“The world doesn’t need another world-class Kölsch,” proclaimed Sam Calagione. When the Dogfish Head founder made that statement during a chat with Inc. in 2010, he was probably right. Craft beer hadn’t quite tipped into the mainstream yet and, if Homer Simpson knew you don’t win friends with salad, Sam knew you couldn’t win over macro-lager drinkers by giving them something similar, but pricier. “The world needs more innovative beer,” he said.
And innovative beers we soon got.
Wine barrel-aged sours, dessert-like stouts, eventually milkshake beers and then hazy, juicy IPAs. In the last year or so, though, things have started to change—swinging the pendulum of taste back in the direction of classically clean, drinkable pilsners, unfiltered lagers and plenty of old world styles once found ho-hum. Minimalism, among a certain set of beer geeks, is in again. And so too is Kölsch.
A Budweiser-clear beer typically made with pilsner malts, fermented like an ale, then cold-lagered, it’s had its roots in Köln (Cologne) for at least a century—and had a protected geographical indicator for about two decades. In 2011, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov could only find three German Kölsches available here—Gaffel, Reissdorf and Sünner. But since then the light and refreshing style has started to proliferate stateside. Beer Advocate currently files around 2,000 Kölsches, the vast majority American, and that number is only growing.
If American brewers once battled over extreme brewing, many today seem more content with showing their technical skill. It’s harder to hide flaws and incompetence in beers like Kölsch; the ability to cleanly nail one proves your brewing prowess. Whereas at 2010’s Great American Beer Festival, only 46 American breweries submitted a Kölsch, by 2016’s festival, that number had ballooned to 111, and Kölsch had become the seventh most-entered category. In 2017, even Dogfish Head was ready to release a Kölsch. (Though, fittingly for the ever-innovative Calagione, his brewery’s take on the German-style beer also included German riesling wine must.)
We’ve seen a similar groundswell for the Helles lager, another light and crisp German beer that arose to combat the Czech pilsner’s rising popularity in Europe during the late-1800s. Coming from the Munich area, these pale lagers have even less hop character and are sweeter than Kölsch. They also offer American craft brewers a terrific opportunity to indulge their obsession with puns, giving us such notables as Fresh as Helles, Heaven or Helles and, yes, Helles Yeah.
For this tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. We tasted 17 American-style Kölsches and Helles lagers from across the country, though mostly focused on the east coast. These are two styles perhaps best enjoyed fresh and on-tap, so local access was crucial. While a few breweries insisted on dry-hopping their beers with the de rigueur varietals of the moment, we mostly gravitated to ones more akin to their German brethren.
Three American Kölsches of Note
Flagship Kill Van Kölsch
A lot of beer-guzzling German émigrés settled in Staten Island in the late-1800s, so it’s not entirely surprising to find a great Kölsch there. The absolute first beer we tasted would immediately set a benchmark for those that followed. Classically clean and delicate with a frothy texture, the Hallertau hop finish gave the beer a crisp little bite that had us begging for more.
- ABV: 4.9 percent
Captain Lawrence Clearwater Kölsch
Another New York metro-area Kölsch, this was the first non-ale Captain Lawrence has ever attempted. They should consider trying more. Their Clearwater Kolsch is lean and bright with pleasantly yeasty and malty body and notes of banana, all tied together with drying, delicately bitter Crystal hops.
- ABV: 5 percent
Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower
Hazier than is typical for the style, this Houston offering is grassy and lemony on the nose, leading into ever-so-slightly tropical flavors on the palate and a spicy finish. The gold medal-winning Kölsch at that aforementioned 2010 GABF, Lawnmower has become a modern American classic of the style—way more refined than its cheeky name would have you to believe.
- ABV: 4.9 percent
Three American Helles Lagers of Note
3 Floyds Gorch Fock
Did we expect the brewery that pretty much invented the wait-in-line kitchen-sink imperial stout to have a killer Helles as well? To add to the shameful pun game: Helles no. This golden beer has a sweet and fruity body, which, for one taster, recalled “circus peanuts”—a compliment. The crisp noble hop finish balances that malty sweetness, keeping the beer refreshing and drinkable.
- ABV: 5 percent
Five Boroughs Helles
In a testament to the growing significance of the style, when one of Brooklyn’s newest breweries opened this summer in a major battleground for great beer, they led with a Helles. Their attempt is as classic as you can get: clean, with a biscuity backbone and a bitter zip on the back palate.
- ABV: 4.5 percent
Folksbier Helles Simple
An old-world style brauerei, also based in Brooklyn, Folksbier sells Helles Simple exclusively on tap (and this came to us via a five-liter mini-keg the brewpub sometimes offers). Though soft like an English cask ale and quite grainy in flavor, this beer had a slight “canned corn” note that hinted at a potential dimethyl sulfide flaw, though it wasn’t unpleasant. Overall, Helles Simple was one of the most complex and intriguing beers of the afternoon.
- ABV: 4.5 percent