Having been to Cologne and drunk a fair amount of Kölsch and remembering it as more like a lager than an ale, I was a bit bamboozled when I saw today's beer; a California Kölsch with the descriptor “German style pale ale”. But, after reading up on things, I see where the confusion lies. At the end of the day, it’s basically both a lager and an ale!
That’s right, this is gender fluidity in beer form (fluid fluidity perhaps?); top fermented with ale yeast and then cold conditioned like a lager.
Kölsch straddles other boundaries too, having both a geographical and generic designation. You’d get in trouble in the EU naming a beer Kölsch if it wasn’t brewed within 50 km of Cologne - but in the States and elsewhere - the name is more of an indication of style, and it’s down to the brewer’s take on cultural sensitivity as to whether to use it. Kölsch is one of the most strictly defined beer styles in Germany, brewed according to the Kölsch Konvention defined by the Cologne Brewery Association, so in my opinion, you should get it right if you’re going to go there.
Today’s beer certainly pulls no punches. This isn’t just a Kölsch, this is a California Kölsch! I doubt the brewers of Cologne would be too happy with this, but if you take the word Californian as more of an inference to the Californian Common style - it makes more sense. The Cali Common is made by fermenting with lager yeast at warm temps and, as such, is another beer that straddles the ale/lager boundary.
Kölsch is defined as a pale, highly attenuated, hoppy, bright, top-fermenting beer - so let’s see how authentic this one is…
Pours a light bright amber/gold in the glass with a tight white head. The nose is light too and smells more like a lager, with neither a big malt nor hop hit being particularly evident. The palate is certainly crisp and highly attenuated, moreish and thirst quenching, with a lovely tart hop kiss at the death.
This is effortlessly drinkable stuff from Ballast Point and certainly on point with the current trend for lighter styles.
On the question of authenticity though - things get interesting. It ticks all the hallmarks for a Kölsch, but on the producer’s website - the beer is only hopped like a lager and there is no mention of cold conditioning. I’m not sure whether this is an oversight or not… or whether it really matters. The beer is bright (filtered and uncloudy) - does it matter how it became that way?
So where does that leave us? With a beer that is technically not a Kölsch but doesn't’ really taste like a pale ale - and is this ok considering the branding?
As always, it's all down to subjectivity. Are you a purist or an innovator? Perhaps like this beer, you can somehow be both…