It’s lunchtime in Düsseldorf, and at Füchschen, one of the city’s great old-town breweries, the discussion has turned to beer. In particular, Kolsch, the traditional beer of Cologne, Düsseldorf’s great rival.
“If you want my honest opinion, it’s something you can chug,” says Frank Driewer, head brewer. “It’s something you can drink after you have mown your lawn. It’s refreshing.” I’m not certain — Driewer has an impressive poker face — but I think I can detect the hint of a smirk. “Refreshing” is not a compliment in the minds of beer aficionados.
It’s telling, that smile. I’m in Germany to find out just how serious the rivalry between Düsseldorf and Cologne is. (And it was fortunate timing: At the time, the euro was tumbling against the value of the dollar, which ended at its highest value against the common European currency in 12 years on Wednesday.)
Even before my encounter with Driewer — before I arrive in Germany, to tell the truth — I’m far from convinced. People say these two cities, united by the wide, muddy-blue Rhine, are fierce opponents, divided by competing Carnivals, sports, money, politics and beer. But how intense could this animosity be?
It’s beer that particularly interests me. The cities drink different drops; while Cologne has the delicate, perfumed, pale Kolsch, Düsseldorf has alt, a dark-copper, bitter, extremely drinkable brew. What’s more, in a land famed for its bottom-fermented lagers, they’re both top-fermented, the same as pale ales and stouts. Perhaps, I think, as my train pulls into Cologne’s central station, that similarity is the first hint that this is a rivalry that’s more friendly than fratricidal.
I head for Brauhaus Sion, a huge, rambling beer hall in Cologne’s Old Town. It’s noon and the place is slowly filling up. It’s time for my first lesson in Cologne tradition: My beer comes in a cylindrical 200-milliliter glass (just less than half a standard U.S. pint), and it is delivered to my table by a blue-clad Köbes, the traditional Rhineland waiter, whose gruffness is apparently part of the fun.
That’s not all. To my left is a glass display case containing three grinning male mannequins, all of them in extravagant Carnival costumes. One has pigtails, another wears an exuberant ruff and the third, nearest to me, is sporting a headdress made from peacock feathers.
As I marvel at the intricacy of these remarkable outfits, the Köbes dumps a plate of blood sausage, mashed potato and stewed apples in front of me. This is Himmel un Äad (Heaven and Earth), a traditional Rhineland meal. It’s an uncompromising dish; soft and heavy, salty and sweet — and not, in all honesty, particularly delicious.
Still, at least I’m full; I’ll need the energy. I stumble out into bright winter sunlight and walk toward the 13th-century, twin-spired cathedral. It’s a magnificent, humbling space, full of ancient interest, but my attention is drawn to the playful, elegant multicolored checkerboard stained-glass windows at the southern end, created by German artist Gerhard Richter in 2006.
I exit — avoiding a stout, flute-playing man whose comical jig has drawn a small crowd, if not much cash — and wander across to the Romano-Germanic Museum. Inside, there’s an echo of that window in the patterned mosaics, the most impressive being the famous 3rd-century Dionysus Mosaic, which depicts cavorting maenads and satyrs attending to the Greek god of wine.
The message is clear: Cologne has a long and remarkable history — although you wouldn’t know it from much of the Old Town, which was bombed heavily in the Second World War. I walk down Hohe Strasse, a shopping street. It’s lively, to say the least. A TV crew is interviewing shoppers — Cologne is Germany’s media capital — and a hole-in-the-wall place that sells fries, complete with ketchup, mayonnaise or curry mayonnaise, is doing a busy trade.
I drop in here and there for a glass of Kolsch. I’m getting to know the different beers — or, at least, that’s what I fondly imagine. Sion is unremarkable; Früh has a lasting, enjoyably juicy malt character; Päffgen is soft and bitter and in my view the best of the trio. I find the last at its brewhouse on Friesenstrasse — where the beer is dispensed from small oak barrels in the corridor — and then, in the evening, at Gaststätte Lommerzheim, on the other side of the Rhine, which is full to bursting at 6 p.m. I am, too, after a few glasses of beer and a pork chop the size of Switzerland.
I’m keen to get an expert’s view of Cologne culture, so the next morning I meet Michael Euler-Schmidt, deputy director of the Kölnishes Stadtmuseum and director of a group that promotes Cologne culture. He tells me that both Carnival and Kolsch are linked to the same traditions of sociability and democracy. “The people of Cologne love human contact,” he says. “They are easygoing, they love to entertain, they are sociable. A Cologne pub is very democratic.”
That afternoon, after a stroll around the museum (which boasts an exhibit on Kolsch, naturally) and lunch in the cavernous Gaffel am Dom, I decide to leave the Old Town. I walk down Schildergasse, reputedly the busiest shopping street in Europe, and across Neumarkt. Out here the streets are quieter and wider: There are kiosks on each corner selling, among other things, Kolsch, and even in this cold, a few hardy souls are drinking in the open.
