Kulmbacher: Strong, Dark, and Hoppy

History by the Glass by | Jun 2018 | Issue #132

Why do some styles make it internationally, while others fade away? It’s a question I often ask myself when sitting alone at a bar, staring into space.

In the years when lager began to spread its wings and disperse across Europe, it typically wasn’t in the form you might expect. Pilsner wasn’t the first out of the landing craft to form a beachhead. That honor belonged to other styles.

In most countries the older, Bavarian styles of lager appeared first. Usually Münchener, but types from other Bavarian cities were also copied, such as Würzburger and Kulmbacher. Most of them didn’t hang around long, however.

Kulmbacher (or Culmbacher) was brewed in the US and by Heineken in the Netherlands. What sort of beer was it? Similar to Münchener, this dark lager was much darker. And, unlike the beer from Munich, it was quite heavily hopped and a good bit stronger. While a Munich Export was around 14º Plato, the Kulmbacher Export was 16º Plato or more.

According to Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für öffentliche Gesundheitspflege (The German Quarterly Journal of Public Health, 1870, volume 2, page 276), Munich Lager was hopped at a rate of 4 pounds per 100 pounds of beer. Bamberg beer contained 8 pounds, while Kulmbach beer had 12 pounds of hops per 100 pounds of beer. Feeding the details into brewing software, Munich Export comes out at 30 IBU. Kulmbacher Export is 80 IBU, which is pretty damn bitter for a lager, especially a dark one.

In Kulmbacher Art in Moderne Braumethoden, author Johannes Olberg describes how the base malt production process was vital to giving the beer its desired character.

“The foundations for the character of this beer are already laid during the malting process. The germination process is slow and cold. The shoots are well-developed, even if they aren’t that long. Drying is within the limits of the Munich drying method in general and the malt is more highly dried, with the flues either severely restricted or completely closed.”
Kulmbacher Art in Moderne Braumethoden, pp 78–79, A. Hartleben, Wien & Leipzig, 1927. (My translation.)

Presumably this process resulted in darker malt than the standard Munich version. But the base malt wasn’t the only source of color—brewers also used caramel malt and roasted malt. Together they produced the style’s very dark color.

Though it turns out some brewers in Kulmbach had been cheating. Around 1900, a court in Bayreuth ordered them to stop using caramel coloring, which wasn’t allowed under the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot. I assume that some, rather than reverting to malt for all the color, starting using Sinamar, a Reinheitsgebot-compliant caramel substitute, made from malt.

Like most Bavarian brewing towns, Kulmbach also had its own particular method of decoction. As opposed to Munich, where a double decoction was the order of the day, brewers in Kulmbach made do with a single decoction, but with a twist.

Not all the wort from the decoction was added back to the mash immediately. A small amount was left in the kettle and boiled with the hops for 10 to 12 minutes. This process was known as hopfenrösten, or hop roasting. Unfortunately, the brewing textbook that describes this procedure doesn’t reveal its purpose.

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a single beer brewed today in the Kulmbacher Export style. Not even in Kulmbach. Everyone seems to have forgotten that the town once had its own type of beer. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t revived the style. Strong, dark, and hoppy—it sounds just like the sort of beer a modern audience would appreciate.