It’s there’s one prevailing, overarching trend in all of American craft beer these days, it’s this: A move toward lightness, approachability and repeatability.
“Repeatability” is of course a reference to the popularization of session beer styles, and indeed the term “session beer” itself. As craft beer has moved further away over time from solely defining itself as an alternative to “macro beer,” and experienced drinkers have hit the zenith of their own personal explorations—which typically involves a period of drinking 15% ABV, barrel-aged monster stouts, in my experience—they have rediscovered an appreciation for subtlety. Session beer styles provide that kind of subtlety.
“Lightness” and “approachability,” meanwhile, go hand in hand. It would be hard for a drinker paying attention to the craft beer market to miss the concerted effort that has been made in the last few years to “reclaim” light lager, as it were—when breweries like Founders are suddenly cranking out almost as much light lager as they are IPA, then you know a trend is afoot. It’s an area of success that was long written off by breweries as being either financially impossible or against the spirit of the industry itself, and yet here we are—consumers are proving that they’re willing to buy light, drinkable styles from craft breweries, and pay a bit extra to do it.
However, what if you want a friendly, light-colored beer on your menu, but:
A. Still don’t want to brew a light lager, and
B. Think “golden ale” sounds particularly lame or outdated?
Well then, it sounds like kolsch (or Kölsch) is the style for you. In a sense the “anti-steam beer” (which is a lager, fermented at ale temperatures), kolsch is a classical German style from Köln that uses top-fermenting ale yeast, but then conditions at cold lager temperatures after the initial fermentation. The result: A style that blends the more robust, slightly fruitier character of warm ale yeast fermentation with the crispness of a lager. Or in other words, it’s the perfect “light beer” option for someone who prefers not to drink industrial light lager, and isn’t looking for the assertive hop rate of a comparable craft lager style such as pilsner. Kolsch is the beer we would consider the perfect middle ground.
And as it turns out, a lot of American craft breweries now think the same. Kolsch has quietly but steadily been surging in popularity in the last few years, both as a summer refresher and as a canvas for flavor experimentation, incorporating everything from fruit, to coffee, to Americanized hop rates that would typically be more at home in pale ale or IPA. The style’s number of entries at the Great American Beer Festival tell the tale—in 2017 it was up to 154 kolsches, making it one of the fastest-growing categories at the festival. That’s more entries in kolsch than in session IPA, robust porter, German hefeweizen or “classic saison,” just to name a few.
It was this robust number of entries at GABF that honestly left me a little bit surprised that we only received 41 kolsch entries for this particular Paste blind tasting. It may be that despite the style’s increasing popularity, the majority of kolsches are still seasonal or limited releases, and thus not always available. Perhaps we’re still one year too early, in terms of conducting this ranking. Or maybe breweries are still just hungover (as are we) from our massive blind tasting and ranking of 324 IPAs. Regardless, this was (for once) a smaller field than expected, but still one with plenty of quality.
Nevertheless, the humble nature of kolsch means the style stands out for one more unusual aspect: its complete absence of hyped beers. There simply isn’t such a thing as a “whale” within the world of kolsch, and outside a few German breweries of note, there aren’t even “famous” examples of the style. Nor does it garner the kinds of scores that only IPA or imperial stout can achieve on beer-rating platforms such as Untappd. In fact, if you visit the “top-rated” page for kolsch on Untappd, you’ll see that there are only four examples that score above a 4.0 … and all four of them are either flavored (two are coffee kolsches, one with fruit) or imperialized. None of them are classical kolsch, which we will take as just one more example of how beer rating sites don’t really represent the value of the beers rated on them.
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these kolsches were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
- This is a tasting of kolsches, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. All beers had to be labeled as “kolsch” in some capacity, which made things pretty simple. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- All types of adjuncts and flavorings were allowed. There was no specific ABV limit.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
What can we say? It ended up being a smaller field than anticipated, but there’s still plenty of perfectly serviceable beer in here. I will note that among the entries in The Field are some kolsches that tried creative flavor combinations that simply didn’t play well in a blind setting—always a danger when you’re tasting something with no idea what kind of exotic ingredients are in it.
As always, these beers below are simply presented in alphabetical order, and as a result are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Against the Grain Brewery Night Visions
Alaskan Brewing Co. Kolsch
Aurora Ale & Lager Co. K.R.E.A.M.
