IN DEFENSE OF BLACK KÖLSCH

Houston’s St. Arnold Brewing Company received some criticism last week with the release of Santo, their newest year-round beer described by St. Arnold founder and brewmaster Brock Wagner as a “Black Kölsch”. Looking to capitalize on a dearth of craft offerings to pair with the region’s Tex-Mex cuisine, Santo was in development for five years and underwent numerous recipe tweaks and even a dumping of the 11,000 gallon initial batch. The final product features pale 2-row, pils, Munich, and black malt with Hallertauer Hersbrucker hops, fermented with a Kölsch yeast. Despite the long road getting product to market, Wagner is proud of his newest beer, noting: “While we were a little embarrassed about announcing that we decided to dump our first batch, we are happy with the decision, especially given the beer that we are ready to release now. Our brewing team has been thoroughly enjoying this new version. We haven’t waited for the release date to tap some for ourselves.”

Velky Al on his Fuggled blog was the first to criticize the launch, reiterating arguments that have surrounded the Black IPA/ Cascadian Dark Ale/ American Black Ale debate, as well as a new ones specific to the concept of Black Kölsch that can be summarized thusly:

  • ♦ A beer style (such as IPA, Pils, and in this case Kölsch) that is by definition pale in color cannot be modified simply with the addition of dark malt to constitute a new “Black” version
  • ♦ These so-called new styles are not modifications of existing pale styles, but rather fall into existing dark styles (e.g. a “Black Pils” is actually a Schwarzbier, a Dunkel, or something in between)
  • ♦ By virtue of the Kölsch Convention, a beer classified thus must be brewed in the city of Cologne, Germany

The first has been defended eloquently most recently by Greg Koch, and I won’t rehash it here except to say that “language is meaning”-when I say Black Kölsch, a knowledgeable beer drinker will know what I am trying to describe… a beer with qualities of Kölsch (well-attenuated, bright, top-fermented, accented with hops, light in body) only dark in color. Thus if St. Arnold’s description of their beer is the most accurate, succinct, and elegantly conveys meaning, that is the one they should use. The second applies well to Black Pils vs. Schwarzbier, but in my opinion less aptly to Kölsch (VA suggests the Santo might actually be classified as a Scottish 80/ as this is the closest existing style in his estimation- a choice that would be even more confusing for beer consumers and commercial suicide for the new beer… nothing sounds good for washing down a plate of chile rellenos like a heavy-ish Scotch export ale). The last is unavoidably true- no beer brewed outside of Cologne should be classified as such under Kölsch Convention, a fact that has not stopped hundreds of American craft brewers from brewing examples of the style in practice (legal protection of the Kölsch Convention only extends through the European Union through its status as a Protected Designation of Origin).

Stephen Beaumont of World of Beer jumped into the fray, agreed with Venky Al and broke down the fourth (fifth?) wall with a  message to brewers who dare classify their brews as “innovative” with “only the addition of a bit of black malt”:

“Listen, I understand that you want to make your beers stand out and that, in the wake of the “black IPA” juggernaut that is sweeping the land, using the word “black” in front of pretty much any traditionally blonde or amber style is one way to do it. But in so doing you are forgetting that the vast majority of the beer drinking populace doesn’t yet know all of the basic beer styles, much less the 100+ offshoots recognized by the Association of Brewers today. Thus, creating more styles, especially faux styles like “black kölsch,” makes matters more confusing for the beer buying public. In short, you’re not clarifying, you’re confounding!

I like new beers. I like weird beers. I like challenging beers. What I don’t like is the seemingly irrepressible need of some, perhaps most craft brewers to create a new beer “style” with every release.”

I think Stephen is being a bit unfair to Wagner and the team of brewers at St. Arnold, who state on their website that “black Kölsch… technically doesn’t exist as a style, but this is as close as we can come to describing it” (a fact noted by Venky Al in the comments of his post). By their own accounts, they didn’t set out to create a new style, but rather a great beer to wash down Mexican food. What they got after several years and thousands of gallons of beer down the drain was something that in their estimation bore a great resemblance to what experienced drinkers might recognize as a Kölsch- with the exception of it being black. To characterize their effort as just “a bit of black malt” is harsh. And as far as confusing the beer buying public is concerned, Wagner is not trying to be confounding- beer geeks know what Kölsch is, and most everyone else carries a smart phone these days. When trying to decide between St Arnold Santo and the same old Negra Modelo, St Arnold is betting that beer newbies might Google “Kölsch”, find out it’s a light-bodied and refreshing alternative to familiar lagers, and hopefully opt to take a flyer on the locally-produced black version. Will it work? In the end, it all depends on how the beer tastes.

There is no need to curb brewing innovation in this country or chastise brewers for trying to do something new; it’s a natural byproduct of the ever-increasingly competitive environment as new brewers with bold ideas come to market everyday. Sure, no FC Köln supporter will ever regard St. Arnold Santo as Kölsch… but then again, maybe they would do well to learn from the anything-goes experimentation that is a hallmark of US craft brewing, considering the tricky position the German brewing industry now finds itself. Wagner and St Arnold are under no imperative to educate beer drinkers, confine their brewing attempts to established styles, or uphold obscure foreign beer regulations- their first and only goal should be to make a great beer that people want to try, and hopefully continue to buy. Did they succeed with Santo? Only time will tell, but if drinkers buy enough of it, other brewers might give their Black Kölsch a shot… get enough of them, and we might just have a new style on our hands like Black IPA (or whatever you want to call it). Complain all you want- that’s how it works in American craft brewing today. Rather than take shots, isn’t it better to crack a beer, sit back, and watch the evolution unfold?

