What American Hospitality Can Learn from Kölsch Service

Recently I took a cruise down the Rhine in Europe, one of those long river boats that bring the cities to you while you sip iced tea up on the “Piano Deck”. It was docking in a few cities throughout France and Germany, some of which I’d never even heard of. But there was one city I was excited for: Cologne.

I had wanted to go to Cologne (or Köln, as the Germans spell it) for one particular mission, and that was to drink Kölsch beer in its native land. Having studied and taught as a Cicerone, I knew why it has a reputation that has led to its growing popularity worldwide. And the beer itself is only part of the reason.


At first glance, Kölsch is a pretty standard lightly flavored beer, not too dissimilar from many of the other regional varieties of light lager out there. But Kölsch isn’t exactly a lager. While it’s fermented cold and slowly, like a lager, it’s done with ale yeast instead, which gives it a slightly fruitier flavor. Genealogically, the rise of Kölsch shows up as one of many outgrowths of the advent of Pilsner in 1842. When Pilsner came on the scene, it was seen as the perfection of making pale malted lagers, and they were rapidly imitated: Helles in Munich, Tripel in Belgium, Light Lager in the United States, and Kölsch in Cologne.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. While the beer that rose from those circumstances is not too distinct, the culture that rose around it certainly is.

We arrived in Cologne on a cold and rainy December afternoon, with dark skies that made the imposing gothic cathedral that looms over the center of town seem even more sinister. The tower was once the tallest structure in the world, and its position next to the large city square at its North leads to wind currents so strange and unpredictable that they became known as the “Devil’s Breath.” By the time you turned around your inside-out umbrella in hopes of letting the wind undo its own work, the Devil had changed directions and you resign yourself to just getting soaked.

We found refuge in Gaffel, one of the famous Kölsch breweries half a block from the cathedral’s square. Inside was a beautiful, bustling art nouveau beer hall filled with long tables loaded with people.

Traditional Kölsch service requires a little foreknowledge if you ever find yourself in the city. First of all, a standard pour is only 20 cl, or about 6.8 oz. They’re served in a small glass called a stange (“Rod”), and when you’ve finished that one a waiter will automatically come and give you another from his kranz (or “wreath”) of 11 stanges. Previously they would mark your coaster with a tick (although they seemed to have moved over to a handheld device these days), and when you’ve had your fill simply cover your glass with the coaster to signify you’re done.

Or if you’ve got a larger party, you can simply order the whole kranz and have the beer at the ready whenever you need it. But make sure you don’t pick up the last glass – because you’ll be paying for the next round.

There’s a lot that appeals to our sense of novelty about this whole process. It seems quaint, bound up in tradition. There’s an element of provenance and “if-you-know-you-know” to it. Here in the States, you’re starting to see many of the craftier beer bars and breweries attempt to replicate this tradition for their own customers, to varying degrees of success. Because if you try to serve a guest a beer that’s not even 7 ounces without explanation, you’re likely to solicit a response of “Where’s the rest of it?”

Last year I was part of an ill-fated project to build out a traditional lager-focused brewery, and one of the first requests we had was Kölsch service. We wanted it all – the stanges, the kranzes, the ticks on the coaster. We wanted it to be the central showpiece of this beautiful new brewery.

But immediately the compromises started rolling in. Can the guests just order it at the bar instead? Do we really need special glassware for this? What about just using flight boards instead of the kranz?

Since then, I’ve seen other places walk the same path towards ruin. The most recent German-themed restaurant I went to in Los Angeles had the kranz wheel listed in the bottom corner of the menu, and behind the bar I could see it, covered in dust. I ordered a small Kölsch, looking at the stanges next to the taps. Anticipating the response he’s probably heard a hundred times, he automatically served me a pint of it.

What all of these American imitations fail to understand is that the process they are replicating are not pageantry. They’re rooted in practicality. Why the small glasses? Because it gets hot in Cologne, and small glasses mean the beer is never warm or flat. Why the kranzes and the ticks? Because these beer halls are huge, and the waiters are already running around trying to make service as quick as possible. Making it automatic simply lubricates the process for everyone.

And most importantly, all of this is made possible by the fact that all of these hundreds of people were drinking the same thing. While sitting there, slowly and lazily drinking 6 small beers over the course of a couple of hours, I looked out and saw dozens of separate groups engaged in their own conversations, but bound by a shared experience. Nobody’s nose was in their glass – the beer was serving to supplement the real star of the show, the people.

In America, particularly in craft beer culture, we want to place our work at the center of the table. And when we borrow from other traditions, we want it to be on the spotlight, a Germanic version of tableside guac.

But seeing this tradition in context shows why it’s truly valuable. Because sometimes, good hospitality means just getting out of the way.

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