Baere Brewing Co. The Light Stuff
Banded Oak Brewing Co. Kolsch
Black Shirt Brewing Co. Common Red
Cinderlands Beer Co. Cobra Toes
Cinderlands Beer Co. Cobra Tonic
Finback Brewery Bright Field
Four Peaks Brewing Sunbru
Middle Brow Beer Co. Jean Genie’s
Mother Road Brewing Co. Kolsch-Style Ale
Old Town Brewing Co. Sun Dazed Kolsch
Rogue Ales Honey Kolsch
Surly Brewing Co. HeatSlayer
Swamp Head Brewery HydroSlide
Uinta Brewing Hoodoo
Upslope Brewing Co. Rocky Mountain Kolsch
Widmer Brothers Green & Gold Kolsch
Woodland Farm Brewery Karl the Great
Worthy Brewing Easy Day Kolsch
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: “Hoppy kolsch” was a subset of this style that was pretty well-represented throughout the tasting, with mixed results in terms of its effectiveness. There were some hoppy kolsches we tasted that might as well have simply been pale ales or IPAs, completely washing away any of their delicate malt notes under a tsunami of American hops—not necessarily what you want, when you see the words “kolsch” on the can. This offering from Burial strikes a bit better balance, although it’s still decidedly on the hoppy side. Mandarina Bavaria provides a bit of orange zestiness, but it’s the grapefruit/piney combo of Centennial that we’re getting most prominently, atop a subtle foundation of crisp malt and slight breadiness.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: This small Atlanta brewery is a bit unusual in the sense that their entire ethos runs counter to the “bigger and crazier” spirit of many modern American craft breweries, instead favoring subtlety and sessionable beer styles with almost all of their production. It only makes sense, then, that Eventide would stand behind a kolsch as their flagship, and a solid beer at that. This one is a little bit heartier and more substantial than many of the other kolsches in the tasting, with a slightly higher ABV and corresponding increase in mouthfeel/weightiness. Despite that, it’s very clean, mild and subtle in terms of flavor profile, with a bready note, a bit of toastiness and a little bit of lingering doughy/yeasty character that gives the beer its heart and soul. It’s a casual kolsch that still maintains a bit of backbone.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: One of the interesting aspects of kolsch in the American market is that they’re really not so well-defined as to have a specific “look” that the brewery must adhere to. Yes, most of them range from fizzy yellow to medium golden, but you can put an amber-tinged kolsh out there as well, as Schlafly has done. This one has the bigger malt presence that you’d probably be expecting from its color—slightly sweet, a bit heavier in terms of body, with a nicely toasted maltiness and just a hint of floral/slightly citrusy hops. It drinks, for all respects, like a mild American amber ale, and that’s really not a bad thing here. Being experts in “everyday” and session styles, this is exactly the kind of beer you would expect Schlafly to do well, and they did not disappoint.
City: Kinston, NC
The verdict: We’re not sure exactly what Mother Earth is referring to when they say to expect “a slight tang in the finish” of this beer, given that there’s not really any discernible acidity or tartness, but Endless River is nevertheless a good example of the mold that most American craft breweries have come to agree upon, in terms of what to expect in a kolsch. Soft, slightly sweet and very subtly fruity in terms of its ester profile, this beer balances a little bit of floral hops with a creamy texture and hint of vanilla-esque sweetness that works well with a slightly bready malt profile. This is slightly sweeter than some of the others, but still well within style and a good example of the kolsches in the tasting that contributed a bit of sweetness.
City: Framingham, MA
The verdict: In terms of texture and heft, the kolsches we received in this tasting varied more than you might think—from very thin and watery to full, creamy and chewy. This one is closer to the former—thin, very crisp and almost lagery in terms of mouthfeel, which unsurprisingly makes it drinkable as hell. There’s a hint of what one tasting sheet referred to simply as “old world hops” involved, as well as just a hint of corny/grainy malt backbone, but in general this beer is just very crisp and easygoing. A quaffer of a kolsch, to be sure—what the kids today insist on calling “crushable” for whatever reason.
City: Cincinnati, OH
The verdict: This lovely, hop-forward kolsch sort of splits the difference between “pilsner” and “pale ale” without going particularly overboard in terms of hop assertiveness. Crisp malt is met by a well-balanced congregation of floral, piney and slightly lemon/orange citrusy hops, in a beer that doesn’t commit too strongly to any one particular dimension. This certainly seems like it would be pleasant on a hot summer patio night in Cincinnati, or maybe as a complement to some of the city’s famous chili. It also points toward one of the trends of this tasting, in the sense that our favorite kolsches often ended up being the ones with a modicum of hops.
City: Auburn, CA
The verdict: The stand-out thing about this beer isn’t that Knee Deep chose to add blackberries to a kolsch, but that they chose to make this beer so subtly and judiciously. In fact, this seems to us like the kind of beer that the average taproom-goer might actually be disappointed in, finding the blackberry not nearly assertive enough, but that person would be wrong—the blackberry in this beer is just where it needs to be, which is dancing at the edge of obvious perception. Mildly sweet, with a nicely rounded note of red berries, it was a beer that drew the word “subtle” on pretty much every score sheet. Clean and well-constructed, it marries an excellent kolsch base (more on that in a minute) to expert use of fruit, without getting overly sweet. Keep your expectations (and sweet tooth) in check, and you’ll enjoy what Knee Deep has done here.
