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Feeling Fruity? How to Tell a Kölsch From a Lager

There are many lookalike beers that can be hard to tell apart. Any number of similarly dark brews can give you pause for thought – mild and porter, schwarzbier and black IPA – but it’s the yellow fizzies that can prove especially challenging. They can bamboozle the attentive drinker even when you’ve moved past your visual assessment to the aroma and flavour portion of your beer evaluation technique.

One such pair in particular, pilsner and Kölsch, can prove so hard to tell apart that I’ve been paying extra close attention to getting to know the latter as I prepare for my final beer sommelier assessment. (I have an inkling that I will be called on to pick one from the other in that exam room.)

Make a note of the style

The first thing to do is to make sure I know what I’m looking for when I come across a glass of this lager-like stuff. That means looking at the style profile and getting to know the quirks and characteristics that make a Kölsch different from a pilsner. The main thing is the different yeast used. In the beer this is expressed in a fruity, estery character – but it’s very restrained.

A vinous or sulphurous note on the nose can also be a sign. But again where these are present they’re very faint. It’s subtle stuff, Kölsch. This makes it great for drinking on a hot summer day, as it’s easy going and refreshing and pleasantly moreish. But it becomes far too easy to knock back without realising it’s not a lager – that won’t do at all for my nerdish purposes.

Beer as homework: repeated tasting is key

reading style profiles will only take me so far. The only real answer is to taste lots of them. So that’s just what I did.

Privat-Brauerei Heinrich Reissdorf // Reissdorf Kölsch // 4.8% ABV // 21 IBU

One of the classics. The aroma is soft, with grain and corn to the fore followed by a very faint hint of sulphur (appropriate to the style). On tasting the fruitiness is restrained but definitely there in an estery aftertaste that is reminiscent of green apples and perhaps also honeysuckle blossom. This is a great beer. Soft, smooth, subtle, and one that really invites… let’s call it ‘repeated examination’.

Cölner Hofbräu Früh // Früh Kölsch // 4.8% ABV // 19 IBU

Clean and thirst-quenching, with low hop bitterness. The fruity ester character in this one is even less pronounced than in the others. It’s so subtle it’s barely there at all. The carbonation is a bit sharper too. This is one for easy-drinking, straightforward refreshment.

Gaffel, Becker & Co // Gaffel Kölsch // 4.8% ABV // 24-26 IBU

A soft beer with delicate bitterness. Its aroma is restrained with less grain or corn character than others, and a very slight floral fruity edge. It finishes with a gentle drying character and a fairly long but subtle aftertaste, with the fruity esters being most pronounced at this stage.

Three Weavers // Seafarer Kölsch-style ale // 4.8% ABV // IBU not available

‘Real’ Kölsch is brewed only in Cologne. But of course there are other brewers outside Cologne brewing beer in the same style, even if they can’t officially call it Kölsch. This example stays pretty close to the original style. It was very slightly hazier in the glass than the German examples. The hops were a little more pronounced (no surprise there) and the attenuation and carbonation were a shade more assertive too, making for a crisper and drier drink. It had a subtle bready, grainy flavour with faint fruitiness suggesting mandarin, bergamot and lime leaf mostly present on the aftertaste. The bitterness was snappy at first but faded to leave the overall balance between malts and hops pretty evenly matched.

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