Should Americans Call Their Beer "Kölsch?"
Earlier this week we learned All About Beer owner Christopher Rice had filed for bankruptcy, beginning the end of that venerable magazine. To preserve some of the content I've contributed over the years, I'm reposting here. This article was published in Vol 35, Issue 1 of the magazine in March 2014.
It was a week out and I was scrambling to assemble a bottle hoard to disburse as I toured the breweries of Germany and the Czech Republic. Double Mountain Brewery had just begun bottling its beers, and I shot an email to Charlie Devereux about acquiring one of the brewery’s most popular brands. He was happy to oblige but warned “they’ll probably be upset that one is called Kölsch.” Oh right, Kölsch—that’s some kind of place-specific beer, isn’t it?
Americans are serial appropriators. An immigrant nation, we’re used to sampling from the culinary and drinking traditions of the world. A latte with a croissant for breakfast, pad Thai for lunch, and perhaps some chicken mole and a märzen for dinner. Everything comes from somewhere else (like everyone), and it doesn’t occur to us that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to reproduce these traditional treats.
The classic example is Champagne, a wine specific not only to region but also method. In Europe the product name is protected by law, and only producers meeting strict criteria are allowed to use it. Out of deference to this convention, most—but not all—American producers call their bubblies “sparkling wine.” The issue isn’t specific to grape products, though; others include Scotch whisky, Parmigiano Reggiano, and of course, kölsch. Americans are pretty good about not whipping up batches of scotch, but they don’t for a second blanch at tossing handfuls of parmesan cheese on their pizzas (not protected). Curious.
Nearly all of the craft beers brewed in the United States are made to styles at least inspired by the beers of Europe. Most styles, though they nearly always have specific origin points, have fallen into generic use—bock, witbier, porter. But what about those that haven’t? Like Double Mountain, lots and lots of breweries make kölsches. And, as Charlie predicted, I found the brewers in Cologne were not so hot on this trend. The style has a Protected Geographical Indication, and the city’s producers have agreed to a group to make the beer to certain specifications. The thing that really makes it kölsch, though, is where it’s brewed. When I asked, both Reissdorf’s Jens Stecken and Früh’s Arno Pangerl pointed back to this—and both invoked Champagne. “Kölsch is not a ‘bulk good,’” Pangerl said, it’s “a regional German specialty.”
Consequently, Americans call their kölsches kölsch. A few, like Goose Island, take care to flag their beers’ national origin. Summertime, Goose Island’s kölsch, is a “German-style ale.” Brand manager Adam Lilly mentioned that the founders had traveled extensively in Europe and “tried to honor the brewing traditions by bringing things over that they learned from there, but not necessarily trying to usurp the culture.” But Tom Schlafly, who makes one of the country’s most recognizable examples, expresses what you might call the classic American view. He pointed out that Germans also brew a foreign style. “My position is simple: If it’s appropriate for Germans to brew pilsners, it’s equally appropriate for Americans to brew kölsch.”
Ah, but is it appropriate? Here we come to the nub of the question—who gets to decide what’s appropriate, the inventors or the borrowers? Schlafly identifies a case in which the inventors very much did try to keep the name. As early as 1856, the owners of the brewery that would become Pilsner Urquell tried to trademark the name. And in the Czech Republic, the style we call pilsner has a different, more general name—sveˇtly lezák. The locals reserve “pilsner” for one beer—Urquell’s. Even Budvar, widely regarded as an exemplar of the style here, refuses to call its beer “pilsner” there. Adam Broz, Budvar’s brewmaster, says Urquell “became the style of the pilsner type. We are a bit different.”
In trademark law, there’s a stipulation that a company must not only hold a mark, but also defend it. If pilsner lost the battle before it began and the rights for kölsch’s identity remain ambiguous, one style has a very good start on rebuffing interlopers: lambic. And of all the world’s beer styles, lambic-makers offer the most persuasive case as to why any beer called “lambic” must be from Brussels and the region just south.
Europe has three categories of protection, and lambics are covered by the bureaucratic-sounding “traditional specialties guaranteed.” It goes beyond origin point and protects traditional production methods. In the case of lambics (and the extended family), the beer must be made precisely, including several criteria like using at least 30% unmalted wheat, spontaneous fermentation, the use of aged hops, refermentation in the bottle (in the case of gueuze), and wood aging. Lambics are tested for the presence of Brettanomyces and absence of isoamyl acetate to confirm they were made properly.
These exacting standards ensure that only a tiny number of beers in the world could be called lambic even if they weren’t made in and around Brussels, as lambics traditionally are. But there’s a reason to restrict the name even further, to those that are made in Belgium’s Pajottenland. Spontaneous fermentation makes lambics beers of place: Those wild micro-organisms give a them a local flavor. “Two, three hundred years ago a lot of the beer was from spontaneous fermentation,” Cantillon’s Jean Van Roy told me. “But only one was called lambic. It was the beer made here in Brussels and the suburbs of our city. It’s possible to produce beer from spontaneous fermentation everywhere, but lambic, it’s here, it’s here.”
In Portland, ME, Allagash has been making spontaneously fermented beers since 2007. Brewers Rob Tod and Jason Perkins consulted with Van Roy as they installed a coolship for open fermentation. Portland and Brussels have similar weather, and Maine turned out to be a very good place to spontaneously ferment beer. Predictably, though, Allagash’s beer has its own character that comes from native Brettanomyces. “Wyeast Laboratory isolated it for us,” Perkins said. “It was not a strain they’ve ever seen before.” Even though it does turbid mashing, spontaneous fermentation and wood-aging, Allagash doesn’t call its beer lambic. The brewers feel that name belongs to beers in Belgium.