But I have an appointment at Hellers Brauhaus. Compared with the names in the Old Town, Hellers are new boys, having been here only since 1991. They’re more expansive than their rivals, brewing a number of styles, including (since December 2013) alt. Nonetheless, as owner Anna Heller tells me, 70 percent of the beer sold at Hellers is Kolsch. “We are very tolerant in Cologne, except about beer,” she tells me, smiling. “When we first made the alt, we got some letters. They were not nice.”
She dates this resistance to the Kolsch Convention of 1986, which states Kolsch must be brewed only in Cologne (it’s now part of European law). It’s an interesting document, not least because Kolsch’s history only dates to the early years of the 20th century. Alt (it means old) has a much longer history, but no restrictions on where it can be brewed.
My final stop of the day is Haus Töller, a classic Cologne pub, where I eat and drink a little more Päffgen. As I get up to leave, my coat brushes the table behind me and I hear the crash of a Kolsch glass hitting the floor. The manager smiles and waves away my concern; “It wouldn’t be a proper night in here if at least one glass didn’t get smashed,” he says.
The next morning I’m on the train to Düsseldorf, a 30-minute ride north. It’s not long before I’m at my first stop, Füchschen, and that encounter with brewmaster Peter Driewer. It’s Wednesday lunchtime, and every table in the main restaurant, with rustic decor similar to decor in places I visited in Cologne, is taken. Charming little mustard pots sit on the tables: This city is famous for its mustard as well as its beer. I admit that my first sip of alt (bitter, full-bodied, caramel-rich) is a wonderful relief after the relative uniformity of Kolsch.
After lunch I scout Old Town, which retains more pre-war character than Cologne’s. This is a wealthy place: The pubs and restaurants do a roaring trade, there are art galleries galore and the shopping street Königsallee is all luxury brands. (Even if Cologne has the busiest, Düsseldorf surely has the richest.)
It’s a bit rich for my tastes, and anyway, it’s really cold out. It’s time for another alt, this time from Uerige, whose idiosyncratic brewhouse can be found on Berger Strasse, right in the heart of the Old Town. I sit in the corridor and, eventually, a Köbes brings me a glass. It’s one of the most remarkable beers I’ve ever had. Extraordinarily bitter by German standards, there’s something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. It doesn’t matter. It’s delicious.
I sit and watch life go by. Two waiters stand and chat, hands on hips, gazing at the ceiling; another offers Mettbrötchen — a sort of pork tartare on bread — from a tray. It’s an amazing place, but the alt in front of me demands my attention; the bitterness grows and grows. Unlike Kolsch, which acts as an elegant but understated social lubricant, alt refuses to be ignored.
Düsseldorf’s past does not come close to Cologne’s, however. While the latter can trace its history back to the Romans, Düsseldorf’s rise came only with industrialization in the 19th century (giving the lie to a claim that the rivalry with Cologne started with the Battle of Worringen in 1288). At the Stadtmuseum — the city museum — I discover that the city grew from 14,000 inhabitants in 1816 to 328,000 in 1914. (I’m also charmed to learn that when Carnival restarted here after World War II, it did so with the cry: “Hooray! We are still alive!”)
The key moment came, though, at the end of that conflict, when Düsseldorf was named capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, the region that includes Cologne. Perhaps that explains, at least partly, Düsseldorf’s bullishness — and Cologne’s passion for its own past.
In the early evening I join Altbier Safari, a popular tour of the Old Town’s four breweries, plus nearby Im Goldenen Kessel, where we taste Schumacher, a spicy, fruity, less robust brew than Füchschen or Uerige. Tour leader and company owner Eberhard Fischer, who used to work for a Cologne brewery, insists that Düsseldorfers are less hung up about beer. “People in Düsseldorf are more relaxed,” he tells me. “If you want to buy a Kolsch here, it’s not a problem.”
The next morning I wander down to the Rheinturm, a 790-foot-high tower to the south of the Old Town, from which Cologne Cathedral can be seen. Or, at least, it can on a clear day. After the rapid elevator ascent, I’m slightly disappointed. Much is shrouded in low clouds, but the view of the mighty Rhine is impressive.
I’m short on time, so I descend and head for Immermannstrasse, where the signs are in two languages: German and Japanese. Düsseldorf has had one of Europe’s largest Japanese populations since after the war. I choose the restaurant Takumi for lunch, where a bowl of rich, umami-heavy pork ramen is just the thing after four days of German food.
There’s time for a few final glasses of alt. I retrace my steps to Füchschen, where the gentle bonhomie in the bar reminds me of a moment during my chat with Driewer a day earlier. Brewing staff are not supposed to roll barrels through the pub, but one had, and straight past his boss, too. “That’s Rhineland,” said Driewer, laughing.
That relaxed spirit, I decide as I drain my last alt, is common to Cologne and Düsseldorf. The beers might be different, Düsseldorf might be wealthier and more multinational, Cologne a touch livelier and certainly more historic, but these are cities with more in common than most.
