You can’t visit Germany without trying its famous beer. But in Germany, there’s no such thing as just “beer”. Each region has its specialty, and in Cologne (or Köln, as the locals call it), the specialty is a unique brew called Kölsch beer. So when my Viking cruise of the Rhine pulled into Cologne, I signed up for an excursion into the very heartland of German beer. Suffice to say, it was an intoxicating experience.
We set off in the early evening to visit some of the city’s famous beer halls, or brauhauses. And famous they are: Cologne has more bars and clubs than any other German city. Each beer hall brews its own distinctive Kölsch, and each has a distinctive taste. We were out to try a few of the best.
Our first stop was Mühlen Kölsch, a legendary brewery and beer hall that was founded in 1858 (the name means “Kölsch from the malt mill”). It’s a favourite watering hole for local drinkers, and they were there in numbers; the pub was packed. However, we had a table reserved in the back, and sat down for some Kölsch beer – and some food.
It wasn’t long before we all had a glass of Kölsch, along with a quick lesson on how to drink beer in Cologne. Kölsch comes In small, narrow glasses, designed to ensure you drink it before it gets warm. This is no heavy English ale: it’s meant to be drunk cool and fresh. So you down it quickly, and when your glass is empty, the waiter scoops it up and replaces it with a full one. And the beer will keep coming all night, until you finally put a coaster on top of your glass to signal, “no more”.
As we enjoyed our first glass, food began to arrive. First a plate of various meats ad cheeses, and then the main course – more meat. This was typical German fare: a slab of meat loaf called sauerbraten, along with some pork knuckle, potatoes, sauerkraut and pickled red cabbage. Not a light meal, but then, we were going to need something to soak up all the Kölsch.
A few beers later, we were ready to move on. But we didn’t have to go far. Mühlen Kölsch is near the “Heumarkt”, or hay market, which today is a busy square lined with patios and beer halls. Our next stop was at the head of the square, an equally venerable beer hall with an equally intriguing name: Brauerei Max Päffgen.
The beer hall itself, whose bright orange facade stands out from across the square, is relatively new: most of downtown Cologne was destroyed during World War II. But the brewery goes back centuries, and its name has a unique history. The word “paff” refers to a priest or bishop, and in days of yore, they took their vows of celibacy pretty lightly. The children they fathered were called “päffgen”, and the fellow who started the brewery was one of these offspring. His statue can be seen on the side of the beer hall, symbolically riding on the priest’s shoulders (you can click on the photo to get a closer look).
The hall was too dark and crowded for photos, but let’s just say we had a good taste of Päffgen beer. Unlike the Mühlen Kölsch beer, it was slightly fruity, resembling a wheat beer. Not to my taste, but after a few Kölsches, it’s hard to be a critic. Our little group was having a good time – some even bought Kölsch glasses as souvenirs.
On to our third beer hall. And to get to it, we had to walk through the cobblestoned streets of Cologne’s pub district. The quarter was alive on a Friday night, with people heading to the bars and restaurants that lined the streets. The rain that had dampened our walk earlier had stopped, and there were lovely views down the old streets.
The third beer hall was the Bierhaus am Rhein – aptly named, since the back of the building looked out onto the Rhine River. And that’s were we sat, on a balcony above an outdoor patio where drinkers were busy celebrating the end of the work week. Nearby, the spires of St. Martin Church made an enchanted backdrop.
We spent an enjoyable half-hour trying a third type of Kölsch beer, this one more like the first we’d tried. We sipped and chatted as our guide told us a little about life in Germany. And just like at home, the subject turned to local traffic, which makes it a frustrating experience to own a car.
The night was over, but there was no sense going back to the ship: we didn’t sail for hours. So along with my colleagues Maarten and Kim, I wandered over to the Hohenzollern Bridge, to see it lit up by night. And on our way, a look at Cologne’s grand cathedral, glowing in the dark. Somehow, it seemed even more impressive than during the day. Of course, it might have just been the Kölsch …
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.
The photo at the top of this post and the photo of the waiter with the tray are courtesy of Maarten Heilbron — many thanks