City: Berkeley, CA
The verdict: What’s that? A kolsch from Fieldwork that is … really punchy with American hops? Who could have predicted that, except for anyone who has been paying attention? All kidding aside, this was one of the better hop-forward kolsches of the tasting, and it honestly wasn’t quite as over-the-top in terms of hop rate as we expected it might be, given the source. Clean, bright citrus (grapefruit, lemon candy) and a nice resin/grass note announce its American origin, but they don’t contribute more than a hint of bitterness, which is atop a subtle, crackery malt base. You’d probably never define it as a “kolsch” if you were drinking it blind—we would have guessed pale ale or session IPA—but it works. Basically, it’s a kolsch for people who would rather be drinking pale ale, which is fine. We’d happily drink it, regardless of what it says on the label.
City: Köln, Germany
The verdict: Whereas most of the European offerings didn’t really shine in our blind-tasting of 134 pilsners, kolsch was a different story, because Germany came to defend their style with some top-tier examples. Of the German offerings, Gaffel was perhaps the most subtle and least obvious in its origins, lacking the distinct German lager yeast character found in some others and instead being quite clean and neutral. This one is almost more like an American kolsch—very crisp, light-bodied and almost lagery, with a slightly musty note (it may have been sitting on the shelf for a while) but a pleasant twist of lemony hops to round everything out. As one score sheet puts it: “Full mouthfeel, nice hoppiness, lager-like, with a sweet wheat bread finish.”
City: Milton, DE
The verdict: It’s always fun to get hand-labeled, experimental bottles from a brewery with the national presence and history of Dogfish Head, but I have to admit that this one caught us totally by surprise. Given that the name doesn’t imply anything about hops, you could hardly expect that Dogfish Head’s entry was perhaps the hoppiest kolsch in the entire tasting—even more than the likes of Fieldwork, perhaps—but it works oddly well. The profile of lemon and fragrant, sticky pine sap had some tasters writing that this beer was “pale ale-esque,” but we won’t hold that against it. Rather, it makes an appeal to the Citra lovers in the house while also featuring a decent amount of bready malt backbone. We would probably have expected the Dogfish aesthetic to yield a spiced or otherwise unusual kolsch, but they rolled the dice on hops and came out with a winner.
City: Henniker, NH
The verdict: Many of our favorite kolsches in this tasting were ones that featured a modicum of noble hops, splitting the difference between the likes of pilsner, helles and kolsch. Henniker’s simply named kolsch fits all of those qualifications, featuring a nicely floral note on a crisp malt body, followed by a lingering note of spicy Saaz, like you’d expect to find in a classical Czech pils, but not as assertive. In a sense, it’s sort of what kolsch is all about—a welcoming middle ground between styles that are more focused on specific, more intense flavor notes. Henniker’s is balanced and easy drinking, but with character to spare. That’s the kind of description you want in a kolsch, to be sure.
City: Auburn, CA
The verdict: When tasters use a word like “clean” in a beer description, what they’re talking about is a beer like this one from Knee Deep. The non-fruited base of the blackberry example above is super crisp, subtle, and sort of low-volume in terms of its assertiveness, but wonderful nevertheless. It’s as quaffable as you would expect it to be, with a hint of corny sweetness and a slightly grainy, lingering finish. One taster literally described it as “kolschy,” while another wrote “Seems prototypical … but drinks great!” This is the kind of staple beer that you can build a brewpub around; the one that you point people toward when they ask for “something light,” while still feeling good that you’re giving them a beer with more character than their macro lager.
City: Cologne, Germany
The verdict: In the introduction to this piece, I stated that there are basically no “famous” kolsches, but this might be the one exception to prove the rule. Reissdorf is likely the most widely distributed German-made kolsch in the U.S., and it’s undeniably a classic of the genre—perhaps the first beer labeled as “kolsch” that many of us sampled, before American craft breweries started picking up on the style. Compared with the other German kolsches, Reissdorf seems a bit darker and heartier in character, with a bit more body and a toastier, “huskier” dimension to its malt flavors. As one taster wrote, “toasty, bready, lemony and malty sweet.” It’s a bit heartier experience than its American cousins.
City: Longmont, CO
The verdict: Sometimes, the easiest way to describe a beer in one of these tastings is to point to another beer we’ve already put on the list, and say “it’s like ____, but with ____,” and this is one of those cases. This beer is quite a bit like #9, Knee Deep’s Kolsch is My Cologne, in the sense that it’s very light, with a crackery/corny sort of malt body that would almost trick you into thinking it’s a lager. The difference is that on repeat passes, there’s a subtly perfurmey, herbal hoppiness that starts to creep out on Travelin’ Light, which adds a nice element of complexity. Very well balanced and not trying to complicate matters, this is an easy, approachable kolsch with enough subtlety to reward introspection.
