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Kolsch taps lightly into summer

At last, area pubs and brewers are taking note of the delicate, aromatic beer long cherished by Germans.

June 11, 2008|Charles Perry | Special to The Times

THE GENERAL public may scarcely have heard of it yet, but kolsch, one of the great summer beers, is definitely a coming style. American craft brewers are getting into it -- at least 30 of them already brew a kolsch, though not all call it by that name. But if it weren't for our craft breweries, we'd have very little chance indeed to taste this style of beer, because German examples are rarely exported.

It's the home-town beer style of the ancient German city of Koln (otherwise known as Cologne), which has more breweries than any other city in the world. Koln is very proud of kolsch, which it claims has been made there since 1300, and strictly protects the name. Only breweries in the city's immediate vicinity are legally entitled to call their product kolsch.

At least in Germany. American brewers have not felt obliged to avoid using the name.

Subtle notes

What IS this rare beer like? It's generally the brassy gold of a highly polished tuba, a little lighter in color than a Pilsener, but it's classed as an ale, rather than a lager, because it's fermented at a warm temperature, giving it some of the fruity-floral aromas we associate with ale. So it's a delicate, in-between style, clean-tasting like a lager but a little more aromatic, often with a fresh note of brew house yeastiness.

"It's fermented like an ale at around 70 degrees, then it's cold conditioned and becomes almost lager-like, so it's really more a true hybrid," explains Yuseff Cherney, head brewer at Ballast Point Brewing in San Diego. "It's what makes it such a drinkable beer that still has good flavor."

It's rather low in malt, so its head of foam tends to dissipate rapidly, and it's also less bitter than most lagers. The combination of clean flavor, sweet nose and gentle palate makes kolsch an easy-to-drink "session" beer. More to the point at this season of the year, it's a fine thirst-quencher.

"It almost has a wine quality, with subtle layers of flavor," explains Christina Perozzi, a Los Angeles-area restaurant beer consultant who recently added kolsch to the summer beer menu at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. "But because it's a lighter style, you get that flavor without the heaviness of some beers."

The people of Cologne certainly quaff it in quantity. In their bars, the beer is poured from wooden casks into stylish-looking glasses, tall, narrow and perfectly cylindrical, known as stangen (poles).

Nobody insists that a stange is the only suitable kind of glass for drinking kolsch. It's just an efficient way to move a lot of suds, because its small footprint allows a waiter to haul a dozen or more beers around at a time. The stangen fit neatly into holes in a special circular tray called a kranz (wreath), which the waiter carries by a handle sticking out of the center.

We don't need any of this folderol, though. We've got pools, lawns and shady porches with a fridge or an ice bucket nearby. If we try, we should be able to kolsch with the best of them.

The most widely available authentic version in Southern California is Reissdorf, a light, grassy kolsch made by the largest brewer in Cologne. It's available at several local retailers and a few bars around town. Rustic Canyon stocks it during the summer, and in Pasadena, Lucky Baldwin's co-owner David Farnworth says he typically orders it for Oktoberfest (and occasionally gets lucky with a keg), when the weather's still plenty warm.

Look local

American versions are easier to find. The best bets are often pubs with a comprehensive selection, such as the Yard House (Great Beer Hollywood Blond Kolsch and Pyramid Curve Ball Kolsch are both available at local branches) and Naja's Place in Redondo Beach (where you can find Alaskan Summer Ale). And be sure to check out the lists at beer-friendly restaurants, wine bars or gastro pubs that have rotating selections.

In the San Diego area, look for Ballast Point's Yellowtail Pale Ale and for Kolsch Style Ale from Lightning Brewery, a 2-year-old European-style brewery in Poway. Each is its brewer's top seller.

James Crute, founder and head brewer at Lightning Brewery, has a theory about the burgeoning popularity of kolsch-style beers.

"They're not too overpowering or malty, more of a 'trade up' for a light beer drinker because it's an introduction to something more flavorful. But it's also bright with a lot of subtleties, so it has plenty of interesting flavors and qualities for the rest of us."

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food@latimes.com. Additional reporting by Jenn Garbee, special to The Times.

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Where to find the German gold

Listed in order of preference are the kolsches available in the greater L.A. market in May. Later in the season, you might see others such as Shiner Kolsch from Shiner Beers and Mammoth Brewing Gold. Island Brewing in Carpinteria makes a kolsch called Island Blonde, sold in markets in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. And at San Diego area retailers, you can find Poway-based Lightning Brewery's Kolsch Style Ale.

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