A Tale of Two Cities is my story of a recent beery visit to Cologne and Dusseldorf. For this trip, my plan was to fly in and out of nearby Brussels. The plan was to spend a good bit of time on the front end in the Oberpfalz and Bavarian Forest and then finish with some extended time in Belgium. Spending time in Cologne and Dusseldorf turned out to be a great choice for a few days acclimating to the time change and exploring some fascinating beer culture.
There is a long-standing rivalry between Cologne and Dusseldorf – two Rhine River cities that are about a twenty-minute train ride from each other. The rivalry is said to go back to the 1200’s when a battle was fought between the two communities. Dusseldorf was not much more than a medieval village under the purview of a local Duke while Cologne, a former Roman colony was already a city under the rule of an Archbishop. The Duke’s forces won the battle and set the stage for Cologne’s becoming a free city, not under the control of the church and earned Dusseldorf the right to be a city on its own. Conventional wisdom says that the battle was more about a rivalry between a Duke and an Archbishop, but a rivalry certainly persists between these two major German cities.
Beer culture plays a part in the rivalry with each city being the cradle of a distinctive beer style. Cologne is the only place in the European Union that can claim to produce Kölsch and Dusseldorf is the acknowledged epicenter of Altbier brewing. Beer ribbing happens. Cologne calls Dusseldorf “the city where the beer tastes as it is called” (“alt” means “old”). In Cologne, you can buy a “Kölsch” key for a computer keyboard to replace your Alt key. Both beer styles are served in the distinctive Stange glassware but Dusseldorf uses a slightly larger stange (.25l instead of .2l) to be able to claim that “theirs is bigger” I guess.
A piece of distinctive beer culture shared by the cities is Köbes, the servers in the beer halls of both places. Traditional Köbes are men, wear a dark blue apron, and often have a coin changer or a leather wallet on their belt. The word Köbes can apparently be interpreted to mean a “stubborn, angular or squat person” in the local dialect and that description seemed to often be accurate.
Traditionally, Köbes were assistant brewers who also served as beer slingers. Often they were entrepreneurs whose compensation was based on the volume of beer sold rather than a salary. That carries over in their fast-paced work style of today. When you sit down in a traditional place, a roving Köbes with a tray of Stanges leaves you a beer unless you wave him off. The Köbes put a tick mark on your beer mat each time they leave a beer to keep track of how many you need to pay for. The tray is called a “kranz” (wreath) and they are refilled with empty glasses as quickly as full beers are dropped off. When you empty your Stange, the Köbes drop off a new glass full without you needing to ask. To stop this perpetual cycle, you put a beer mat on your glass and the Köbes know you want to settle up. I have read that there are occasionally women servers in the traditional places (referred to as Köbine) but I never saw one during my time in Cologne and Dusseldorf. Another traditional role in the brau houses is that of the Zappes, the guy who taps the wooden barrels and fills the Kranz with full Stanges of beer.
People in the Cologne area literally speak beer, as Kölsch is both the name of the local dialect and the local beer. Although it wasn’t uniformly referred to as “Kölsch” until the early 1900’s, top-fermented ales have been the traditional beer of choice in the Cologne area for much longer. Kölsch is a pale, golden beer that has a nice maltiness and exhibits subtle use of hops. It is also a refreshing drink that is highly suitable to the pub culture of chatting up a friend or people-watching. Kölsch in Cologne is to the pub as coffee is to cafe culture. The brewing process for Kölsch is different than for many other ales in that the beer is cold-conditioned similar to the process for a lager. Traditionally, Kölsch is served in a cylindrical 200ml glass called a Stange. The small glass size suits the lightly carbonated beer so there is still a bit of fizz by the time you finish drinking it.
The Kölsch story is an interesting tale of businesses protecting their market that resulted in a much more interesting beer culture than might have happened if the free market had ruled. The popularity of bottom-fermented beers in the 1600’s posed a threat to Cologne’s ale brewers. Brewers at the time swore an oath “that you prepare your beer, as of old, from good malt, good cereals, and good hops, well-boiled, and that you pitch it with top-yeast, and by no means with bottom yeast.” The local government forbade the sale of bottom-fermented beers within the city walls. Although top-fermented beers were still king, cold-conditioning and lagering found their way into the beermaking process.
In more recent times, the term “Kölsch” has obtained a protected geographical indication (PGI) within the European Union. To be labeled as “Kölsch” within the countries of the EU, the beer must be made within 50km (30mi) of Cologne and be brewed according to the requirements of the Cologne Brewery Association. Does that make Kölsch the true Champagne of Beers?
The absence of a traditional dark beer in Cologne is probably a snub aimed at Dusseldorf, but my research did turn up a historical reference to Knupp beer, another old-school Cologne beer. Knuppbier is also known as Kölnisches Knupp and Kuletschbier because it’s the color of licorice (not the taste). I’ve seen it referred to as a stout so that makes sense in an area of top-fermented beers. I never found one to try anywhere.
My memory of the beery part of visiting Cologne is a jumble of brands, breweries, and pubs. There were once more than forty breweries in Cologne, but wars, economic troubles, consolidations, and acquisitions have pared that number down considerably. Früh, Gaffel, and Reissdorff are mentioned as the big three Kölsch brewers. Sion and Malzmühle are substantial operations that seem to have absorbed historic brands that they still produce and sell along with their own brands.
