The Kolsch beers to drink this summer in Petaluma
The term “lawnmower beer” conjures an all-day, low alcohol, crisp and refreshing summer beer, what we like to think of as highly crushable — drink one, crush can, open another, repeat. The German-style Kölsch beer takes the lawnmower beer to a loftier craft level: a clear gold, not too hoppy, easy drinking beer with quality and flavor to boot. An icy cold Kölsch may even convert fans of Miller, Coors or Budweiser to try a new brew.
Last weekend at Rotary’s Backroad Challenge bike event, we had the pleasure of serving two Kölsch-style beers to thirsty riders: HenHouse’s Kapin Kolsch and Fort Point’s KSA (Kölsch Style Ale), and were surprised at the number of attendees who taste-tested this style for the very first time. HenHouse’s variety was a little more hazy and hoppy, while Fort Point’s flagship straw-gold beer highlighted lively flavors and a fuller body. Riders were happy to compare the two side by side for a perfect post-ride beer tasting. HenHouse’s Kapin Kolsch is available on tap at the Palace of Barrels (1333 N. McDowell Blvd.). Try Fort Point’s KSA in the black, art deco-ish can at Petaluma area establishments like Whisper Sisters (190 Kentucky St.), or on tap at the Shuckery (100 Washington St.), Pearl (500 1st St.), or Coastal Kitchen (1 Beach Ave., Dillon Beach).
The key to Kölsch is freshness. A young Kölsch will show off a slightly fruity character, supported by a honey-grainy malt profile and finished with a crisp, refreshing note that should have you reaching for another. In fact, once you’ve had your fill at a bar in Cologne, Germany, tradition calls for you to put a coaster on top of your glass to signal the waiter to stop the free flow of refills. Luckily, Kölsch is known for a lower alcohol point between 4.4% and 5.2% ABV — what Germans call a vollbier.
Kölsch is a protected regional appellation for beers from Cologne (Köln), Germany, much like Champagne from France, port wine from Portugal, or Petaluma Gap AVA wines. Kölsch is certified by the Kölsch Konvention to be a pale, top-fermented, hoppy, filtered beer with crystal clarity, that must be brewed within 30 miles of the city center. The regional restriction is due, in part, to the breweries’ proximity to the Rhine River, which gives this beer a minerality and effervescence that can’t be matched elsewhere in the world.
The crisp clarity of a tall glass of Kölsch could be a result of its hybrid ale- and lager-style. Kölsch is top-fermented with ale yeast, and then cellared at colder temperatures like a lager, giving it a clean profile, balanced flavor, and fruity essence. German hops like Hallertau and Tettnang add a spicy or herbal finish that make it a little hoppier than a classic German pils. Kölsch in Cologne is traditionally served in a small, untapered flute glass called a stange that illuminates the beer’s brilliant clarity.
It seems Köln brewers centuries ago became quite fed up with the lager craze overtaking European ales when they declared, “You must pitch with top-yeast, and by no means, bottom yeast.” The hybrid Kölsch has all the clarity and finish of a lager with a fruit character typical of ale-driven yeasts, making this beer a unique and drinkable favorite. You can find classic Kölsch exports like Reissdorf or Fruh locally at Willibees, BevMo or Petaluma Market, but be sure to check the date for freshness.
American brewers typically take wide latitude with the “Kolsch-style.” Seismic (Santa Rosa)’s Liquefection is an award-winning light and bready beer with a beautiful white head even when it comes out of a can. Also try Calicraft Brewing Co. (Walnut Creek)’s Coast Kolsch, accented with American hops, but still highly refreshing (this beer pairs perfectly with fish tacos). Ballast Point (San Diego)’s California Kolsch, Bear Republic (Healdsburg)’s Dry Creek oak-barrel Kolsch, and even Trader Joe’s Josephsbrau Summer Brew varieties are also worth a try. We especially enjoyed Iron Springs (Fairfax) Kolsch for a balanced, traditional hop-focus on the German style.
Take a short drive to celebrate Kolsch and other summertime favorites at Beerfest — the Good One, Saturday, June 8. The event hosts 60 breweries and cideries pouring their wares at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa. Get the details at beerfestthegoodone.com.
(Drea Pierotti is a Petaluma native, an estate attorney and a beer judge).