The Rhine River cities of Cologne and Duesseldorf are separated by a mere 25-minute train ride and several centuries of contempt.
“You might say we don’t like each other,” says Arno Fries, a tour guide at the Dom Brewery Museum in Cologne. Residents of both towns site a long list of divisions: dialect, history, culture, and economy, even distinct styles of ale found nowhere else in lager-loving Germany.
Cologne was settled by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago and is now a working-class center of German industry. The old city sits on the west side, the historically civilized Roman side, of the Rhine River. Its most cherished landmark is the majestic 515-foot tall Cologne Dom (cathedral), which lords over the skyline and the west bank of the Rhine. It was the tallest building in the world in the 19th century. It’s said to house the remains of the Biblical wise men, making it a pilgrimage site for Christians and a regular stop for Rhine River cruise ships.
Duesseldorf was founded in the 13th century on the heels of a power struggle for Cologne. The old city sits on the east side, or the old Barbarian side, of the Rhine River. It grew into a financial and administrative center and today is the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Duesseldorf’s skyline is dominated by modern office buildings and its most well known attraction is the glitzy Koenigsallee – the “Ko” – a thoroughfare lined by fashionable shops, malls and cafés.
“Cologne oozes tradition, history, solidity and earthiness,” says Horst Dornbusch, a Massachusetts resident, Duesseldorf native, and author of the book, “Prost! The Story of German Beer.” His hometown, meanwhile, “embraces modernity, elegance, class and style.”
The cultural divide could easily be lost on first-time visitors. The beer divide is more obvious. In Duesseldorf, the local beer is a frothy, fruity dark ale called alt (“old”) beer. In Cologne (Koeln, in German), the local style is a sparkling, crystalline golden ale called koelsch. (The Cologne dialect is also called Koelsch.)
Alt is the more flavorful and more interesting of the two styles. But koelsch can claim more international prestige. It is one of 400 regional specialties – and the only beer – protected by the European Union. Koelsch can only be made in Cologne much like champagne can only be made in Champagne.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
You will not find koelsch in Dusseldorf or alt in Cologne. Their respective beer cultures, however, have more in common “than either side wants to admit,” says Dornbusch.
Cologne and Duesseldorf are the only major German cities where the predominant beer styles are ales. The north Rhine does not have the cool, mountainside “lagering” caves that made cold, lager brewing possible in places like Bavaria before refrigeration.
Beer in both cities is served in small 0.2 liter (7 ounce) cylindrical glasses called “staenge,” while beer waiters are called “Koebes” – a derivation of Jakob, a common German name. The Koebes constantly make the rounds from beer barrel to table with specially designed trays that hold a dozen glasses of brew.
Both cities also boast charming, pedestrian-friendly altstadts, or old cities, with pubs that offer house-made beers in the local style.
The best alt beer pub in Duesseldorf is Zum Uerige (1 Berger Strasse). The beer is rich, deep and complex, with a pronounced hop character. Inside is a rambling pub where beer is poured from wooden barrels. Outside, large crowds spill out onto the street to drink.
Im Fuchschen (28 Ratinger Strasse) boasts a large pub and restaurant and is the best alt beer brewery for food. The house specialty is eisbein, a boiled leg of pork to be slathered with mustard. Its alt is full of roasted malt flavor. The third altstadt alt beer pub is Zum Schlussel (43 Bolker Strasse). Like Uerige, it has tables on a busy pedestrian street. Its beer is comparable to a fruity and genteel English pale ale.
Outside the altstadt is Ferdinand Schumacher’s (123 Ost Strasse). It’s alt is dry and frothy, with a long bitter finish. Almost all restaurants and pubs in Duesseldorf serve some of the commercially made alt beers. Two of them, Schlosser Alt and Frankenheim Alt, can be found occasionally in the United States.
In Cologne, the best koelsch is served at Paffgen Brauerei (64-66 Friesen Strasse), a large, Bavarian-style beer hall a short distance west of the Dom. The beer is soft, powdery, and the most well hopped and flavorful of the koelsch beers.
Fruh am Dom (12-14 Am Hof) is located in the shadows of the Cologne Dom and is the most charismatic of the koelsch beer pubs. It’s an old, cavernous beer hall and restaurant that seats some 1,000. On the southern end of the Cologne altstadt is Malz Muhle (6-10 Heumarkt), a small brewpub with a lightly malty koelsch.
There are nearly two dozen koelsch beers made by large commercial breweries in and around Cologne. Reissdorf Koelsch is the most common one found in the United States.