Sunday, 6 September 2009

Kölsch Blind Tasting

Kölsch . The golden nectar flowing from the taps of Cologne, or a really boring yellow beer, depending on your outlook. I have to admit, I do find Kölsch a bit boring, but like the odd glass on a hot day. I should also admit that I have yet to do a proper tour of Cologne, so according to the common wisdom, I'll probably love the stuff there, even if I find it a bit uninspiring sitting by the harbour in Muenster (yes, we have a harbour on the Dortmund-Ems canal). Amongst my colleagues, there's a firm line between altbier and Kölsch fans. Perhaps I'd better rephrase. There are a couple of people who profess to like Kölsch , and the others look down on them with disdain. So, what better way to smooth the tension than a good, old-fashioned blind tasting.

Although we had a master list that included some of the top rated Kolschbier on (and I'm still shocked at how few Kölsch biers in the top 50 that are from Cologne, never mind the argument that thay shouldn't be called Kölsch unless they come form a designated area - see notes below) it was tricky to get them readily, even close to Cologne, so we ended up with five fairly popular brands. With eleven volunteers waiting in the office kitchen, the beers were poured in secrecy and labelled A to E. The tasters were enoucouraged to describe the beers as best they could and to then rate them in order of preference. Simple!

The beers for the tasting, in alphabetical order, were:
  • Früh
  • Gaffel
  • Reissdorf
  • Sester
  • Sion
But before we get to the final results, let's just get an idea of what people said about these beers

Beer A
In the lovely little coffee table book, 500 Great Beers, the late Michael Jackson described this beer has having "a faint frutiness in aroma; a light but firm, dryly nutty palate; and a crisply flower, hoppy finish".

Our guinea pigs described it as "well balanced"; "bitter, hoppy and fresh; easy to drink"; "no beer flavour"; "light and watery".

I reckoned it had a floral, slight butter aroma with a light graininess and resinous finish. A pleasant drink.

Beer B
Michael Jackson said this beer was malty "with a pear-brandy frutiness and a late hop dryness".

Survey said: "malty; salty"; "watery"; "a weak aroma, slightly bitter with a short finish"; "weak aroma, not refreshing and not to my taste"; "a touch of marzipan".

I thought it had a slightly grainy aroma with hints of strawberry fruitiness; a bit thin, with a disturbing hint of chlorine. It's all in the finish, which is has a nice, slightly sherbety bitterness.

Beer C
Described as a "very fragrent, firm bodied Kölsch , smooth and slightly oily, with an orangey fruitiness" by Michael Jackson, the reviewing panel had a different opinion.

They said: "nearly no aroma; bitter finish", "very boring, no freshness, slightly sweet", "sweet and fruity"

I reckoned it had a very faint aroma indeed, perhaps a hint of citrus; slightly malty-sweet with a pine-like note. A drying finish despite the relative sweetness. Not much to it really.

Beer D
Michael Jackson liked this one. He said it has a "minty, hop aroma; sweet, vanilla-like, malt flavours; and a crisp, dry, cedary finish. A delicious Kölsch ."

The panel said "a really bad aroma, but a bit hoppy. A little bitter in the back of the mouth. Salty and sweet"; "a good flavour, less 'herb'. but nearly like a real beer"; "citric, broad variety of aromas, strongest character", "watery, nicht gut"; "dish water, soft and mild".

I really liked this one, describing it as having a slightly citric, carbonic aroma with a lightly sweet, fruity, apple-like middle ground and a pleasantly tingling, crisp hop finish. Flavourful and refreshing.

Beer E
MJ said the "beer has a faint strawberry fruitiness of aroma; a creamy malt background; and an elegant balancing dryness of hops".

My colleagues though it was "comparable to D, but not so differentiated in layers of flavours"; "musty aroma, very bad flavour"; "good strong aroma, 'herb' and fruity flavour"; "bitter and refreshing, a good summer beer"; "it stinks! Somewhat bitter, but not a good beer".

I could understand the comment that it stank, as I got quite a farmyard-like aroma; manure with a little citrus twist. A lightly fruity flavour, I liked the spicy notes tht sat on a reasonably malty body. Not much bitterness to speak of, but a dry, spicy finish.

So, can you guess what was what from the descriptions? While you thnk about it, here is the overall rating:

In 1st place came D, with 6 first preferences, and despite 3 votes for least preferred. A came 2nd with only 2 first preferences, but a strong showing of 4 for second preference and 2 each for third and fourth preference. E came 3rd, with only one first preference but an equally strong showing as A for second preference. It also received 2 votes for least preferred. B came 4th with one first preference, but a solid showing of 4 votes each for third and fourth preference. It only received 1 vote for least preferred. Finally, C came 5th, with one vote for 1st preference, but 4 for least preferred.

