And so up the Rhine to Cologne. (Well, by train. I wish I'd thought of getting the boat. That would have been cool.) Früh and Gaffel are everywhere, of course, and I did my best to avoid them. I didn't see Gaffel served from the cask anywhere (even its main city outlet was keg only), though Früh was on gravity at their giant brewery tap and I found it quite simple unfussy unfizzy fare. Aside from dull Gaffel, other keg kölsch included Dom, which has a light crispness and pleasant hop bite; and Ganser -- dry and fruity like a sauvignon blanc.
Of course, gravity serving is no measure of quality and I wasn't at all impressed by Sion Kölsch. It's slightly musty and a bit sickly sweet. Cheap-tasting, I thought. The Sion beerhall is worth visiting for the cheap and plentiful food, but the beer really wasn't up to much. Peters Kölsch is also quite plain, though on the drier side of things. Pfaffen Kölsch is another sweet one, with an almost toffee characteristic that doesn't fit kölsch at all well. Pfaffen -- founded by a disaffected branch of the family which runs the more established Päffgen brewery -- also serves a bottled Hefeweizen at its Altstadt tap. It's much better than the kölsch, nicely balanced between the dryness characteristic of north German weizen and the fun banana fruitiness. Not too heavy and not in the least bit watery.
Cologne has five brewpubs, though with New Year opening hours and whatnot I missed going to Braustelle, and Heller slipped my mind (this is what the inhumanity of a wi-fi-less hotel does). The above-mentioned Päffgen runs its one just out from the town centre, a few minutes' walk from the old Gestapo headquarters, now a grim memorial to the city's Nazi past. By the time I got here I had already encountered Päffgen Kölsch at the Altstadt outlet Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass, where it took twenty minutes for a waiter to even look at us. Why would I darken another of their doors? 'Cos the beer is gorgeous. It's not especially dry but has a vibrant fresh hoppiness to it which, combined with the light cask fizz, makes it eminently sinkable. What crispness there is serves to make it mouth-watering and moreish. Thankfully the service was much better at the brewery and five of these beauties weren't long in disappearing.
Back in the town centre, the imposing edifice of Malzmühle has a brewery tucked away somewhere out of sight. In the relatively small beerhall I sank a couple of Mühlen Kölsch. It's a very interesting take on the style, being a darker gold than usual and having a sort of herbal vibe going on, plus soft melon and peach flavours. Far more complex than any kölsch has a right to be and I loved it.
That brings us finally to Freischem's, the newly re-opened brewpub recently lauded by Boak & Bailey. Something about it struck me as being the only place I'd visited on the trip that feels like a normal, rest-of-the-world, brewpub. Yes, it's cavernous and the tables are topped with bare pine, in accordance with the unwritten laws of this part of the world, but the brewing kit is on prominent display in a window at the front and *gasp* there's a selection of beers!
With appropriate iconoclasm, Freischeim's Kölsch is served from the keg and is a rather plain and simple example of the style. I guess the novelty here is that, if 20cl is too small for you, it's also available in 3L and 5L servings, for the thirstier patron. There's a similarly unremarkable pale cloudy beer called Trüb. It tastes like it should be thin and watery, but it isn't , and there's just a slightly citrus zing on the end, like a low-rent Belgian witbier. The big draw, however, is the mugs of schwarzbier branded as Freischeim's Stout. With its creamy head giving off roasted aromas, through to a heavy body and a balanced flavour of dry roastiness and a milk chocolate sweetness, it does a very good impression of a quality stout. As B&B said themselves, you might not pay it much mind anywhere else, but for a German bräuhaus it's a very pleasant surprise.