Kölsch: The Pinky-Sized Pint
I've written time and again (and again) about the virtues of beer that packs a flavorful punch without the belt of booze. On a long Saturday night, my motive is part gluttony: an easy sipping beer means I can drink more of it. But there is a time for moderation—for me, lunch—and that's when I reach for a traditional German Kölsch, in a traditional Kölsch glass.
Those pinky-sized cylinders you see above are how they drink beer in the German city of Cologne, enjoying a civilized 0.2 liters (about seven ounces) of delicate, floral, and crisp Kölsch beer at a time. With a lightweight cylinder of ale resting gently in your hand, you'll feel a sunny disposition after the first sip—something you can now try at two local beer gardens: H Street's Biergarten Haus and also the Standard, at the corner of 14th and S streets NW.
Still not convinced about the extra-small serving? Standard smoke-master and co-owner Tad Curtz wasn't either, at first.
"One day they gave us these little glasses, and we didn't know what to do with them," he said. "At first, I was like, 'they're so small and cute!' But then I read more about the history and learned that's how they drink it in Cologne, and I loved it."
That was at his old gig, working the line at 2 Amys. He also ran the wine program there for a stint, and much as he loved the yeoman's beer, it wasn't a popular choice at the Neapolitan-style pizzeria. So when Curtz opened his own beer garden, putting Kölsch on the menu was an easy choice and a bit of a reunion.
It helps that the beer's good, too. Kölsch is a featherweight blonde, fermented at regular ale temperature (warm) to produce the yeasty, floral aromas, then cold-conditioned, or "lagered," for two to four weeks, which cuts down the aroma with signature crispness. The result is a complex beer that's light enough to make Hofbrau Helles feel like a loaf of soda bread. It's difficult to make well, and it's a rare American version that is worth seeking out.
But being such a fussy beer, it tastes best on tap. And being a summer quaff, it's best outdoors. Find 0.2-liter glasses of Gaffel Kölsch at Biergarten House for $3, or my preference, the more rewarding Reissdorf Kölsch, at Standard for $2.73. (And no, ordering 10 glasses doesn't mean you keep the tray. I tried.)
One last note: If you saw the New York Times piece about Kölsch the other day, don't go riling up your D.C. inferiority complex just yet. When the story ran, Standard's glasses were in the mail, and Biergarten Haus has served the beer since opening day.
Photo by Orr Shtuhl