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10 comments

  1. stephenbeaumont · · Reply

    If I’m being a bit unfair to Wagner and St. Arnold, Slouch — and I want to emphasize that I like the brewery and have featured its brands in more than one tasting or dinner I’ve hosted — then I think you’re also straying towards misrepresenting me. I have no interest in curbing innovation in any form, nor do I have a problem with this, that or the other wacky brewing idea. (I have been publicly supportive of the cutting edge for over two decades now!) My issue, as clearly stated in the final line you quote, is with the invention of new style names where none is needed.

    There is a Canadian brewery named Beau’s that has as its flagship a beer called Lug-Tread. It is fashioned in the kölsch style, but in respect of the kölsch covenant, they call it descriptively a “Lagered Ale.” This is to the point in that it both describes the beer and respects the geographic restrictions of the original beer. You could argue, I suppose, that “lagered ale” might not provide a craft beer newbie with enough information, but I would quickly counter that it offers more on that front than the use of the word kölsch. Hence, Santo could be aptly described as a “lagered black ale” or even a “black lagered ale.”

  2. I’m making an imperial non-alcoholic Belgian triple stout ale and calling it KJLHDIUGHSDKJHWJHFDS-ski The label will be a picture of a drunk penguin on a toboggan.

    General beer buying public cant tell you what most beer styles are anyways besides “IPA, Guinness and Lager” or “something like Miller Light”. No matter who makes what people are going to bitch even if you’re following BJCP guidelines 100%. Would there be this much hoopla if they said “Black kolsch style” instead of just “black kolsch”?

  3. @Stephen

    Didn’t mean to characterize you as being “anti-innovation”, your post, comment, and overall record clearly reflect you’re anything but…

    As has become so common recently, we find ourselves discussing language and classification more than the actual beer- the term “black lagered ale” (while a new name invention in its own right) is a good descriptor and more broadly accurate. But I can see why St Arnold would want to use the Kölsch designation, as it carries with it some amount of cultural cache with beer drinkers (it is purely for marketing reasons that I think the term “Black IPA” will win out in the end, except perhaps in the Pacific Northwest). Pure and simple, the idea of a “Black Kölsch” gets people talking, and will probably sell some beer for St Arnold. As they are trying to peddle Santo as a lager alternative in Mexican food restaurants, I think they made the right call (while still noting on their site that they hadn’t invented a new style).

    @spoon

    You’re too late, BrewDog already made one of those.

  4. Deregulate beer naming! Let the marketers out of their cages!

  5. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I can’t get myself worked up enough to care about the nomenclature issue. Brewers all over the U.S. make beers and call them “kolsch,” I’d say we’re WELL past the point of contention on that.

    I say give it up for the precocious little black kolsch. It’s a hard road that little brew will be going down, sure to be fraught with separate-but-equal water fountains and bus seats, but I have a dream of a world where kolsch-style beers of all description live in harmony and only rarely, if ever, find it necessary to amass for million-beer-marches, excepting those times in which they are marching into my gullet.

  6. Can I just point out that at no point in my original post do I even mention Santo, I did not describe Santo as a Scottish 80/- with another name. Sure Santo came up in the comments, but I didn’t “criticize the launch”, in fact I made no reference to it whatsoever.

  7. Velky Al: “The one though that raised my hackles this week is the concept of a “black Kölsch”. According to the Kölsch Convention, for a beer to be able to use the appellation “kölsch” it must be brewed in Cologne, and “pale, well attenuated, hop accented, bright, top fermented”. There’s that tricky word “pale” again. Sure, a brewery might have got 4 out of 5 of the beer’s characteristics right, but it is not a Kölsch because it is not pale. Interestingly, the only major difference between between Kölsch and Scottish 80/- in terms of the style parameters is the colour. Is “black” Kölsch therefore a Scottish 80/- by another name?”

    Was it another Black Kölsch release to which your post referred?

  8. I don’t see the word “release” in that quote. I was reacting to some twitter chatter along the lines of “a black kolsch?”. Basically I saw a tweet with just those words in it, no mention of particular brands, and wrote a post about the prevalence of oxymoronic beer styles. It was only after the comment about Santo that a particular brand was brought to my attention. I must admit that I didn’t read the article being linked in the tweets, if I had, I would have named Santo as an example.

  9. Gotcha- I had read about Santo just before your article and thought the release was what got your hackles raised. Sorry to misrepresent.

  10. Fourpack · · Reply

    If the US beer geeks were not so obsessed with “beer styles”, this sort of nonsense would not happen. There’s no reason a brewer can’t describe a beer using widely understood language. Besides, I wonder how many people in the area of the brewery have ever been to Cologne to taste a real Kölsch? Very few, I would guess. So, all they know are imitations, which probably vary quite a lot, making the description pretty useless.

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