Wednesday, 10 March 2010

When is a Kölsch not a Kölsch?

It's clear that I'm not the greatest fan of Kölsch, in general terms, although last night I had quite a few 0.2l glasses of Sion Kölsch, served in rapid succession, and I quite enjoyed them. As usual, it was the atmoshpere and company that made them go down well, and they had a nice fruity element I hadn't noticed before.

But there is one thing that does make me spring to the defense of this golden beer from Cologne, and that's it's right to it's designation as a Protected Geographical Indicator. It's been around for a while, and most of the breweries that are brewing Kölsch are in the Cologne region, apart from a few exceptions that were granted rights under the grandfather principle.

So, I get unreasonably irritated when US breweries call their Kölsch-styled offerings Kölsch. Is this completely anally retentive of me?

I asked this on twitter after the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, New York, asked the Twitterverse to help suggest names for their Kolsch. They weren't aware of PGI status, and of course, why would they be? One fellow Twitizen mentioned that as it is defined by the BJCP as a style, so it wasn't location specific. So that seems to open it up in the US beer scene. Should they include mention of the protected status in Europe? Is it not a global protection? Should US brewers treat it like they seem to treat Lambics and avoid using "that word" out of respect for a recognised brewing tradition (although I much prefer Lambics!)?

I should point out that I am not trying to single out Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, as there are many examples in the US already existing.

Of course this did open up discussions about Yorkshire Puddings, but it was good to know that Cornish Pasties are registered as a PGI!


MicMac said...

Does Sam Adams still brew their Cranberry Lambic?

BJCP in this context has nothin' to do with anythin'! If it's a product linked to a specific place, with a respected historic defined style/recipe, then it should probably be protected from those seeking to cash in on it somewhere else.

Cologne-style / Kolsch-style, etc make that clear ('Lagered German Ale' seems a bit of a mouthful though!)

Barm said...

As long as they stop bloody calling it a German Ale, I don't care!

I like the PGI, but it doesn't stop anyone brewing Kölsch. The names breweries come up with to indicate what it's supposed to be are fun. One brewery in Bonn - so outside the Kölsch region - called theirs Bönnsch. Others just print the words "obergärig hell" (top-fermenting pale) on the label and expect the consumer to get the message.

What's wrong with K*lsch as alternative? Most English-speakers can't pronounce the original anyway.

Barry M said...

I have no idea, Mike. I just recall reading some blog posts last week about this apparent reluctance from some US micros to use the term Lambic. I'll have to try to root it out.

BJCP confuses me. I was always under the impression that it was really about defining guidelines for homebrew competitions, but somehow morphed into something else, so now it has a myriad of tightly defined guidelines and is used to define categories for awards for commercial beers in the GABF (so that nearly everyone gets an award!). WHat frightens me most about it is that it is taken by many to be the gosepl in beer definition. I suppose I use it to an extent because it comes built into the software I use when making recipes, but I use it very loosely. Anyway, my interpretation of that persons response was that many would reckon that as it is in the BJCP as a style, then it's open to be used. Then again, Lambic is listed there too.

Rob, is it Kölsch if not brewed in Cologne though, regardless of playing with names? An Obergäriges Helles to me would be a pale ale. An Obergäriges Helles Lagerbier could be a Kölsch-styled beer, but not necessarily :D Anyway, Kölsch indicates being from Cologne (Kölsch also being the dialect spoken there), so I guess Kölsch-style would suit me too. :)

Lars Marius Garshol said...

Personally, I find that the whole concept of a PGI is a terrible idea. To me, it seems like a protectionist measure designed to prevent producers in other regions from competing on an equal basis. I can't think of any reason to do that.

Styles of beer, wine, sausage, cheese, etc etc, tend to have geographical names because historically they tended to be associated with the region/city in which they first arose. Some spread quite rapidly early on, whereas others have only started to spread more recently.