The rivalry is friendly. After all, why let petty squabbling spoil a good drink?
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Hawkes is a London-based freelance journalist and the author of “Craft Beer London.”
Unter Taschenmacher 5-7, 50667
This huge pub (despite the name, no beer is made here anymore) is worth a visit just for the Carnival-related decoration. Entrees from $12.30, Kolsch $2.10.
Fruh am Dom
Am Hof 12-18, 50667
With its three floors and more than 1,500 seats, you should be able to find a spot — although the best place might be by a table in the corridor, watching the beer being tapped from a wooden barrel. Entrees from $11.50, Kolsch $2.24.
Siegesstrasse 18, 50679
This classic Cologne pub was run by the same man, Hans Lommerzheim, for almost 50 years and the new owners, Päffgen, have endeavoured to keep it much as it was. Try the delicious pork chop with potato salad for $15, Kolsch for $2.
Friesenstrasse 64-66 , 50670
The most atmospheric of Cologne’s brewpubs is a little walk from the center — but it’s worth it. Try the Halven Hahn for $5.60 — not, as the translation would suggest, half a rooster, but bread and cheese.
Gaffel am Dom
Bahnhofsvorplatz 1, 50667
This barnlike space next to the cathedral offers modern takes on Kolsch — with fruit flavors and even American hops, like their Sonnen Hopfen ($5.35 for 500 milliliters). Entrees from $13.20.
Roonstrasse 33, 50674
The place to drink alt in Cologne ($4.50 for a bottle). All beers are organic, unusual in this part of the world. Entrees from $11.
Weyerstrasse 96, 50676
Excellent food and perhaps the best Kolsch in Cologne: Päffgen. One not to miss. Try the sweet-and-sour Rheinischer Sauerbraten with potato dumplings for $20.
Brauerei Im Füchschen
Ratinger Strasse 28, 40213
This cozy, traditionally decorated brewhouse is a favorite with locals. entrees from $11; alt (250 milliliters, as is typical in Düsseldorf; Cologne servings are 200 milliliters) $2.40.
Berger Strasse 1, 40213
At the heart of the Old Town, Uerige boasts a host of rooms and bucketloads of character. Hot food only in the evenings (from 6:30 p.m.) and on Sundays; entrees from $13.50. Alt $2.40.
Im Goldenen Kessel
Bolkerstrasse 44, 40213
The tables outside this Old Town stalwart — where Schumacher’s alt is served — are full most evenings, even when it’s really cold. Entrees from $9.30; alt $2.40.
Immermannstrasse 28, 40210
Delicious, authentic Japanese food in the heart of Dusseldorf’s Japanese community. Pork ramen with gyoza dumplings is $16.
Excelsior Hotel Ernst
Trankgasse 1-5, 50667 Domplatz, Cologne
Founded in 1863, this perfectly situated five-star property, which faces the cathedral, is rich in history. The hotel contains a Michelin-starred East-Asian restaurant, Taku, for those who tire of pork knuckle. Double rooms from $340.
Stern am Rathaus
Bürgerstrasse 6, 50667, Cologne
This stylish little hotel in the heart of the Old Town offers air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi. There’s no lift, but the staff will be happy to help you with your luggage. Doubles from about $145. €130.
Königsallee 11, 40212, Dusseldorf
Situated amid the opulence of Königsallee, this hotel offers large, lavishly furnished rooms. Expect king-size beds, touch-panel lighting and a rain forest shower. Doubles start at $286.
Hotel Sir Astor
Kurfürstenstrasse 23, 40211, Dusseldorf
This quirky, English-style hotel (and its nearby sister, Lady Astor) offers a great value base and elegantly decorated rooms close to the city center and the Old Town. Doubles from $100.
Domkloster 4, 50667, Cologne
Free entry. Open 6 a.m.- 7.30 p.m. November - April; 6 a.m.- 9 p.m. May-October.
Reputedly the most-visited tourist attraction in Germany, Cologne’s Cathedral is not to be missed. For special tours in English — including one of the roof — see domfuehrungen-koeln.de.
Roncalliplatz 4, 50667, Cologne
Entry $11.20; Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. First Thursday of the month, until 10 p.m.
A world-class selection of Roman artifacts. Worth the entry price for the mosaics alone. The mosaics are worth the entry fee alone.
Cologne City Museum
Zeughausstrasse 1-3, 50667, Cologne
Entry $6.20; Open Tuesday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
First Thursday of the month the museum is open until 10 p.m. English audio guide available.
Find out about Kolsch, Cologne’s history and Carnival at this smartly curated little museum.
Düsseldorf City Museum
Berger Allee 2, 40213, Dusseldorf
Entry $5; Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Düsseldorf’s tradition of art, poetry and industry is investigated at this impressively sizeable museum.
Stromstrasse 20, 40212, Dusseldorf
Entry $6.20; Open 10 a.m.-11.30 p.m.
On a clear day, you can see Cologne. On a less clear day, the view remains impressive.