Already ticked off Eurostar jaunts to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels... even Lille? How about going one step further, and heading for Germany's fourth-biggest city? Yes, it's got that whacking great cathedral, but Cologne is famous for something else, too — its beer, namely kölsch.
Sipping your way through the city's brauhauses makes for a wunderbar long weekend, and here's how to do it. With an altbier add-on, if you're in the mood.
How to get from London to Cologne
Brilliantly, you can take a train from London to Cologne. Not a direct one, but it's simple enough to do. Eurostars from St Pancras to Brussels Midi take just over 2 hours. Onward journeys from Midi take as little as 1 hour 50 mins to Cologne.
In theory then, you can do London to Brussels on the train in 4 hours. That's less time than it takes to get from London to Edinburgh. Or take your time, and stop off for a Delirium Tremens in Brussels. As we did.
Even better, these days Eurostar sometimes does sales that include onward trains to Cologne — with return journeys totalling under £100. Keep your peepers peeled.
So what's with this kölsch beer then?
There is kölsch the beer, and kölsch the lifestyle. The former is a peppy, fizzy, filtered, bright and snappy style of beer that's very much in the wheelhouse of a pilsner, if generally a tad sweeter. But you can only call a kölsch a kölsch if it is brewed in Cologne or its surrounds. (If someone offers you a kölsch that they brewed in London, immediately call the Beer Police.)
Brewed here since the 17th century, the Colognians treat kölsch with due reverence, crafting it under strict 'reinheitsgebot' purity laws, meaning you won't find anything in it but water, malt, hops and yeast. It is the antithesis of many of the heavy duty, fruity beers that f**ked you up en route in Belgium.
The way kölsch is drunk is half the fun: Cologne is studded with a number of brauhauses — beautiful old boozing/eating houses, which craft their own beer, and have a hint of the Dickensian about them. (Many were actually rebuilt after being bombed in the second world war.)
Traditionally, brauhauses don't have bars as such; the hoppy elixir is brought around in 'kranzes' (wreaths), and dished out by beshirted staff in uber-drinkable 20cl portions (it's the opposite to Bavaria, where the beer comes in hulking vases as standard.) In theory, the kölsch will keep coming to your table, until you place your beer mat over the top of the beer, or alternatively fall under the table. Many brauhauses have installed old carved confessionals, from which someone greets drinkers, and keeps tabs on what table's had what.
What's the best kölsch in Cologne?
In my opinion a lot of kölsches taste very similar (and we did sample a fair few while in Cologne), which is no bad thing, because it means there is literally no such thing as a poor kölsch.
There was, however, one which stood out from the crowd — and that was the beer at Zum Pfaffen Brauereiausschank, in Heumarkt. It had a distinct crisp, bitter edge to it, reminiscent of Czech pilsners — and it was probably just as well that we had an appointment to get to at the Fragrance Museum, otherwise goodness knows how many kölsches we could have necked.
Of course, some people will say they prefer Sion or Früh or Gaffel — or one of the other 20 kölsches on offer in this city. The most important thing is that if you enjoy drinking good lagers, you will get on with kölsch very well indeed.
What's the best brauhaus in Cologne?
That really depends what you're after. Peters is probably the best-known — bristling with tourists even on a Monday lunchtime — and home to a resplendent Tiffany-esque stained glass ceiling (which the gruff staff seem hellbent on stopping you from sitting under). The roast pork knuckle here is stupendous, and will make 95% of roast dinners in London want to crawl away in shame. (As a general rule, brauhauses double up as great restaurants, so long as you like your cuisine heartier than Russell Harty watching Heartbeat on Valentine's Day in a cardiology ward.)
Zum Pfaffen Brauereiausschank — named above as home to the finest kölsch on our trip — is filled with some rollicking stained glass, depicting some Hogarthian boozing scenes, which really have to be seen to be believed.
Our personal favourite find, though, was Brewery Päffgen. Here, a little out west from the city centre, we found ourselves among true locals — including a friendly table of Colognians who were baffled that we'd done a day trip to Dusseldorf (more of which in a sec). With its almost-rabelaisian atmosphere, and offering the chance to see the wooden casks of kölsch hoisted up from the cellar by hand, rolled into place ready to be tapped off, it's the perfect spot to while away a rainy evening with a hatful of 20cl pours. I apologise in advance to all the locals for sharing it here.
All of this, of course, comes with the caveat that we only made it to around half of the brauhauses in Cologne, and everyone will have their own favourite. If you were really going for it (and in theory you can, because the beers are so small), you could nigh-on complete Cologne's brauhauses in one weekend. We wouldn't necessarily recommend this though — just go with the flow, and see where you end up. (If you do it right, ultimately you'll end up back at St Pancras where you began.)
And is there anything else to do in Cologne?
Why yes! The cathedral is free to visit — and even if you think you've had your fill of European churches, this one is something special. It's rumoured to have the remains of the Three Wise Men. You really can't miss it — it's the twin-spired 157-metre-tall thing you keep running into.
To learn how Cologne embraced alcohol in another clever way, sign up for a guided tour of the aforementioned Fragrance Museum, which tells the story of how an Italian entrepreneur came to Germany and made it big with a French-sounding product.
And if you visit in late November/December, the city's sprinkled with festive markets, bringing their usual game of gingerbread, bratwurst and gluhwein.
All in all, Cologne admittedly isn't the most beautiful or bustling city, but it stands up to a couple of days of exploring — particularly if you're on a kölsch mission. And if you haven't realised by now, that's what our stay was about.
If you're staying longer...
If you're thinking of making a longer trip of it, just how committed to kölsch and hitting all of Cologne's brauhauses do you have to be?
In Cologne, you essentially drink kölsch, true — although obviously various other alcoholic beverages are available. But may we make a suggestion: if you've got more than a couple of days to kill, do a day trip to Dusseldorf. Few people — Kraftwerk wonks aside — might consider this industrial metropolis as a holiday destination. All the more reason to visit while you're in Cologne, as it's less than 20 minutes on the train.
What the f**k is in Dusseldorf?! you may ask. Well, a few things, we answer. For one, there's a comprehensive art scene, including the Kunsthalle, which showers you with Legers and Kandinskys — and is nice and quiet in the week, too. Dusseldorf is also the place to drink altbier. This is their version of kolsch — it's a darker, maltier brew, served in 30cl glasses, rather than 20cl — but the drinking rituals are pretty much the same as Cologne's otherwise.
And, again, there are some superb places to sup it: on our whistlestop tour, we enjoyed sipping the Füchschen Alt in the brewery's stunning tile-and-dark-wood brauhaus; a drop at Brauerei Kurzer, which serves traditional beer in a hipster kind of setting (the aroma of hops in this place is also to die for); and the towering Hausbrauerei Zum Schlüssel.