Bar Crawls: Köln – The Kölsch Run

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Not liking beer and roast meat would be a drawback to visiting Germany at the best of times, but in a city such as Köln, which boasts a style of beer (Kölsch) particular to its city, traditionally intended to wash down hearty, meaty food in its various cavernous traditional brauhauses, would mean abandoning the core experience. So here is my Disclaimer – if you don’t like the sound of this, stop reading now. There is no back-up option.

Köln’s small restored Altstadt makes for a pleasant stroll around. Were it not for enormous religious buildings and the impressive Hohenzollern bridge, the area around the Fischmarkt could easily pass for one of many pretty small towns you can find as you travel south of the Rhine. It’s easily traversed so punctuating your sightseeing with a few pubs will build this into a more enjoyable and rewarding day out.

We start on the east side of the Rhine in Köln-Deutz – a very easy to access district with integrated transport links. Even if you start from the city centre, all you have to do is walk away from the Dom and across the bridge, enjoying the dramatic sights of the riverside (Hark: a river that’s still in industrial use! Take a peek at all the barges hauling coal down-stream from the Ruhr).

Our first stop, 1. Gaststätte Lommerzheim isn’t far away at all. The place prides itself on remaining preserved through all modern upheavals going on around it. The exterior itself looks venerable yes, but in a way you don’t often see in German cities flattened either through war damage or  altered through the march of time. This isn’t a twee chocolate box place, but a  late 1950s functionalist exterior which very much hints at the no-nonsense dyed-in-the-wool operation to be found inside.

Wooden fixtures and furniture, glass panels and metal fittings. It’s simple and surprisingly modest in size, and stubbornly working class in feel.

The Gaststätte is not far removed from a Czech hostinec in format, but an increasingly outmoded pub format that appeals to the older generation. Lommerzheim does a terrific job therefore in appealing to everyone capable of keeping meat down.

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Lommerzheim keeps pointedly old fashioned hours – 11-2.30pm lunch service, closing altogether for  2 hours before remaining open for the the duration of the evening. It’s very popular, most likely as there aren’t that many places like this left, so seating room can be at a premium. If you decide to visit later in the day I cannot guarantee there’ll be space for you, so be warned! We were lucky to be able to squeeze in aside a group of friends. The good thing about Germany is its friendly communality so don’t be scared to sit alongside a stranger (within reason).

Along with the interior, there’s a pleasant patio area outside with an extraordinary bas-relief sculpture of the pub’s tapster/owner Hans dispensing Kölsch into the tray, adding to the mythology. Kölsch is served in 0.2l glasses, and in theory (we’ll get to this later) these glasses keep coming continuously until you pop your beermat on your glass to signal you’ve had your fill.

Along with stocking Päffgen Kölsch, which is the preferred brand of locals, Lommerzheim’s big draw is the food. It’s not a long menu – pork chop or variant of sausage, along with a serving of fries you could lose a new born baby in. The pork chop is almost provocatively chunky, jumping out at you as easily twice the width of any you may previously have encountered and daring you to vanquish it. Lommerzheim make its own piquant sauce which, along with the Päffgen, is essential as lubrication to aid this delicious, but rather dry feast on its transit down the oesophagus.

There is an unmistakeable sound when drinking in these ‘in-the-know’ places, that keystone murmur of everyone enjoying having such a bloody good time the rest of the world can go hang – there are reasons Lommerzheim is held in such high esteem.

Once you’ve given your stomach the chance to process that heavy load, you’re set up for the afternoon! Get yourself back across the Rhine the way you came, and marvel at the tens of thousands of perfectly functional padlocks that have been chained and left to rust on what is a frankly rather unromantic, albeit rather dramatic bridge. A futile oddly meaningless gesture, a waste of good material or a monument to the human tendency towards copying each other without stopping to wonder why anyone’s doing it. Or genuine declarations of love. Hmm. Either way, it sure is enormous.

But still, the walk is visually striking, and heading closer towards the Dom you’ll quickly note it’s never anything less than jaw-dropping in scale, filling you with a sense of purpose and the importance of the city.

Now is a good opportunity to visit the Dom (though you might want to save the tower climb given the recent feast). Once you’ve finished gasping and getting neckache, cross under the tracks at the main station and head north of the altstadt, only a 5 minute jaunt, to 2. Schreckenskammer.

Of all the established city centre brauhauses, Schreckenskammer is the unassuming conservative cousin. You won’t find any insignia baseball caps and awnings, this remains a small-time operation that realise they are sat on something worth preserving. It’s a spit-and-sawdust type arrangement that still spreads the floor to soak up spillages. The furniture and fittings go back decades, and the stained glass gives the room a certain honeyed/pickled look.

One of the things you’ll notice quite quickly is just how stuck up and haughty the service is around Köln. Niceties are at a premium, I’m afraid to say, and it seems difficult to induce any more than the most perfunctory response from the usually surly middle-aged bar staff. It’s as though all the men who in other cities would be driving buses and generally hating humanity are waiting tables here – just with the same sneering attitude. After the initial shock however, it soon becomes rather funny and you can quickly discern who are the ‘characters’, giving them pet names for amusement.

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Schreckenskammer’s food, drink and stately old environs are highly rated, but suffers from less than positive reviews as to the standard of customer service, which seems to deteriorate depending on how busy it is. We didn’t notice any issues during our visit as the place was near deserted and the man of the house was quite attentive to our needs.

