A while ago on the train, I was watching a video that featured Michael Portillo up at the top of the Westminster Clock while Big Ben was striking the hour. Being right up close to the bell is quite an experience, even for a former MP, though he had of course heard it thousands of times before. Up close, you feel it as well as hearing it and the tone is more intense than it ever is when heard from further away or over the radio.
That’s kind of the feeling I got drinking Kölsch in Cologne.
Arriving from Belgium, Cologne is the first major city in Germany and an ideal stopping point. Not a few Dutch and British people arrive here and decide to stay. Its pubs and beer halls are unlike those anywhere else, apart from perhaps an hour up the Rhine in its rival Düsseldorf.
For sentimental reasons the first place I go is always the P. J. Früh beer hall. It’s just around the corner from the main railway station and round the side of the cathedral. Inside, in the vault or Schwemme, one member of staff does nothing but stand behind the counter, pouring one glass of beer after another. The waiters, called Köbesse, make a bit of a show of their job and there is constant banter between them and the tapster.
There is no poring over beer lists here. You raise a finger or catch the eye of the Köbes when you want a beer, and he brings you one. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask. The 0.2L glasses empty fast, and are immediately replenished.
To be honest, I come to Früh because it’s a classic beer hall and I wasn’t expecting the beer to be spectacular. I have always found this Kölsch to be a bit more elegant than some others, but it was never my favourite.
But I was surprised just how good it was. Delightfully fresh, as you might expect coming from a barrel three metres away. Slight sulphur notes, fruity with a very light touch of apple. The stipulation in the Kölsch-Konvention that Kölsch should be hoppy is more wishful thinking than reality these days; despite that, the beer isn’t bland at all.
On the front of the building a 1960s (or earlier) sign proclaims the availability of Dortmunder Actien-Bier. In reality the pub sells Päffgen Kölsch, just as it did in Lommi’s day. Inside, there is no music, no TV, and no choice. Kölsch is the one beer they sell, and what a Kölsch it is. Wonderful dense foam, atop bright golden beer, creamy and malty.
Our Köbes seems to be taking a long time, until we realise it’s because he’s rolling out and tapping a fresh cask. Don’t feel guilty about this – the tiny casks only hold about 15 litres and will be emptied soon enough.
The beer tastes fresher than the previous evening, more aroma of crushed grain alongside the light maltiness, spicy and slight honey notes, and that bit of sulphur is back. On the second glass the sulphur has dissipated somewhat. The bitterness starts coming through about the third glass. I could have sat here all day. But the train schedule dominates our time, just as the cathedral dominates the city centre. The advantage of the tiny 0.2L Kölsch glasses, though, is that you can always squeeze just one more in, however short of time you are.