City: Hood River, OR
The verdict: pFriem has been on something of a tear in these blind tastings lately—between their #6 finish in pilsner, and now another #6 in kolsch, they are making some really well-executed lighter styles. This one is right down the middle of the plate, combining a few of the aspects we like to see in American kolsches with a few additional touches that make it feel more unique. Quite dry and quaffable, this beer is nevertheless well balanced between crackery/biscuity malt and floral hops, which actually do contribute a bit of palate-cleansing bitterness as well. “Refined” might be the word for this particular kolsch; it splits the difference between a few of the others and highlights a bit of the best aspects of them all.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: I’m just now realizing—there are a whole lot of 4.8% ABV kolsches out there, aren’t there? Perhaps this is the magic ABV range for the style? Regardless, we aren’t surprised to see a terrific kolsch here from The Wrecking Bar, an Atlanta brewpub mainstay that has consistently placed highly in almost any blind tasting they enter. This beer is well-known to anyone who has patronized the brewpub, being more or less the company’s flagship, and for good reason. Breaking Bob is a hop-forward but reasonable kolsch, combining crisp (but slightly doughy) malt character with a complex array of noble hop notes—florals, perfumey and a tad spicy, all at once. This is the definition of great session beer, because it packs enough character into its frame to keep you coming back for a second pint.
City: Poncha Springs, CO
The verdict: A good number of kolsches make use of malts other pale ale or pilsner, and this beer is a good example of how a bit of wheat malt in the grist can really help in terms of malt complexity. Elevation’s kolsch is a bit grainy on the front end, which evolves into a pronounced bready/yeasty note that we quite enjoyed, back by some unmistakable noble hop notes of grass and spice. This is a beer with plenty of character, and a bready finish that really lingers in an appreciable way. One taster’s score sheet pretty much captures the whole thing at once: “Super clean, mild hoppiness with a nice little breadbasket finish.” Yep, that’s this beer—a bit of a midpoint between something like helles and an American pale wheat beer, which is just as approachable and refreshing as it sounds.
City: Cologne, Germany
The verdict: I must admit I don’t think I’d ever heard of “Früh” before this tasting, but given that they’re also from Cologne, like so many of the other classic German kolsch breweries, it’s probably safe to say that they’re a rather less-known cousin to the likes of Reissdorf. Nevertheless, Früh contributed our favorite of the German-made kolsches, a really assertive and flavorful beer that pushes the limit of how boisterous you can get with a 4.8% ABV beer. Früh Kölsch is quite malt-forward, with a toasted note, assertive German ale yeast character (just a hint of banana) and some balancing, hop-contributed bitterness that rounds everything out. It feels like one of the bigger beers in the tasting, despite being another 4.8% ABV example, and we all found ourselves admiring its gusto. If you’ve been drinking Reissdorf for years but have never checked out any other German kolsches available in the U.S. market, by all means pick up some Früh as well.
City: Kansas City, MO
The verdict: When one of the tasters writes “this is what you expect kolsch to taste like” on his score sheet, then you know the beer probably did fairly well. Such is the case with Boulevard’s entry, which they intriguingly call “American kolsch,” despite using Continental malt and hops for the most part. This beer is a nicely executed balancing act between lightly bready maltiness, subtle noble hop notes (floral, herbal) and a hint of vanilla sweetness, all at once. It’s endlessly drinkable, and fit for any kind of situation you could possibly dream up to pair it in. In fact, outside of perhaps saison, is there any beer style for suitable for pairing with anything than a well-balanced kolsch? Boulevard’s entry is exactly the sort of beer you could drink with a giant ribeye or a garden salad, and it would seem equally perfect either way.
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Fremont’s description of this beer surprisingly (to us) highlights its use of “fruit-forward” Mosaic hops, but to our palates, it isn’t the fruity side of Mosaic that necessarily presents itself—and that’s great. Rather, this beer seems to us like a perfectly Pacific Northwestern kolsch, being spicy and slightly woodsy, in a way that just feels right. From one score sheet: “Beautifully expressive hops that don’t go too far; lovely balance with that crisp malt.” It’s a versatile, low-alcohol beer that is packed with character, and comes from a brewery in Fremont that we’ve come to associate with subtlety and superb technical execution over the course of many Paste tastings. In a way, it almost makes sense that they’d be the ones taking home the kolsch crown … but well done, nevertheless. This is the kind of beer you’d buy an entire mini-fridge for, just for the pleasure of opening the door and seeing row after row of perfect session beer.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.