The most basic way to separate beers into different styles is by yeast. By far, the two largest groups are ales and lagers. (The third group is kind of a catch all that could simply be described as “wild yeast” – the kind of yeasts that produce sour beers.) Technically speaking, ales are brewed with top fermenting yeasts, typically at warmer temperatures (like IPAs). Meanwhile, lagers – guess what – are brewed with bottom fermenting yeasts, typically at colder temperatures (like Pilsners). But what if you can’t choose between an ale and a lager? Then a Kolsch might be your beer of choice!
A small number of beers don’t comfortably fit into one category or the other because they utilize a mix of both techniques. These tend to be labeled “hybrid beers,” and of the beers in this tiny subsection, I find Kolsches to be both the most interesting and the most refreshing. The style – which originally comes from Cologne, Germany – is fermented with ale yeast, but then finished in cold temperatures like a lager. The result is a style that exhibits some of the best characteristics of both categories. Kolsches tend to be light and drinkable, often with a touch of muted fruitiness to them (sometimes described as “vinous”) but typically exhibit the much crisper, cleaner finish you would expect from a pale lager. These attributes make Kolsch an extremely quaffable beer that goes down easy and yet still begs for another sip, perfect for warm weather or any time you want something simple that still has a bit of integrity.
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If you’re looking for a place to start with the style, the Heinrich Reissdorf Brewery makes its signature Kolsch, one of the best-selling in the world, which is a traditional take on the style from a brewer based right in Cologne. Of course, American craft brewers have also given the German style their own spin. For an easy-to-find take on a Kolsch from a well-established West Coast brewery, try Ballast Point Brewing’s California Kolsch – a beer so light and drinkable, the brand used to simply label it as a Pale Ale. For a Kolsch that is a little more far out, those on the East Coast should keep an eye out for Boogie Board Stuntz – a collaboration between two of the region’s best young brewers, Other Half and Bunker. Stuntz has a bit of extra body thanks to the addition of oats, and also sports a juicy hop kick thanks to the use of Mandarina Bavaria and Mosaic hops. Whether you prefer your Kolsches more bitter side or lean towards a modern hoppy version, the mid-ABV beer always tends to be a bit of a crowd pleaser.