Learning how to brew Kölsch at Sünner Brauerei

After a brief, exam-related hiatus from blogging I thought I’d put some thoughts together about some time I spent recently at Sünner Kölsch, in, well, Cologne. As part of my brewer’s training course I am expected to learn about all aspects of beer production and my boss kindly organised for me to go to the Sünner Brauerei, the first ever brewery to brew Kölsch back in 1906, for two weeks to pester their brewers with lots of questions and see how a slightly bigger brewery operates (Sünner produced 35,000HL in 2017).

Cologne is home to the top fermented beer style Kölsch, which, according the Kölsch convention signed in 1985, must, by definition, be brewed within the city limits of Cologne, pale in colour, top fermented, hoppy and filtered. Locals are incredibly loyal to their city’s beer and other common, local styles, such as Pils and Export, can be hard to come by. Even 35km down the River Rhine in the small town of Bonn Kölsch is ubiquitous. Kölsch also has a very mixed reputation in Germany. Some say it is dull and flavourless, whereas others (mostly the Kölner) swear by its superiority to all other beers. It goes without saying I was excited to work at a brewery that is allowed to produced this internationally renowned, although incredibly local beer style.

Sünner 3 vessel 80HL copper brewhouse

The true centrepiece of the brewery is the brew house, which can be seen in all its glory through a huge window from the busy main road outside. It originally dates back to the 1950s and its outer beauty is secured by historical building and monument protection. This protection made it particularly difficult to install the brand new, fully automated brew kit in the 90s, which is tucked away beneath the shiny copper.

70s style brew house control panel

In the past couple of years Sünner Kölsch has also significantly invested in upgrading its equipment. They replaced their ageing Kieselguhr filter with a swanky Pentair membrane filtration system (60HL/h) and their labour intensive isobaric keg line with a fully automated Albert Frey filling line (60 kegs/h). Fancy stuff. The one thing that really surprised me about operating fully automated brewing equipment is how much down time brewers have between occasional malfunctions and error reports. Lots of time to chat with the other brewers and binge on Sünner’s tasty lemonade that is mixed in-house.

Station to take gravity reading

Despite a high degree of modernity and automation, brewers at Sünner Kölsch do still have to be prepared to get their hands dirty. Sünner has approximately 40 X 150HL conditioning tanks that all have to be entered and scrubbed by hand. This is a rite of passage for the apprentice brewers and I was no exception to this rule. All I can say is this task is dark, damp, sweaty and downright unpleasant. Thank Ninkasi for CIP!

Additionally, Sünner does not have any swanky cylindroconical tanks for fermentation and maturation, instead they use open fermentors for the primary fermentation. It will come as no surprise that these are also cleaned by hand.

Approx. 160HL of green, top fermenting Kölsch

Not only do Sünner make a cracking Kölsch but they also occasionally brew a Lager, Hefeweizen and, as more recently, a Bock. Sünner Hircus is a dark, rich Bock at 7.2% ABV brewed with a wide range of speciality and dark malts and classic German hops. Hircus is the brainchild of the highly talented master brewer Martin Sittkus, with whom I was lucky enough to spend a few hours in a classroom learning about filtration and packaging beer.

Sünner Hircus Bock, 7.2% ABV

It was a pretty unique experience to gain an insight into a traditional Kölsch brewery and it has certainly aroused a newfound interest to pursue this relatively new, local beer style further.

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