Beer Specialities of the Rhineland

Does Altbier translate as “old beer”? And is Kölsch simply the dialect of the Cologne metropolitan region? Although these assumptions seem feasible, Altbier is not an aged beer and Kölsch is much more than just a regional dialect. 

Pils, Kölsch, and Altbier © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Pils, Kölsch, and Altbier (© picture-alliance/ dpa) The name Altbier alludes not to the age of the beer but to the brewing style. It is a dark, copper-colored, top-fermented beer made according to old brewing tradition and enjoyed mainly in Düsseldorf and the surrounding cities of the lower Rhine region (part of North Rhine-Westphalia in the northwestern part of Germany, near the Dutch border). It has its roots in Westphalia and neighboring Lower Saxony, where Altbier was the only beer variety produced in the area until the late 19th century. 

Because there was no technical cooling available at the time the process of making Altbier was developed, the fermentation process occurs at a higher temperature than in the case of a bottom-fermented beer such as Pils.  It gains its rich brown color through the use of kiln-dried malt, which develops dark colors and caramel aromas when roasted. Altbier usually contains roughly 5% alcohol by volume. 

Today, Altbier is produced both by major breweries such as the Diebels Brewery in Issum on the lower Rhine River and by microbreweries in the Düsseldorf old town, such as Füchschen, Schumacher, Schlüssel, and Uerige. The oldest existing Altbier brewery is the Bolten brewery in Korschenbroich near Mönchengladbach, which has been brewing Altbier continously since 1266. German emigrants have also taken Altbier with them all over world. One example of an Altbier brewed outside of Germany is Fordham Copperhead Ale, produced at the Fordham Brewery in Dover, Delaware. In the World Beer Cup competition, there is a category called German-style brown ale/Düsseldorf-style Altbier. 

A "Köbes" in Cologne Enlarge image A “Köbes” holds a “Kölschkranz” in front of the Cölner Hofbräu Früh in Cologne. (© picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb) Kölsch is not only a regional dialect spoken in the Cologne region but also a light, top-fermented, full-bodied beer with a strong hops flavor. Beer brewing has a tradition in Cologne stretching back to the year 873. The Kölsch of today has been in existence for a good 100 years. In 1997, Kölsch was placed on the EU registry of protected regional delicacies as a beer delicacy and thus enjoys a protected geographical indication, like champagne, for example. This protection applies in the EU member states only. Outside the EU, so-called Kölsch is produced in Switzerland, Turkey, Japan, the United States, and Canada. In the US, for example, Kölsch is made by the Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton, New Jersey. Kölsch also has its own category at the World Beer Cup; it’s called German-style Kölsch/Köln-style  

In contrast to Altbier, which is drunk from the typical Altbier glass, Kölsch is traditionally enjoyed from a slender, cylindrical, relatively thin glass which holds 0.2 liters. This glass is called “Kölsch glass” or “pole.” Connoisseurs frown on any glasses larger than 0.2 liters, because Kölsch, in contrast to other beers, loses its fresh taste and foam crown very quickly after being poured. 

Waiters are called Köbes in breweries serving Kölsch. They also have been serving Kölsch since the 19th century from a Kölschkranz, a wreath-like tray with two grips in the middle, one on top and one on the bottom, which holds up to 18 poles. Kölsch is drawn from the tap by a Zappes. Tradition-conscious tavern breweries still use wooden kegs, which have otherwise become rare. In most breweries and also in many Cologne pubs, it is customary for every guest who empties his Kölsch glass to receive another Kölsch, unasked, until he puts a beer coaster on top of the glass or pays the bill. 

Clowns of the Carnival Season Enlarge image A group of clowns at a Shrove Monday parade in Düsseldorf (© picture-alliance / dpa) Even if the residents of Düsseldorf and Cologne do not want to admit it, Kölsch is a close relative of Altbier, only it uses lighter hops and is fermented at a lower temperature. Cologne and Düsseldorf have an ongoing friendly rivalry about which city has invented the “real beer.” For example, Düsseldorf natives like to order an "Alt" in Cologne pubs and, visa versa, Cologne residents will order a Kölsch in Düsseldorf. As inseparable as Kölsch is from Cologne and Altbier from Düsseldorf, both cities are devotees of Carnival.  

Of the originally approx. 100 Kölsch brands, only about 30 still exist today. Only a few major breweries such as Reissdorf, Gaffel, and Früh produce several Kölsch varieties. In addition, there are numerous smaller establishments that overwhelmingly brew special varieties and some of them also sell these beers in affiliated taverns – Dom, Päffgen, Sion, and Sünner, to name just a few.



Beers of the Rhineland

Pils, Kölsch, and Altbier © picture-alliance/ dpa