Today it seems absurd to award PGI status to products like cheddar cheese, Berliner buns, or Pilsener beer, because they are so widespread. But in principle this is no different from from Kölsch or Champagne in that they are specific styles of cheese/buns/drinks that originated in a specific area, and which are now associated in the public mind that style instead of the particular region.

I think in some cases a PGI may make sense, if the name really does refer specifically to a region, rather than to a particular style that can easily be reproduced anywhere. Darjeeling tea and Bourdeaux wine are PGIs that might make some sense, provided that they are not easy to reproduce elsewhere (and I must admit I don't know enough to say for certain).

If you are really to take this PGI stuff seriously you wind up with shelves and menus containing products labelled "Kölsch" and "Kölsch-style beer" next to each other, where the only real difference is where they are produced. But who cares where they are produced? Why do we have to jump through silly linguistic hoops like "Kölsch-style beer" simply to protect the brewers of Cologne from natural competition?

It makes no sense to me. Worse, it leads to awkward product labeling and stifles competition, so the whole PGI business seems harmful to me.

Laurent Mousson said...

Lars, I'm afraid you only see part of the picture...

PGIs can be harmful when wilded by such monsters as the French Chapmagne producers, who indeed misuse it against everything that moves.

On the other hand, that local producers who have a local specialty that has a name linked to the place they are in - Kölsch being an example - do try and protect the name so that the consumer has a guarantee that the produce does indeed come from the place its name refers to, PGIs become very important and are a good boost to those producers in wardin goff large producers piggy-backing on the reputationof the original.

And then there's the guidelines of white book that comes with PGIs, AOCs etc. That does rule where the ingredients may come from (Grisons dried meat made from Brazilian or Argentinian beef is one of the most notorious problemtci examples here in Switzerland), which methods of production are authorised, where exactly the producer may be. And the tighter the guidelines, the better the result.

To give you a very concrete example, in Switzerland, we have two AOCs for very similar cheeses:

Gruyère AOC encompasses half the country, allows for pasteurised milk and industrial production, and is de facto worthless in guaranteeing much for the consumer, except possibly on export, where the Swiss AOC logo helps consuers make sure that this Swiss Cheese indeed was made in Switzerland.

On the other hand, the very first Swiss AOC was for l'Etivaz, a mountain cheese akin to Gruyère whose production is managed by a local syndicate of small producers. Here the guidelines include a strict limitation of where the milk comes from (mountain area in a limited radius), that it has to be worked raw, how it is to be prepared, how long it must be aged etc. Before the producers of l'Etivaz adopted those guidelines, their cheese was just a Gruyère among others. Nowadays it is recognised as a distinctive specialty, which comes with added value for the producers. But they went for the guidelines before IGPs even existed in Swiss law.

So if you do care about taste, it's not all bad in the PGI world. In the beer world, PIGs are the best weapon Budvar have at their disposal against the efforts of Anheuser-Busch to crush them through brute market force.

A-B by the way have long been one of the lobbying forces to block any recognition of the very concept of PGIs in the US, whereas small local syndicates of producers, notably for cheese and wine, may have benefited greatly from it to protect their specialties from the steamroller of industrial food uniformisation...

Call this protectionism if you want, but I believe there is a common interest in preserving the interests of smaller producers od specialty food produce linked to a particular place in the world.

Jennifer K. O'Connell said...

So I'm taking a risk at being beaten over the head by admitting that I was the one who mentioned the BJCP. I hate that I came across as such a crass American. Though being American makes it hard not to be crass.

In my defense your original question was why US micros don't call it Kolsch-style. I believe my answer still holds. The BJCP is a set of guidelines, not laws, on the characteristics of a certain beer style. Some love it and some hate it but it is a common ground document that beers can be judged by. Consumers also have a quick reference to understand what they are buying. It is not like the "Reinheitsgebot" but simply a tool.

PGI status, as you're referring to it, is also EU law. In the US we have geographical trademarks. They are geographical indicators and can not be used for a generic name of a product. For example, parmigiano cheese in Italy is generically known as Parmesan cheese in the United States. But, I live in Georgia and we have "Vidalia Onions" which is a sweet onion that was grown only in Vidalia, GA. Those same sweet onions can be grown somewhere else, they just may not be called Vidalias.

