The Secret to Excellent Kölsch Recipes

The Secret to Excellent Kölsch Recipes

So, you’ve read countless Kölsch recipes. You’ve pondered numerous critiques. Perhaps you’ve even tried to clone a few commercial Kölsch examples. Some recipes turn out good, some poor. But you’re still missing something.

Guess what? You’re not missing a thing.

In fact, you’re overcomplicating your recipe; muddling with something that should be basic, pure.

This post lays out the ingredients needed to brew an excellent Kölsch. By the end of it, you’ll be one step closer to a winner.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Start with a malt bill consisting of 100% German 2-row Pilsner malt. Countless Kölsch brewers have used this malt bill in their Kölsch recipes for ages. It’s simple, but it works.

It’s also incredibly easy to deal with. Instead of packing your brew shed full of specialty malts, you can order a large sack of Pilsner malt and put your mind to rest. Use this time to plan the rest of your recipe and prepare for your brew day.

If you want to change up the malt bill, small adjustments can be made. More on this below.

Nevertheless, start with 100% German Pilsner malt and tweak your recipe after a few brews.

Substituting German 2-row Pilsner Malt

Although German 2 row Pilsner malt is best, You can still brew an excellent Kölsch without it. Depending on your location, substituting German 2 row Pilsner malt for something readily available may be necessary.

A viable alternative is North American 2 row Pale Malt. This shouldn’t be at all difficult to find. If finding North American 2 row pale malt is difficult then I suggest you switch suppliers!

It should also be noted that in Germany, “Pilsner malt” and “Pale malt” are one and the same. They are synonymous. North American 2 row Pale malt, however, is not the same as German Pale malt. Similar, yes. The same, no.

Both American 2 row Pale malt and German Pilsner / Pale malt will serve well as an excellent foundation for your Kölsch recipe.

Differentiate Your Kölsch by Making Subtle Adjustments

Small changes can make a big difference to your Kölsch.

According to the Technical Director of Hefebank Weihenstephan, a world class yeast bank located in Weihenstephan, you “[shouldn’t] forget to add to add some wheat malt for Kölsch”. Typically, a wheat malt addition should represent no more than 20% of your malt bill. The wheat addition will contribute to mouthfeel and head retention.

Adding wheat malt is an excellent way to put your on creative stamp on a basic Kölsch malt bill. The amount can be tweaked and adjusted, tested and retested until you find the perfect amount.

You can also try experimenting with small additions of specialty malts, such as Carapils and Caramalt. Keep these additions to no more than 3 – 5% of the malt bill.

It might be this small adjustment that brews  you an award winning Kölsch. 

4 Hop Varieties to Live By

After you’ve finalised your malt bill, the next step is to focus on the hops.

Fortunately, a good hop bill for your Kölsch is, you guessed it, basic. There are 4 hop varieties that you need to be familiar with, and all are from Germany.

  • Hallertau and Perle for bittering
  • Tettnang and Hersbrucker for aroma

It is important to try and get German hops that are actually grown in Germany. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Factors such as geographical region, climate, soil quality and so forth all contribute to the overall character of the hops.

The same applies to grapes. Ask a Californian grape grower whether his grapes would taste the same if they were grown in Australia. I’ll bet you she’ll say no.

However, if you can’t get German grown hops you can try using Mt. Hood for bittering and American Tettnang for flavour and/or aroma additions (Warner, Eric. Kölsch: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes. 1998. Print).

Don’t Hide Behind the Hops 

Hops are all the rage in the home brewing / craft beer world. Indeed, you may even refer to yourself as a ‘hop-head’. With some styles, particularly Pale Ales and India Pale Ales, hop flavour and aroma are essential.

Unfortunately, there are too many sub-par beers that hide behind the hops.

Kölsch is a delicate beer. Over use of hops for either bittering or flavour/aroma is a big no-no. Sure, some commercial Kölsch beers are known to be on the bitter side (for example, Päffgen), some on the hoppy side (for example, Früh), but none take it to an extreme.

Timing Counts when Tending to Hop Additions

Just like small changes to the malt bill, small changes to your hop additions can make a big impact.  A simple timing adjustment to your hop additions can render your beer overly-bitter, hoppy or otherwise not to style … or it could make it awesome!