Their Kölsch competes with the best, satisfyingly rounded in flavour in comparison to – in my opinion – the grassy Päffgen or more mineral and clinical flavour of Früh. You’ll also notice their beer is a notch cheaper than those in the city centre, a small but nevertheless meaningful concession. Grab a bar mat as a collector’s item – you won’t find one like it anywhere else in the world. Please don’t steal their glasses though.

Once you’re satiated, pay up and head into the Altstadt, perhaps taking a walk down the river front – grab an ice cream (a surprising feather in Koln’s cap actually, the ice cream of all things) and take in the sights and sounds. These grass banks make a good spot for maxing and relaxing, but not as good as a pub, right?

You are really spoilt for choice in this location, but in my view it makes sense at this point to keep at the fringes and then end up close to the core later on. Head ye to 3. Brauerei zur Malzmühle, another Kölsch brand that’s happy churning out an existence as a brewpub rather than a global brand. Fine by me.

The pub is suitably rustic inside, the sort of farmhouse décor you’d expect from a name like Malt Mill. The Köbes have plenty of attitude in here, but as they speak English you can appreciate what those snotty older fellows are aiming for – banter, apparently, but always with a hint of snarl – it seems any word out of turn may result in a swift ejection from the premises!

Due to the dark interior, it could be mid-afternoon or midnight and it wouldn’t matter overly. You’ll notice that this is very much a pub-restaurant rather than a pub, and it is lacking a core taproom in my opinion (unless I missed that) but is nevertheless a pleasant spot and offers among the better brands of Kölsch out there.

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Time flies when you’re having fun, and as afternoon turns to evening, you’ll notice the Brauhauses suddenly come into their own, particularly in the autumn and winter months as those who would ordinarily be in beer gardens flock indoors into the warmth. The cavernous nature of these places require custom to drum up atmosphere and in a perversely counter-intuitive fashion, service is actually slower when it’s quieter. A full house means that the Köbes must constantly be coming back-and-forth with replacement glasses of beer, as good as guaranteeing that not a minute will pass between final sup from your old glass and first from the new one.

However, on quiet days you find yourself trying to catch the eye of the staff loitering at the bar, hardly justifying their peacock struts and bad attitude. My two visits to Köln have exposed me to both sides of this dynamic.

4. Brauhaus Sion is deservedly one of the core Köln venues, with a warm colour scheme of light wood and black tarred walls. The candelabras and portraits on the walls – particularly in the backroom – have a timelessness that drags you back in time in a way the Altstadt, restored or not, clearly cannot.

The Kölsch is enjoyable, a tinge of sweetness and lagery bite which, rather like an under-seasoned packet of crisps invites rabid consumption to get the same flavour ‘hit’. Dangerous, and quite soon 4 or 5 stange (those little glasses) will disappear before you know it.

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Should you deem it to be tea-time, don’t look further than their half-metre sausage, which I can still confirm is excellent. Rather like Lommerzheim, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is an undeniable psychological impact of being presented with such a length of wurst. I’ll stop there before it gets too Freudian.

It should be moving towards evening frivolities by this point, but if by all means you need a break to smell the roses (or the sausages) go right ahead.

It’s a short wander to the 5. Peters Brauhaus, a stately operation in another large banqueting hall type venue. Take a look at the impressive stained glass ceiling in the main room, and choose whether you want a drink there or in the taproom, a slightly under-used corner of the pub, but serves well if you want to drop-in and go.

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Peters Kölsch is delicate, a little floral and grassy, basically pleasant for supping. The ambience inside the brewhall is staunchly Germanic in quite a formal way and left an impression on me after my visit. You may find it a tad too formal, in which case head to 6. Früh am Dom, the enormous, gregarious centre of all things Köln.

It’s the most expensive and corporate venue on the crawl, (part-unavoidably, part- voluntarily) but even though the periphery of the venue is  awfully bland, make sure to head straight for the old hall, where you can see wooden barrels of Kölsch hoisted up onto their serving hatches as part of a three man operation. The core venue of any cities is worth spending some time in, and still retains a great deal of welcome on a chilly evening.

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So, I think we’ve covered the traditional brew houses, and are now going to spend late evening in the best venues in Köln by some distance, 7. Papa Joe’s Biersalon and 8. Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal.

Eclectic, strewn with old-time nostalgia, sudden bursts of boisterousness, communal singalongs to classics and an unmissable atmosphere, these two venues are connected in all these ways but are not one and the same place – the latter is located a couple of streets down, and both offer a close to perfect post-script to an evening in Köln.

You’ll find Gaffel Kölsch in the Biersalon, their house beer and one of my preferred brands. You can order this in a half litre size (at last!) and soak up the tremendous ambience of the venue, with every inch of space lavishly decorated. It’s one of the most atmospheric venues I’ve been to.

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Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal ratchets this up a notch further! A narrow bar with stage like seating on the back wall and a gallery overlooking a corner stage. The décor is similar but the tempo is higher, a perfect way to blow away the cobwebs. They do their own brand of Kolsch here, along with a more appropriate range of cocktails and mixers (it may be that time of night), and this place stays open until the early hours all week. Keep going as long as you can!

You’ve done it! The core of Köln in all its fusty glory. And now, at last, to bed!

Alternatives:

Bierhaus in der Salzgasse – Another core brauhaus with a nice mural behind the bar tap

Pfaffen Kolsch – A smaller, cosier option

Sunner im Walfisch – Small, traditional brewhouse for Sunner Kolsch

Reissdorf in Octen Rosen – Reissdorf’s central-ish piss-parlour