One of my favorite places illustrates how confusing it can get. Päffgen is a deliciously traditional brewhouse located outside of the center that serves up great beer, food, and atmosphere. It would be easy to confuse it with Brauerei Pfaffen, a cozy pub in the city center that serves Pfaffen Kölsch brewed by fourth-generation master brewer Max Päffgen. The two breweries are only related by family heritage and the history of two brothers going in separate directions sometime in the ether of the past. Max proudly notes that he is the only master brewer named Päffgen who is still making Kölsch.
Smaller brewpub operations are also part of the mix in Cologne. One I particularly enjoyed is called Braustelle in the area of the city called Ehrenfeld. Braustelle brews a small range of non-traditional artisanal beers as well as a Kölsch and even a (gasp) Altbier – the only one I encountered in Cologne.
A place I didn’t get to but wish I had time for is BRAUWELT Köln, a beer and spirits lover’s attraction in Cologne’s oldest brewery. It is owned by the Malzmühle brewing and distilling operation. Guided tours, tastings, a pub, and biergarten are part of the offering there.
Breweries, brands, and beer venues sampled in Cologne: Gaffel, Päffgen, Früh, Sion, Malzmühle, Reissdorf, Peters, Sünner, Hellers, Brauerei Pfaffen, Dom (pub), Gilden, Braustelle, Rathenauplatz Biergarten
Altbier is a German Ale that originated in Düsseldorf. Although it has only existed by the name Altbier since the mid-1800’s (it was widely called Düssel prior), it is a beer that evolved from medieval beers like Keutebier. The story goes that Matthias Schumacher invented the Altbier genre by using less wheat in the grain bill and fermenting and conditioning at somewhat lower temperatures. Naming it “Alt” implied it was old-style beer to differentiate it in the market from newer-style lagers. I came to think of it as a Dunkel counterpoint to Kölsch. Unlike Kölsch, Altbier has no geographic protection to its name and is made by breweries in other parts of the EU.
Altbier is a gorgeous, coppery-colored brew that drinks clean and mellow. It seems to generally be hoppier than Kölsch, but nothing overboard. I would say it drinks smoother than a typical pale ale and some people think of it as a hybrid of ale and lager. Although out of season during my visit, several of the Altbier breweries produce a stronger version of Alt they call Sticke. It seems to be to an Alt like a bock is to a lager.
Pub life in Dusseldorf seemed very well-developed, robust, and laid back. Pubs are congregated in a pleasant pedestrian core for the most part. The local tourism marketing schtick touts Dusseldorf’s old center as “the longest bar in the world” due to the concentration of hundreds of bars, pubs, and bistros. An impression of an alternative New Orleans French Quarter formed in my thinking as I imagined carnival time or New Year’s eve here.
There were not what I consider beer hikes within these cities, but walking is a great way to explore both cities and their beer cultures. You will get some exercise, be able to take in the sights, and experience the culture of the city. Plus, it’s free! In Cologne, start at the train station near the historic center, The majestic cathedral known to locals as the Kölner Dom soars to an incredible height. I crooked my neck back severely thinking it would be enough to let me see the top, but it wasn’t enough. Dating to 1248, the cathedral was built to house the relics (old bones and such I guess) of the Magi (yes … those wise men) which are said to have arrived in the city in 1164. From that time forward Cologne has been an important pilgrimage place.
Adjacent to the Dom is the Museum Ludwig, home to extensive art collections including large Picasso and pop-art collections. Old city streets branch from there into the Heumarkt where many of the famous and venerable Kolsch pubs are located. The pub and cafe cultures are pervasive.
Cologne is divided by the Rhine and the historic center is on the west bank. The best walking crossing is the Hohenzollern Bridge I think. It is a combined pedestrian and rail bridge (no cars) and the walking part is lined with what I call “love locks”. Couples lock a padlock onto the bridge structure to commemorate their forever commitment. I’ve seen this colorful custom in many places throughout Europe and there are a gazillion of these locks ( I saw an estimate of half a million) on the Hohenzollern Bridge. Another unplanned use of the bridge is its use as a climbing wall by the German Alpine Association (on the east bank bridgehead). Near the climbing area is an attraction called Cologne View which offers big views of the area from a rooftop deck of a high-rise building. A promenade along the riverfront offers a great opportunity for people watching and burning through some beer calories.
The Dusseldorf center is also a great place to explore on foot and Altbier pubs pop up all along the way. I walked to and from the central train station to the old town center. There is a park-like feel once you reach the Stadtgraben, a beautiful old moat that dissects a street called Königsallee. It’s a beautiful, tree-lined moat with walking paths on both sides. Several bridges link the two sides.
As in Cologne, there is a lot of interesting street art. The Stadterhebungsmonument (winner of the best name) is an intricate bronze relief sculpture commemorating Dusseldorf whipping up on Cologne back in the day. A challenge for walkers can be to find the ten “Säulenheiligen” statues of Düsseldorf. These are life-sized sculptures of life-like people doing normal, everyday stuff. Christoph Pöggeler, the artist, created them because he figured that normal, everyday people deserved to be put on a pedestal for once. life-sized statues that represented everyday normal people. Why? Because why not feature everyday people for once? Great minds think alike.