When you are brewing Kölsch, start by adding your bittering hops at 60 minutes, and your flavour / aroma hops at 10-15 minutes. Your bittering addition should represent about 2/3 of the total IBU count for the recipe, the remaining 1/3 left to your flavour/aroma addition (Warner 1998).

These timings can be tweaked, but not by much. For example, I have had good luck adding the bittering hops at 50 minutes and flavour / aroma hops at 5 minutes.

Brew with an Excellent Kölsch Yeast

Yeast plays a vital role in developing an authentic Kölsch.

The yeast species used to brew Kölsch is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a top fermenting yeast often used to brew an ale.

However, an authentic Kölsch strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae is different from, for example, a Pale Ale strain in one very important way.

After generations and generations, Kölsch yeast started to work well at lower temperatures. In doing so, it produces a beer that is low in ester, diacetyl and higher alcohols (Warner 1998). Kölsch strains are often referred to as being hybrid yeasts because of their effectiveness at lower temperatures, just like a lager strain.

An authentic Kölsch yeast that I absolutely love is produced by Hefebank Weihenstephan in Germany. The strain has been labeled w-177, and is described by Weihenstephan as being the classic strain used for the production of Kölsch beers, with a light fruity estery taste and character with lower Amyl-alcohol contents.

The W-177 yeast takes off like a rocket. Even at 13c it usually reaches full attenuation within a week or so. The result is an extremely clean Kölsch, with little fermentation bi-products. Perfection!

If you can’t get your hands on some W-177, then viable alternatives are made by Wyeast (2565) and White Labs (WLP029). Im partial to WLP029, but both are great strains to use on your next brew day.

The Holy Water that is Kölsch

People often avoid making changes to their water profile. I suspect this is because it is seen as a tricky subject. And it is.

But it’s worth focusing on for a moment, if only in overview.

Water Plays a Key Role in Determining Mash PH

Generally, household water sources are in the alkaline range (pH above 7).

When water is mixed with an acidic malt (pH under 7), the mash pH can be measured and recorded.

The mash pH is different from the pH of the water or malt as individually measured. It is the pH of the combination of the two, and is determined in part by the buffering power of the malt used.

Each malt has a different buffering power. Generally speaking, dark malts have more buffering capability than lightly colored malts like Pilsner.

Pilsner Malt Lacks Buffering Power

If you mash Pilsner malt (5.75 PH) with water (PH of 7), the resulting mash PH is 6. In this case, the Pilsner malt had enough buffering  power to drop the pH value to 1 below water. A great illustration of this can be seen at figure 4 of Braukaiser’s page A Simple Model for pH Buffers. If you were to use a darker malt, the pH value would have been reduced further than 1 below water.

To brew an excellent Kölsch, you need to achieve a mash pH of around 5.5.

To do this, you can alter either the malt bill (by using a darker malt) or water profile. But because the a Kölsch malt bill (usually) consists of 100% Pilsner malt, the only option for the Kölsch brewer is to modify the water profile. How to do this goes beyond the scope of this post, but you can learn more about it on Homebrew Dad’s blog.

The importance of a mash pH of around 5.5 will be discussed in the next post of this series.

So, what do you think? Were you surprised that Kölsch recipes were so simple?

Join the conversation by posting a comment below!

Home brew beer fanatic and lover of all things Kölsch. Follow me on Twitter!

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  1. brugen says


    Really great post that makes me want to have a go. One thing you don’t mention is the fermentation temperature profile. Anything special to think about here? Will we need to do any heavy lagering before bottling?

    Great blog.


  2. brugen says

    Thanks GrizzlyBear,

    That answers all the questions. All I need to think about now is the lagering time. 4 weeks lagering in my fermenting fridge means 50 litres of bitter or saison lost. Is it worth it?

    I suspect I know your answer.


    • says

      I have the same problem. My fermentation chamber doubles as a kegerator. What I try to do is stagger my batches, bottling one and kegging the other. That way I can drink the bottled stuff when my kölsch is fermenting.

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