07 January 2010

Kölsche Club

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.

19 comments:

  1. I'd say the river excursions in Germany are nice in the Summer - at this time of the year I'd prefer the train.

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  2. Tch. No tolerance for a bit of cold, you people.

    (I haven't left my house in three days because it's slightly icy outside.)

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  3. Sion Kölsch has gone spectacularly downhill about three years ago. It used to be on the flowery/hoppy side, with a fruity edge not unlike what you would find in a good British golden ale, just more subdued. But that's all gone now and it's just the dusty apology you've found.

    Service at In dr Salzgass indeed is erm, uneven, as in most of the old town places, actually. Better service, including the odd dig at customers, is one of the reasons why I much prefer drinking in watering holes a bit off the beaten track such as Päffgen, Max Stark (one of the very few Päffgen outlets), Haus Töller (another Päffgen outlet with an amazing 1900 interior and good food) or Schreckenskammer (just 5 mins walk from the station away from the old town).

    Good news indeed about Freischheim in terms of diversity. Heller, another brewpub you seem to have missed, close to Freischheim, already has a slightly wider range. And there's the BierMuseum in the touristy bit of the old town, down the road from In dr Salzgass. Looks not too inviting, quality and service are uneven, but it's another welcome place when you're tired of all that Kölsch.

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  4. Damn! Forgot about Heller. Next time :)

    I met a homebrewing American soldier in Biermuseum who was desperately seeking Sierra Nevada, poor kid. I suggested Hövels to him.

    I remember you telling me about the cheeky waiters of Cologne, but I saw none of that. In fact everyone was very nice. Perhaps it's because I have "Ich spreche kein Deutsch" writ large upon my forehead.

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  5. Come over here, I'll show you a bit of cold. Expecting minus 20 over the weekend. At Røros it's minus 40, but people merrily go along to work and school.

    Time to find that French beer that's supposed to be heated before serving!

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  6. Haus Toller is just superb and a must visit I'd say. I like Päffgen a lot and the "main" (non Altstadt)pub is just great. I do like Früh as a place too, especially if I can get that little table in the schwemme watching the beers being tapped and poured. I haven't been to Freischem's though. Next time?

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  7. Yeah, that's where I was in Früh, and had a similar view in Päffgen, though something about the electric barrel hoist in the latter brought back thoughts of the seven-person gallows out the back of the Gestapo building I'd just left. More Kölsch please!

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  8. There seems to be something missing from that last photo. Can't seem to place it though. Hmmm... :D

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  9. Stop it! :D I hate to say it, but that just made my day the second time in a row :D

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  10. He's a hero for our times.

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  11. Cheeky Köln (or Düsseldorf) waiters are possibly less at ease making a dig in english... and usually, to get that kind of VIP treatment, you must be somehow violating etiquette : ordering mineral water or a cup of tea, insisting on sitting at another table than the one the Köbes points you to, asking for a smaller portion, being a Bavarian, that kind of thing. ;o)

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  12. In Päffgen I moved tables after ordering and sat in mortal fear for several minutes, remembering the time I tried that in Munich once (vast empty beerhall; only other punter sits right next to me and lights a stinky cigar; I move; waitress acts like I just shot her kids), but my waiter was totally cool about it. I was a little disappointed actually.

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  13. BTW, BeerNut you seem to have been somewhat shaken by your visit of El-De-Haus (the former Gestapo local HQ). Disturbing indeed, but it just has to be and IMHO doesn't go OTT or bombastic with it.

    For something more cheerful, try the Roman-Germanic Museum next time: an amazingly rich collection of Roman artifacts, a lot of it dug out during post-war rebuilding.

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  14. 'I was a little disappointed actually.'

    Oh dear, traditions are withering away... Päffgen is one of the places where I enjoyed some great arguments in the past. Must be the language thing indeed.

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  15. Looks great. Koelsch is one of those beers I really enjoy drinking but have scored only a low amount of breweries.

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  16. Glad Freischem's didn't let you down. We weren't over impressed with Frueh the first time we had it but, for some reason, it's become our favourite, and the one we crave. Hidden depths, perhaps? I'm very jealous of this entire trip.

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  17. After going to the Gaffel Haus and drinking awful beer, I had made up my mind that Früh would be as bad. But it's quite a charming little beer really, and way better than the bottled version we get here.

    We nearly walked straight out of Gaffel because it was completely empty when everywhere else in town was buzzing and we thought it was closed. After a hard sell by the waiter we stayed for one beer. There was a mouse across the room who seemed to be having a better evening than us.

    Freischem's really came through on the schnitzel front -- not quite up to Viennese standards but reassuringly gigantic.

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  18. The pork knuckle at Freischem's was ridiculous, too -- about the size of Peter Kay's head, and covered entirely in crackling. I felt a bit full afterwards. So full, I could barely manage to finish Boak's roast potatoes or eat two bags of toasted almonds at the Christmas fair. Hmm. See you later. I'm off for a run.

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