Despite sitting in the midst of some of Germany’s finest vineyards, Cologne is a beer-drinking town. The favorite beer is the local brew, Kölsch. Kölsch is fresh and light. Of the beers of Europe, I would put Kölsch as the most similar in profile to American industrial beers. An average Kölsch is like a really, really good version of Coors, if such thing existed.
One of the keys to the Cologne Kölsch experience is the freshness of the beer. At the brew houses, the massive kegs are turned over rapidly. If you walk the streets in the morning, you can see large piles of empty kegs waiting to be returned to the breweries. There’s a whole lot of Kölsch served each day in Cologne.
The beer service in Cologne has a particular system. When two people take seats at a table, the waiter (the “Köbes”) comes over and asks, “Zwei Kölsch?” The presumption is that the two new customers will each want a Kölsch beer. There’s no, “could I get you something to drink,” though there are other beverage options available, including other styles of beer. The expectation, for good reason, is that all customers come to the brauhaus to drink Kölsch.
Once the Köbes has the orders from his tables, he heads back to the bar and stands in line with the other waiters in a queue as the glasses are filled. Beer flows from the keg in a continuous stream into an array of small 200 mL Stange cylinder glasses. Once full the glasses are loaded onto a special carrier and the waiter returns to the tables with his “Kranz of Kölsch,” or wreath of Kölsch.
At the table, the waiter unloads the beer, making a mark on a coaster to keep a tally of the number of beers taken by table. There is the expectation that a customer will order more than one round. Indeed, empty glasses may be automatically refilled until the top of the glass is covered with a coaster.
Covering the top of a Stange triggers the Köbes to come to the table and collect the payment. Depending on the brauhaus, each glass of Kölsch costs between €1.80 and €2.00. In some brew houses it is possible to order a dedicated keg for the table. This reduces the cost a little less than €0.90/100 mL; ordering by the barrel is more about convenience than savings.
Food, traditional German fare, is also served in Cologne’s beer halls. We found the food served at the brew houses we visited to be of high quality. The portions are large and the fare is hearty. In Cologne you won’t go thirsty or hungry, at least if you like beer.