Traditional beers are experiencing a renaissance among German drinkers. Alexander Bakst takes a tour of the Rhineland to compare Kölsch and Alt, two regional brews steeped in history and ancient rivalry.
Cologne and Düsseldorf might be situated a mere 40 kilometres apart along the Rhine River, but spiritually they exist in different galaxies.
The two cities’ fierce regional rivalry extends to Karneval parades, football, and, of course, beer.
Whereas Cologne is all about drinking golden Kölsch
in dainty glasses, Düsseldorf prefers the more ale-like favour of darker Alt
To avoid ridicule while touring the Rhineland, caution is advised. A customer trying to order a glass of Alt beer in a Cologne pub will earn scorn and mockery from waiters and patrons alike. Conversely, asking for some Kölsch in a Düsseldorf locale is a sure-fire way of becoming the butt of many jokes for the rest of the night.
“It's a kind of love-hate relationship,” says Dirk Rouenhoff, master brewer at Schlüssel, a traditional brewery in Düsseldorf's historic centre. “Ultimately, it's something amusing that provides plenty of conversational fodder as well as funny anecdotes. And it can be a useful gimmick in advertising campaigns.”
The best example is a now-infamous billboard that adorned the streets of Düsseldorf last year. Früh, Cologne's third-largest beer brand by sales volume, depicted an empty Kölsch glass alongside the caption, “Before it gets old” – a stinging pun on “alt
,” the German word for “old” as well as the beer. Another ad agency quickly pushed back in the name of Düsseldorf's brewers with a campaign claiming “Alt knallt
,” which translates loosely as “Alt is the bomb.”
In fact, Früh's disparaging comment about Alt doesn't reflect the reality of how it is brewed. Rather than describing the age of the beer itself, the name refers to the old style of brewing that dates back to the days before Germans discovered lager. Around the mid-nineteenth century, brewers in Düsseldorf began using the same malts found in modern pale lagers but retained the old method of using warm, top-fermenting yeast that is also used to brew ales in England.
One beer to bind them
Strict adherence to unique traditions is a trait of both Alt and Kölsch, and it's something that German beer drinkers have come to appreciate again in recent years.
“We've been experiencing a huge boom over the past six to seven years,” says Andree Vrana, master brewer at Malzmühle, the Cologne brewery whose waiters – or “Köbes
” as they are called locally – once served former US President Bill Clinton a glass of Kölsch.
“These days, large breweries are closing or consolidating faster than small ones are opening,” Vrana says. He suspects that the trend amounts to a widespread repudiation of the “standard-issue taste” of manufactured beer. “The big breweries try to make one flavour for all, but what people really want is something special.”
Mühlen Kölsch does indeed have a special taste that is not everyone's cup of tea, or glass of beer as the case may be. Through the use of natural hops, lower attenuation levels and the addition of extra hops towards the end of the brewing process, Mühlen has a definitive malty taste and what Vrana calls a “subtle floral aroma.” The recipe has made this Kölsch variety a Cologne staple that dates back to 1858 and sells around 38,000 hectolitres annually today.
Although the three largest Kölsch breweries – Reissdorf, Gaffel and Früh – control roughly 60 percent of the Cologne beer market, smaller breweries such as Malzmühle still manage to turn a comfortable profit. From a purely commercial point of view, however, they are unable to compete with industrial producers selling their beer at low prices through economies of scale.
This economic logic also applies to Düsseldorf’s breweries. Due to their relatively small output, production costs and staff payrolls make up a much larger share of the bottom line. In return, customers have to be willing to pay more for a glass of their favourite brew.
“There is a simple explanation for this: Consumers want to know where their beer is coming from,” Rouenhoff says. “Beer needs a home.”
The dark side
But which beer tastes better? Kölsch is generally a light, clear and refreshing beer with a more or less noticeable hops note depending on the brand. Although Alt also uses top-fermenting yeast, the Düsseldorf varieties have a darker brown colour that contrasts with the pale yellow hue of Kölsch.
“[Alt] is in every way stronger than Kölsch,” Rouenhoff says. “Because you can taste the roasted malt and because it uses more hops.” Roasted malt also lends the beer a particular flavour that isn’t found in Kölsch varieties. “It has a very mild flavour,” Rouenhoff says diplomatically while trying not to offend his colleagues in Cologne.
But as fellow craftsmen, the two cities’ brewers are less concerned with the ongoing regional rivalry.
“Of course there are differences between Düsseldorf and Cologne, but the breweries don’t participate in that much,” says Tobias Heller, sales manager at Füchsen, another traditional brewery in Düsseldorf.
At the same time, Heller claims the people of Düsseldorf are more open to other beers than their neighbours downriver. “Folks in Cologne are really obsessed with their beer,” he says. As proof, Heller points out that there is a Kölsch bar in Düsseldorf but no Alt pub in Cologne.
But perhaps the availability of Kölsch in the city of Alt also says something about Düsseldorf’s beer.
“The pub is mainly popular with women who don’t enjoy drinking Alt because of its strong tartness,” Heller says. “In the end, it all comes down to personal taste.”