I’ve been trying to get to Cologne for many years and I wasn’t going to miss my chance to experience all of the yummy goodness the city has to offer. Kölsch is my favorite beer. After spending my younger years enthralled by heavier stronger beers, this is what makes me happy now. Light, easy to drink, perfect for washing down a giant pork knuckle and sauerkraut. And there’s only place in the world that makes real Kölsch. Köln is known as the liberal party city of Germany. Welcoming, open-minded, and down for pretty much whatever sounds fun. I could tell right away that I would fit in here. And I wasted no time finding my way to one of the many local brewhouses to try not only that sweet yellow ambrosia but the distinct local cuisine of the region with a character all its own.
Like many regions in Germany, Köln has its own style of beer, Kölsch. This beer uses a dual system of warm top-fermenting yeast, then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager, producing a light, nutty, very drinkable beer. This type of beer is regionally protected, if it’s not made in Köln, it’s not Kölsch. The beer also needs to be consumed fresh and cold so it is served in 20cl glasses from small kegs. Servers will continually replace the small glasses without asking, marking your coaster with each glass. Many glasses are consumed (many glasses). To stop the flow of beer, simply place your coaster over your glass. Each brauhaus will produce it’s own similar but distinct variety. There are 26 different kinds of Kölsch, most only available at its respective brauhaus.
the Köln Brauhaus
Each of the big brauhäuser (brewhouses) here in Cologne have their own kölsch, most of them not available outside of the brauhaus. There are many brauhäuser in Köln, they’re typically very large, and always full every night. It’s a cultural thing to dine in a brauhaus. A local friend told me, “You don’t go to dinner and decide which beer you want that night, you decide which beer you like, you drink that beer for the rest of your life, and that’s where you go to eat.” Now that’s getting your priorities straight.
The waiters at brauhäuser are called Köbes and have a long history in the Rhineland brewpub culture. Traditionally Köbes were brewer’s apprentices and as such not happy about serving. This tradition has evolved into a grumpy mocking persona that enjoys ballbusting for everyone’s amusement. The Köbes uniform is a double breasted blue wool cardigan with a blue linen apron, wide leather belt to protect his pants while dragging barrels, and a black waist wallet. He carries a beer wreath which is a round tray with holes to hold glasses and handle that can be loaded with empty glasses and quickly spun around as they are filled, and distributes the “Kölsch sticks” or thin glasses. The style of serving is also traditional; you don’t order a beer, the beer arrives at your table, and as you drink the small glasses they are automatically replaced by the Köbes until you put your coaster on your glass.
Suurbrode or Sauerbraten
Equal parts famous and infamous, the local sauerbraten can be found at most brauhauses. You can use a variety of meats, which are marinated in an acidic bath (usually vinegar) and spices for 3-10 days to soften the (usually tougher cuts of) meat. The meat is then braised with the marinade for several hours and served with red cabbage and sticky dumplings and usually a dark tangy raisin gravy.
Traditionally this dish is made with horse meat but has decreased in popularity. It’s often made with beef now. But I had to hunt down a place that served the traditional variety on the north side of town.
Himmel un Ääd
Literally “heaven and earth”, this dish is ubiquitous. It pairs fried blood sausage with a mix of mashed potatoes and apple sauce. It’s a great balance. Apple sauce and mashed potatoes is definitely something I’ll be making in the future. The blood sausage or blutwurst is moist and soft. Probably my favorite bloodsausage I’ve tried so far.
Mett, mett-happen, schweinemett, and mettbrütche
Mett or schweinemett is a loose sausage made from finely minced raw pork, served with rye bread, butter, and onions and garnished with salt and pepper. When served directly on bread it is called mettbrütche. It’s a typical bar snack eaten while drinking or served at special occasions. You can even find this at sandwich stands at the train station.
It’s a bit odd to American sensibilities to eat raw pork but it’s not the pork we’re afraid of, it’s the disgusting slaughter practices that cause all the food born disease. Mett is quite safe and is delicious. I honestly like it much more than steak tartare. There’s a local beef preparation of mett as well.
There’s a slightly outdated preparation found at special family dinners called Mettigel where the mett is shaped into a hedgehog and then onion pieces or pretzel sticks are inserted across the back to form the hedgehog quills.
Reibekuchen or rievkooche
These are potato pancakes. I grew up with a similar version of these. But here the most common type that I saw were small cakes, usually three, served with optional toppings. The variety I decided to try included a lemon sour cream and cured salmon to go on top.
We ran into this soup everywhere in Köln and it seemed just as popular in Amsterdam. It’s a hearty split pea soup with bacon or sausage in it. Usually served with bread. It could easily be a meal in itself.
Probably the simplest and most popular brauhaus dish. It’s often eaten while drinking Kölsch. It’s just a slice of aged cheese, often aged gouda, and a small loaf of soft rye bread with butter, onions, and salad. Essentially you make a small cheese sandwich with buttered rye bread.
The name however causes lots of confusion with even Germans outside of Köln. It literally translates to “half rooster” and our server said it was common for people to order it thinking it came with meat. But it’s just a slice of cheese and bread.
Hämmche or Haxen
The pork knuckle is a widely celebrated German dish but each region has a slightly different way of preparing it. The most common variety in the US is the schweinshaxe where the pork knuckle is roasted until crispy. And although we encountered many varieties in Köln, I really enjoyed the local hämmche where the knuckle is marinated for many days and then boiled until tender. One day we ate at the Haxenhaus (knuckle house) that had pages of different preparations. A brauhaus staple.
Something common across Germany, especially in Berlin, the currywurst is king in Köln. It seemed like there was a currywurst stand on every corner (though occasionally closed for the season). Its a grilled bratwurst, sliced, and served with a sweet curry sauce, often accompanied with fries. These are popular walkup lunch stands generally but you can usually find it on any brauhaus menu as well.
Similarly confusing, this dish has nothing to do with caviar. It’s another common bar snack in the bread+meat variety. It’s a serving of blood sausage served with a soft rye loaf and butter with onions and mustard. Like halber hahn and levverwoosch you make a series of small open face sandwiches. I had blood sausage in a variety of forms over the week but never got a pic of the Kölsche kaviar on a plate by itself.
Like halber hahn and kölsche kaviar, kölsche levverwoosch is a serving of liverwurst with a small soft loaf of rye bread, butter, onions, and mustard, and often a small salad. You make a series of small open face sandwiches with the liverwurst spread over the buttered rye and topped with raw onion. I think it’s delicious. I essentially eat this at home all the time. I just didn’t have a name for it.
Flammkuchen or tarte flambée
We had been seeing these tarte flambées on all the menus but without pictures we assumed they were meat pies or similar dishes. As it turns out they’re basically little german flat bread pizzas. Literally “flaming pastry” they are served with both traditional savory toppings or in my case I chose the goat cheese, green onion, and honey. Excellent as a snack or meal. I paired mine with the Reibekuchen.
Just a big homemade meatball on a plate. With mustard. It was kind of like eating a little meatloaf. Tasty. A bit dense. Not dry though. Filling.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about the spaetzle with cheese in Köln, seemed like the spaetzle I’ve had everywhere else, but it was tasty and a local recommended it, so here it is. Topped with roasted onions and with a mixed salad
Schlachtplatte (Butcher’s Plate)
Though not a specific Köln specialty, this was a hell of an ode to pork and fat. I didn’t walk away half empty from this meal. Pork, bacon, black pudding, and smoked pork on sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. (Hämchenfleisch, Speck, Blutwurst, und Kasseler auf Sauerkraut und Kartoffelpüree)