We do follow some PGIs like Kobe beef or Champagne but my guess is it was due to lawsuits not regulations. That's how we roll here in the US, push until we're sued. (And no, I do not like that about the US)

So y'all beat away if you must but I hope you respect me in the morning.

Barry M said...

Lars, Laurent, I can see both sides of this argument, and indeed, something like a PGI status can be a blunt instrument that can be misused. But then I think, in balance, I'm probably in favour of this type of thing in principle when it provides protection along the lines of the second example Laurent cites. I'm not sure where Kölsch falls, as there are both small and large producers in Cologne, but hte fact is they had the Kölsch Konvention first, then the PGI, so it's somehting they, on the whole, believe in, and it was, I believe, the first beer to receive such a status.

Jennifer, don't worry, I for one didn't think it came across as a crass statement. You simply pointed out a context within which the US beer market seems to increasingly operate (well, at least for us geeks) in terms of these style definitions, and it's a valid, almost cultural point that should be made. Sure, they can define the properties of Kölsch (I haven't compared how they match with the legal definition as described in the PGI, but then BJCP is American-based), but I suppose I began to wonder if, just because it's listed and quantified in some way, does that mean it's open for use? In fact, the BJCP description for Kölsch does state "Kölsch is an appellation protected by the Kölsch Konvention, and is restricted to the 20 or so breweries in and around Cologne (Köln). The Konvention simply defines the beer as a 'light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear top-fermenting Vollbier'" (in fact, with the PGI it gets a stricter definition, at least in terms of geography and processing), so it's interesting that they then list commercial examples from the US that use the term Kölsch directly.

I'll have to ask them. Thanks for contributing! :)

Ron Pattinson said...

I think the citizens of Cologne have every right to stop others from using the name of their local speciality for a beer that may or may not bear any resemblance to Kolsch.

Re the BJCP definitions "Consumers also have a quick reference to understand what they are buying." That's only true if all brewers stick to them. As the BJCP definitions are hilariously wide of the mark for many European types of beer, they have just as much ability to confuse as they do to elucidate.

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, I canonly tell that last july, when I took a beer-lover lady friend on a tour of Cologne's beer places, the very first glass she had (at Schreckenskammer) turned into a revelation, as it turned her mental image of Kölsch - based on US examples - on its head...

Barry, good point : the EU "Kölsch" PGI indeed is only part of the story, and it came a good fifteen years after the Kölsch-Konvention.

Barry M said...

Ron, I seem to remember a year or so ago, one of the beers made by Menno based on your, presumably historically accurate recipe was declared "not to style" :)

I can see the value in such guidelines for providing a framework for home brewing competitions, as a set of "technical parameters" to aim towards, but I also feel it's not very useful, nor appropriate, in the commercial sense.

Laurent, I have to admit I don't have mucu, if any, experience with US-made Kölsch-stle beers. WOuld love to do a blind tasting with some of my Kölner colleagues!

I'm not sure what standing the Kölsch-Konvention has beyond Cologne. Must check it out.

Russ said...

Here's my two cents... For me it comes down to a respect issue, and if the brewers of Köln wish for the term to apply only to beers brewed therein, then out of respect for them I would call it a "Kölsch-style Ale" (which is what I call my homebrewed Kölsch, as if anybody cares). But I only do that because I read about the issue somewhere and I understand that Kölsch brewers appreciate being shown such respect (if what I read was accurate).

That being said, I don't think most Americans think twice about calling it Kölsch because 1.) appellations just aren't a big thing in the U.S. and 2.) most non-beer geeks probably don't even know that Kölsch refers to the city that we call Cologne. So I can understand it being somebody's pet peeve, but it's not like American brewers are trying to trick consumers into thinking the American craft beer they purchase was actually brewed in Köln.