people of Cologne certainly quaff it in quantity. In their bars, the beer is poured from wooden casks into stylish-looking glasses, tall, narrow and perfectly cylindrical, known as stangen (poles).

Nobody insists that a stange is the only suitable kind of glass for drinking kölsch. It’s just an efficient way to move a lot of suds, because its small footprint allows a waiter to haul a dozen or more beers around at a time. The stangen fit neatly into holes in a special circular tray called a kranz (wreath), which the waiter carries by a handle sticking out of the center.

We don’t need any of this folderol, though. We’ve got pools, lawns and shady porches with a fridge or an ice bucket nearby. If we try, we should be able to kölsch with the best of them.

The most widely available authentic version in Southern California is Reissdorf, a light, grassy kölsch made by the largest brewer in Cologne. It’s available at several local retailers and a few bars around town. Rustic Canyon stocks it during the summer, and in Pasadena, Lucky Baldwin’s co-owner David Farnworth says he typically orders it for Oktoberfest (and occasionally gets lucky with a keg), when the weather’s still plenty warm.

Look local

AMERICAN versions are easier to find. The best bets are often pubs with a comprehensive selection, such as the Yard House (Great Beer Hollywood Blond Kölsch and Pyramid Curve Ball Kölsch are both available at local branches) and Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach (where you can find Alaskan Summer Ale). And be sure to check out the lists at beer-friendly restaurants, wine bars or gastro pubs that have rotating selections.

In the San Diego area, look for Ballast Point’s Yellowtail Pale Ale and for Kölsch Style Ale from Lightning Brewery, a 2-year-old European-style brewery in Poway. Each is its brewer’s top seller.

James Crute, founder and head brewer at Lightning Brewery, has a theory about the burgeoning popularity of kölsch-style beers.

“They’re not too overpowering or malty, more of a ‘trade up’ for a light beer drinker because it’s an introduction to something more flavorful. But it’s also bright with a lot of subtleties, so it has plenty of interesting flavors and qualities for the rest of us.” Additional reporting by Jenn Garbee, special to The Times.