Beer

Stange Times: Fritz Family Brewers Brings a German Tradition to Niwot

Kölsch service will continue at Fritz all summer.
Kölsch service will continue at Fritz all summer. Kelly Buening
Every Wednesday this summer, trays with glasses of fresh, pale beer will be served continuously from 5 to 7 p.m. at Fritz Family Brewers in Niwot as the brewery introduces a different way to drink beer with a traditional German Kölsch service.

Although the city of Cologne, Germany, has been brewing beer for centuries, the beer we know today as Kölsch came about in the late 1800s as Cologne’s answer to the dominant pale lagers of the time. Since 1997, Kölsch has been a protected term within the European Union, indicating that the beer is made within thirty miles of the city of Cologne and is strictly defined as a pale, highly attenuated, hoppy, filtered, top-fermenting beer.

A typical brewery in Cologne serves only one beer: Kölsch. Servers continuously fill tall, thin, 200-milliliter (about 6.8 fluid ounces) glasses known as stanges ("stange" translates to "rod" or "pole" in German). When a glass is empty, servers immediately pour a fresh, full stange. The practice happens automatically, and servers add marks on drinkers' coasters to keep track of how many pours each person has had. When a drinker is done, they simply place the coaster on top of the empty stange, letting the server know that it's time to cash out.

Despite the history and tradition behind this style of service, Fritz's approach to Kölsch was inspired by a brewery much closer than those in Cologne. Fritz co-founder Kelly Buening spearheaded the project after experiencing a similar Kölsch service with her husband, co-founder and brewer Cory Buening, at a bar in Louisville, Kentucky, called Holy Grale. The small pours meant that the beer was always cold, and it was a great way to hang out with friends, Kelly recalls.

The only problem is that traditional German beer, particularly fragile styles such as helles or Kölsch, don’t travel particularly well. By the time they’ve been packaged at a brewery, loaded on a boat, carried across the Atlantic Ocean and shipped to a stateside destination, the beer in the bottle or keg hardly resembles the original. “Unfortunately, by the time [traditional Kölsch] arrives from Germany, it’s to the point where any decent local brewery can likely produce something better, since it’s fresh,” says Cory.

While the Kölsch service at Fritz was inspired by Louisville (by way of Cologne), the beer itself is directly influenced by Germany. When Cory was head brewer at Snake River Brewery in Jackson, Wyoming, the director of brewing operations had a German pen pal named Guido. “Guido happened to be a brewer at Reissdorf,” says Cory, citing the iconic Kölsch brewery in Cologne. “They would write letters to each other, and eventually Guido visited the brewery and would give us tips on how to improve the Kölsch. He would tell us that it needs to be lighter, drier. So we would mash longer and at lower temperatures and use a shorter, softer boil.”

The resulting beer at Fritz, which is pretty close to Cory’s Snake River recipe, is a wonderful ode to Cologne. The brewery used a majority German pilsner malt for the grain, with a little bit of wheat malt. The grain is mashed in steps, helping to create a very well-attenuated, crisp beer that still has an excellent mouthfeel and a heap of foam.
click to enlarge A stange of Cuckoo for Kölsch at Fritz Family Brewers. - RYAN PACHMAYER
A stange of Cuckoo for Kölsch at Fritz Family Brewers.
Ryan Pachmayer
The yeast is a German strain, W177 from Weihenstephan, sourced by Woodland Park-based yeast company Brewers Science Institute. Cory ferments it initially at 59 degrees Fahrenheit for two weeks. Then he slowly lowers the temperature over the next week, a few degrees a day, until it reaches near-freezing temperatures, after which it cold-conditions for three additional weeks. The result is a very clean and dry beer, with light white-grape notes that complement the old-world Hersbrucker and new-world Saphir hops, both from Germany.

“Many brewers, particularly breweries that focus on IPAs and stouts, might brew one single light beer, like a Kölsch or a cream ale," Cory explains. "They’re really trying to satisfy the Bud Light customer, the customer that comes in and asks what the lightest beer they have is. Those beers can be fine, they can be clean, but there’s usually a lack of passion. On the other hand, you have brewers that are looking to source authentic ingredients, to obsess over and research the techniques and processes that go into the beer, that are willing to give the beer the time that it needs and to refine it every subsequent brew. I’m in that second group.”

Fritz Family Brewers is certainly not one-dimensional when it comes to German beer. Its Dortmunder-style Export lager already won gold at the recent North American Beer Awards. Outside of typical offerings such as Dieter, a German-style pils, and Niwot After Dark, a Bavarian dunkel, Fritz will debut a pale lager called Summerfest for its first anniversary on July 23.

The accolades for the one-year-old Fritz come as no surprise: Cory has a long history of winning beer awards, primarily over his nearly two decades as the brewer at Snake River. He also had a hand in award-winning brews at Kentucky’s Gravely Brewing, which he helped start with his brother-in-law prior to founding Fritz. In fact, Cory is one of the winningest brewers in the history of the Great American Beer Festival.

For the new Kölsch service, the brewery ordered close to 400 traditional stange glasses, which serve a dual purpose: They’re now also being used for small pours of regular beers. Unlike at breweries in Cologne, drinkers here have the option to order non-Kölsch beer off Fritz's menu during Kölsch service if they wish. And while breweries in Cologne have a reputation for curt service, Fritz's take comes with the down-to-earth demeanor that Colorado breweries are known for.

The difficulty of serving customers usually increases as the taproom fills up, but the brewery has actually found the opposite to be true during Kölsch service. There is one dedicated server for the special offering, and with a strong flow of customers participating, that person can continuously fill glasses, deliver them to tables to replace the empties and repeat.

Just a few weeks in, the service is already quite popular, and at least one local brewer who came in during the inaugural May 18 service mentioned using it as an inspiration for their own event, the Buenings say. Several customers familiar with the service in Cologne also commented on the authenticity, both in the flavor of the beer and how it is served. The new service at Fritz could very well be the start of a trend in Colorado.

Fritz Family Brewers is located at 6778 North 79th Street in Niwot and is open from 3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Kölsch service is available on Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, visit fritzfamilybrewers.com.
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Ryan Pachmayer is a beer writer living in Arvada. He has written for publications such as Craft Beer & Brewing, Zymurgy, Porch Drinking, Homebrewing DIY and Punch. He is also the head brewer at Yak & Yeti Brewpub, marketing director at New Image Brewing and a BJCP Certified Judge.