In terms of numerical scores, D and A were very close really, with only a 0.1 score differential. But which beers were they?

  • 1st place was D - Reissdorf
  • 2nd place was A - Gaffel
  • 3rd place was E - Früh
  • 4th place was B - Sion
  • 5th place was C - Sester
It's also interesting to note the price differential for a 500ml bottle of these beers. Here they are from highest to lowest:
  • Sion €0.69
  • Reisdorfer €0.68
  • Früh €0.66
  • Gaffel €0.61
  • Sester €0.47
If our little study is any indication, you pay for what you get, but Gaffel can be considered particularly good value. As for the tasting in general, Kristian, who I would consider a beer fan, made a note at the top of his tasting sheet saying "Note: i don~t like Kölsch at all!" followed by "Note after tasting: See note above!". I think this summarises the effects of the tasting overall. There was no road to Damascus moment, and while my personal tastes regarding Kölsch haven't altered in any major way, i was very happy to discover the likes of Reissdorf, which I'd very happily buy again. The next step on this road of discovery to to just get into Cologne and do it properly. Stay tuned...

Special thanks to Henning for seeking out Kölsch for the tasting!

Kölsch has the status of a Protected Geographical Indication (not a Protected Designation of Origin as the Wikipedia article on Kölsch suggests), meaning it is a product closely linked to a geographical area within which at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place. So far this is the only German beer published with this designation, but there's a list of other beers registered in the database. If you are interested you can view the application documents for the beers, many of which make interesting reading simply in terms of how the applicants define their product. Interestingly, Rutland Bitter (Ruddles) and Kentish Ale (Sheperd Neame) are the only two registrations from the UK. The rest of the registrations for PGI status are from the Czech Republic.


Mark Dredge said...

Interesting! I do enjoy the odd Kolsch myself, but don't get around to drinking it often.

I wish I worked in your office though judging my the frequent beer tastings!

Barry M said...

I'm clearly a bad influence, as people now come up and ask me when the next one will be. :D The tasting goes very fast really, but usually ends up with a few people hanging around drinking the leftovers and sampling homebrew, or bringing some other interesting beers along for the afters. That's the real fun part :)

Alt is probably next, but I'd really like to look for sponsorship to do a non-German beer tasting.

Leigh said...

You know, I do like Kolsch but it would be my least favourite type of beer to blind taste - I can't get much between the two. Here in Leeds, the main ones are Gaffel, Fruh and Kuppers. To me, they are all just as simple and just as refreshing. Give me a fresh one, in a Cologne bar, and I bet it's a different world!! Kudos, anyway.

Bailey said...

Bottled Koelsch tastes really doesn't seem to work in my experience -- it's like a zombified version of the real thing. Even the stuff on tap in London tastes knackered.

Why don't you take your tasting group on a road trip to Cologne and see what they think of Koelsch in its natural environment...?

Barry M said...

Leigh, there were certainly a lot of similarities in the five we tasted, but there were also remarkable differences in the flavours and aromas of some. Not always in a good way! :D

Bailey, I was just saying that to a colleague yesterday. Cologne isn't too far away (1.5 hours by train I guess) so I'll suggest a day trip to do a crawl and taste the stuff in the correct setting. I'd prefer Düsseldorf, but in the interests of science etc...

Russ said...

As an Altbier nut, I know I shouldn't like Kölsch but I do. It sure beats the lame American wheats that have become the standard "summer beer" of craft breweries here in the States.

Oh, and up until reading this post I always thought that beer "B" was LION Kölsch... Man am I an idiot!

Barry M said...

Hmm, my experience of the American wheat beers has been mixed. Some nice ones though.

And don't worry about the S. The Germans love using odd fonts, and the older style labels are especially confusing. I've lost count of the number of people who've asked if I like Köstriker instead of Köstritzer :D

Rob Sterowski said...

People should learn to read blackletter fonts; there are only a couple of peculiarities, it's not difficult! As a type geek it really gets on my wick when breweries dumb down their typography. Fürstenberg a few years ago and various Kölsch brewers (Gilden among them) have replaced the long S in their logos with a short one, which is simply wrong in blackletter. Before t or ch the s is always long, except if it belongs to the previous syllable.

Alistair Reece said...

I had a bottle of Reissdorf when I was in Florida back in July and rather liked it - perhaps it is well suited to a hot climate when straight from the fridge? One the local breweries here, Blue Mountain, does a good Kolsch as well, but their lager is so good, I doubt it will become a regular for me.