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Cologne Gastronomy

Breweries, Kölsch beer and typical dishes

The thriving metropolis on the Rhine has an immense diversity of culinary styles. Guests can choose between more than 3,000 catering outlets – in fact, you can find the cuisine of virtually all of the 181 nationalities represented by the residents of Cologne. In addition to the numerous international restaurants, which reflect the city’s multicultural nature, the city’s breweries in particular radiate the tradition and uniqueness of Cologne’s hospitality.

In former centuries most of the people of Cologne brewed their own beer. Tourism gradually developed in the 19th century, as did the catering that went along with it. However, those pubs and restaurants were very modest by today’s standards. Private breweries began selling their beer for public consumption on the premises and set up simple tables in their entrance halls or narrow courtyards. Most of these old pubs and restaurants were destroyed during the war.

It is typical of Cologne that the pubs and restaurants also have “Kölsch” names. Probably no other major city boasts so many pubs and inns with names in the local dialect. Examples include “Em Krützche” (In the Little Cross) on the Rhine waterfront, “Bei d’r Tant” (At Auntie’s) on Cäcilienstrasse and “Em golde Kappes” (At the Golden Cabbage) in the Nippes district of Cologne.

Well-known traditional breweries include the “Sion” brewery on Unter Taschenmacher Street, which was founded in 1511, the “Cölner Hofbräu P. Josef Früh” near the Cathedral, the “Päffgen” brewery on Friesenstraße and the “Malzmühle” brewery located on the Heumarkt square. The Malzmühle brewery was founded in 1858 and was once visited by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Another well-known brewery is the “Schreckenskammer” (Chamber of Horrors), which is over 500 years old and is located right next to the Romanesque church St. Ursula.

At every Cologne brewery the focus is on tasty Kölsch beer. Kölsch is not only a type of beer but also the name of the self-confident Cologne dialect. Kölsch beer is top-fermented (during fermentation the yeast rises to the top). It has a relatively high alcohol content, as significantly more of the sugars and malt substances are converted into alcohol than in other beers. It also has more hops and is less carbonated, which makes it particularly light and digestible.

Kölsch tastes best directly from the tap and, of course, served in a typical Kölsch glass. These are long, cylindrical 0.2-litre glasses called “Stangen”, which are only used in Cologne.

The waiters in the breweries are called “Köbes” (a derivation from the name Jakob, which was coined during the age when people made pilgrimages). Köbes wear the traditional costume of the old brewery workers: a buttoned-up blue knit jacket with a double row of black buttons, black trousers, a blue apron and, hanging in front of it, a leather purse. Köbes are a unique type of German waiter. They can be impertinent, racy, welcoming, blustering, patronizing, taciturn, irascible – it all depends on the individual Köbes. They carry the beer in a “Kranz” (wreath), a round tray with a short pole sticking up in the centre to carry it by. The “Zappes” – i.e. the barman – occupies a special rank in the brewery hierarchy. He fills the glasses directly from the ten-litre barrels known as “Pittermännchen”. These small barrels are generally emptied very quickly, and this ensures that the beer is always fresh and cool.

In terms of food, the breweries offer a range of typical Cologne specialities, which can be characterized as down-to-earth, hearty and even a little unusual. They are sometimes also meant to be a bit of a parody of more refined cuisine.

Thus it is that the “Halve Hahn” (half chicken) always tops the “Foderkaat” (menu). This is actually a “Röggelchen mit Kies” or rye bread roll with a thick slice of mature Dutch cheese, eaten with as much mustard as you prefer. It dates from a time when eating chicken was nowhere near as a popular as it is today. So it is meant as a parody of those guests of the brewery who could afford poultry. This dish was ordered in Cologne as long ago as the 15th century under the simple description “Röggelche met Kies und e Glas Wieß” (rye bread roll with cheese and a glass of ‘white’ beer). The joke of “Halve Hahn” is of more recent origin, and is said to have begun in an episode in 1877 when, instead of the announced half chickens, the waiter brought bread rolls with cheese.

One dish that is popular in many regions is “Sauerbraten” (beef soaked in vinegar and cooked in a stew pot). Many visitors like to order “Rhenish Sauerbraten” when they come to Cologne because “they know how to cook it here”. The recipe is uncomplicated: you soak the beef in vinegar for three or four days, brown it with onions and various kinds of fat in a stew pot, then make a sauce by adding a little water and a little vinegar. Lingonberries and raisins are added to the gravy, which is sweetened with honey cake. Sauerbraten is served with potato dumplings or “Reibekuchen” (potato fritters or pancakes) and applesauce. For many years Sauerbraten made with horsemeat was regarded as a particular delicacy in Cologne.

A cultural parody is expressed in the dish known as “Cologne caviar”, which in reality is nothing more than a slice of ordinary blood sausage and mustard on a rye bread roll. It apparently originated in a satire of the finer elements of society by the coarse patrons of public houses.

Another local speciality served in restaurants and at street kiosks is “Rievkoche” (the aforementioned Reibekuchen). These are made of grated raw potatoes, a little wheat flour, a pinch of salt and grated onions, all fried in oil or fat. They taste best when eaten hot and are served with applesauce and lingonberries in restaurants. In the old city centre of Cologne there used to be a great many Reibekuchen kiosks. In the street called Schemmergasse, for instance, there were so many of them that it used to be known as “Reibekuchen Alley”.

In the past, when a meal had to be prepared quickly, one midday dish was particularly popular. It has the impressive name “Himmel und Äd” (Heaven and Earth) and consists of mashed potatoes (from the earth) and mashed apples (from heaven) that are cooked together and served with fried blood sausage or liver sausage. This dish has maintained its place on Kölsch menus, as it not only tastes good but also has something of a symbolic, religious quality. Rhinelanders have a certain sensibility for that sort of thing – after all, there must be heaven and earth because otherwise human beings could not thrive.

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