Light, Without Being Lightweight

In Cologne, Germany, kolsch is served in narrow, cylindrical glasses.
In Cologne, Germany, kolsch is served in narrow, cylindrical glasses. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

During the sultry Washington summers, when the whole world seems to wilt, beer drinkers would be wise to intersperse their brewskis with plenty of water and switch from heavier, high-octane imperial styles to lighter, paler, more refreshing beers.

The move to so-called lawn mower beers doesn't have to mean giving up flavor, however.

There are few beers more thirst-quenching than a hoppy, golden pilsner. The best pilsners often have very simple recipes: Pilsner Urquell, the classic example from the Czech Republic, consists of pale malt and Saaz hops. The difficult part is to achieve that seesaw effect between the sweet barley and bitter resins that makes the beer so appetizing.

You won't find an American example finer than Prima Pils from Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa. Seasoned with whole-flower European hops (instead of the pelletized hops used by most brewers), Prima Pils has a rich, floral aroma; a dry spiciness; and a soft, almost cookie-ish malt background. Pennsylvania is gaining a reputation as a source of fine pilsners. Stoudt's Pils from the Stoudt's Brewing Co. in Adamstown and Sunshine Pils from Troegs Brewing in Harrisburg are well-balanced and quaffable.

Kolsch is a name that is often slapped on an ordinary golden ale. A true kolsch is indeed fermented with an ale yeast, but it's aged in a lagerlike fashion, at cooler temperatures and for longer periods of time. Its flavor profile is not unlike a pilsner, just less hoppy. This style is native to Cologne, Germany, where the beer is served in narrow, cylindrical glasses that can hold half the standard U.S. 12-ounce pour. To save time, waiters in Cologne will automatically deliver fresh pours until the customer hollers "Kamerad!" and covers his or her empty glass with a coaster.

You can expect a more generous serving at area brewpubs. Capitol City Brewing Co.'s Capitol Kolsch, a multiple medal winner in Great American Beer Festival competition, is clean and crisp, with a restrained peppery hop character. The Sommergold kolsch, the Gordon Biersch chain's warm-weather seasonal, is a little rounder, maltier and fruitier. District law prevents brewpubs from selling beer to go, but you can buy these beers in refillable containers called growlers at suburban locations of the two brewpub chains.

How do domestic versions compare with the original? Reissdorf Kolsch, from the Privat-Brauerei Heinrich Reissdorf in Cologne, is available locally. It has a subtle complexity that is hard to duplicate; the soft, malty palate, with notes of lemon and mint, segues into a spicy, herbal finish. Still another bottled version, Curve Ball Seasonal Ale from Pyramid Breweries Inc., in Seattle, has a fruity flavor with nutty overtones.

In Germany, "kolsch" is a controlled appellation: No brewery outside the Cologne area may legally use this name. American breweries aren't bound by German law, but New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Mich., pays deference by labeling its Full Circle as "kolsch-style." That brand has a dry, earthy, herbal flavor that makes it a great aperitif. The Harpoon Brewery in Boston markets its kolsch as a "summer beer." It's on the sweet side of the style, with a fruity finish.

Berliner weisse is an exotic European cousin of the ubiquitous American wheat beer style. Fermented with a lactobacillus in addition to traditional ale yeast, this beer has a thirst-quenching acidity, a pale straw color ("weisse" means white in German), and a lively effervescence that has led to the nickname "champagne of the north." This style is moderate to low in alcohol: The Berliner Style Weisse from the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewery in Leipzig, Germany, measures only 3 percent alcohol by volume, making it one of the least potent beers available locally. That one has the bready flavor and lactic tang characteristic of the Berliner weisse style, with a buttery sweetness to add some balance.

Somewhat stronger (5 percent alcohol by volume) and more aggressively flavored is 1809, brewed at the Doemens Institute in Munich by Fritz Briem, an expert in historical beer styles who also formulated the 13th Century Gruit Bier (mentioned in my June 4 column). This example is almost mouth-puckeringly sour, with yeasty notes and a lemon sherbet fruitiness.

Festina Peche, a American version from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Lewes, Del., is fermented with peach juice. That one is available in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles.

America's small breweries tend to tout their biggest, hoppiest, strongest beers. But well-crafted, lighter beers are also a joy to drink. Make haste; the Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers are already in the pipeline.

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week in Food. He can be reached at

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